The Epic and The Tragedy in Poetics

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      In Poetics, Aristotle has given a brief outline of how poetry could have evolved. We see from the beginning that Aristotle holds that the tragic evolved from the heroic strain, which in turn originated from the hymns of praise sung to the gods and the great men. Thus Aristotle establishes and affinity between the epic and the tragedy.

The Affinity between Tragedy and Epic

      Aristotle's treatment of the epic is slight as compared to his treatment of tragedy. But he makes a few general statements, which bring out the salient features of the epic, and establishes the affinity as well as the difference between epic and tragedy.

      Both epic and tragedy are imitations of serious subjects, and deal with characters of the higher type. A number of elements are to be found common to both. These are Plot, Character, Thought and Diction. The structure in the case of both should show a unity, though in this matter, the epic is allowed more freedom than tragedy. The structure of the epic should be modeled on dramatic principles, according to Aristotle. Single actions should, as far as possible, be the proper content of the epic. The action should of course have a beginning, middle and end, be a complete organic whole, just as it should in tragedy. Aristotle expresses his admiration for Homer in this, as in all other respects. Homer chose a particular portion and not the whole of the Trojan war for his epic. It is only through such selection that the theme can be embraced in a single view.

      Epic poetry is similar to tragedy in that it has as many species as tragedy. The epic plots can be complex or simple, full of suffering, Or concentrate on Character. Homer is again cited as the perfect model. His diction and thought are also supreme. Further, says Aristotle, the epic poet should not speak directly. It is better that he could speak through his characters. This is the dramatic slant given to the epic by Aristotle.

Differences between Epic and Tragedy

      The first difference that matter is that of length. Tragedy, by its very nature, is more concentrated and compact. Hence its size is much more limited than that of the epic. The length of a tragedy is based on the principle that the work must be short enough to be grasped as an artistic whole. This holds good for the epic as well. But the length of the epic can be greater than that of the tragedy. The time limits of epic are not fixed. The epic has another advantage: it can relate a number of incidents happening simultaneously to different persons at the same time. Tragedy cannot show more than one incident happening at one place at one time. This is what gave rise to the concept of the Unity of Place. Though Aristotle does not stipulate this Unity at any time, not even in the chapter concerning the epic and the tragedy, later critics have attributed it to him. All that Aristotle says, is that tragedy cannot represent more than one incident at one time, and that it cannot show incidents happening at different places at the same time. This is a common sense observation based on the practice of the Greek theatre. The greater size (length) of the epic allowed it more grandeur and dignity in the treatment of its incidents. The incidents in tragedy have necessarily to be shorter, and more concentrated. The introduction of the different episodes in an epic make it more interesting, as they relieve the dullness and monotony.

      Tragedy can make use of a greater variety of meters, while the epic has to content itself with the heroic meter. The heroic meter or the hexameter' is most dignified and stately. It can make use of rare and strange words. The tragic mode allows the use of metaphors, in the iambic and trochaics tetrameter'. Nature, says Aristotle, has established the appropriate meters for all forms of poetry. The iambic verse is close to the speech of men, and suited to imitation of men in action.

      The epic allows greater scope for the marvelous and the irrational. Tragedy, however, cannot make too much use of the marvelous within the action, for this would seem improbable and unconvincing. Epic can relate improbable tales because it is not going to be presented on stage before the eyes of the spectators. The degree of the irrational can be greater because it is left to the imagination, and not placed before the eyes. Indeed, the element of marvelous adds to the artistic pleasure and wonder of the epic. Such incidents of the marvelous, which include the supernatural and the irrational, have to be placed outside the action of tragedy.

      The epic uses the mode of the narrative, and tragedy the mode of the dramatic. The plot of epic, as of tragedy, must have unity.

      Yet within the overall unity, the epic allows for more and longer incidents than does tragedy. The epic allows multiplicity of stories, which would be unthinkable in the tragedy.

      The elements which are, however, only to be found in the tragedy, are Music and Spectacle. Tragedy has a vividness which is absent in epic. This is so, even if the tragedy is read and not acted out on stage

Tragedy is Superior to the Epic: Aristotle's Conclusion

      Aristotle considers the question of relative value of epic and tragedy. In his opinion, though tragedy has been criticized as vulgar, this is not so. "Tragedy, he maintains, is richer in its effects, adding music and spectacle to epic resources; it presents its stories even when read no less vividly than the epic; it has a stricter unity; it's methods are more concentrated; and it produces more effectively the requisite emotional result, i.e., the pleasure from a catharsis of pity and fear."


1. Bring out the salient features of similarity and difference between the epic and the tragedy, as propounded by Aristotle in the Poetics.
2. Why does Aristotle hold tragedy on a higher level than the epic?

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