Why Tragedy is Superior to the Epic According to Aristotle

Why Tragedy is Superior to the Epic according to Aristotle

Poetics generally deals with the concept of imitation, fine arts, and tragedy. Many subjects were left unexplained like lyrical poetry, comedy, and some important terms like catharses. But we can see that Aristotle shed light on epic poetry and compared it with tragedy. He proposed some similarities and differences between the epic and the tragedy.

In his work “Poetics,” Aristotle provides a concise overview of the possible evolution of poetry. From the start, Aristotle suggests that tragedy emerged from the heroic tradition, which itself originated from the hymns of praise dedicated to gods and great individuals. Consequently, Aristotle establishes a connection between epic poetry and tragedy.

The Affinity between Tragedy and Epic

Aristotle didn’t talk much about the epic compared to tragedy, but he did make a few general statements that highlight the important aspects of the epic and the similarities and differences between the epic and tragedy.

Both the epic and tragedy are serious stories that imitate important subjects and focus on noble characters. They share common elements such as Plot, Character, Thought, and Diction. The structure of both should have unity, although the epic has more freedom in this regard compared to tragedy. According to Aristotle, the structure of the epic should follow dramatic principles. It’s best if the epic focuses on single actions that form a complete and cohesive story, just like in tragedy. Aristotle admires Homer for doing this in his work. Homer chose a specific part of the Trojan War as the subject of his epic instead of covering the entire war. This selective approach allows the theme to be presented in a unified way.

Epic poetry, like tragedy, has different types or species. Epic plots can be complex or simple, filled with suffering or focused on character development. Aristotle praises Homer as the perfect example in this regard as well. Homer’s choice of words and his thoughts are also exceptional. Additionally, Aristotle suggests that the epic poet shouldn’t speak directly but should express ideas through the characters. This adds a dramatic touch to the epic, according to Aristotle.

Differences between Epic and Tragedy

·         The main difference between tragedy and epic lies in their length and portrayal of events. Tragedy is compact and focused, limited in size to be comprehended as a whole, while the epic can be longer. The epic possesses the advantage of depicting multiple incidents occurring simultaneously to different individuals, whereas tragedy can only show one incident in one place at a time. Although Aristotle does not specifically mention the Unity of Place, later critics attributed it to him, based on the observation that tragedy cannot represent multiple incidents at one time or different places simultaneously. The epic’s greater length allows for grandeur and dignity in handling its incidents, while tragedy necessitates shorter and concentrated episodes. Tragedy can employ a wider range of meters, including iambic and trochaic tetrameter, whereas the epic typically employs the heroic meter, which is stately and dignified. Aristotle notes that each form of poetry has its appropriate meter, with iambic verse resembling human speech and suitable for the imitation of human action.

·         The epic offers a broader canvas for the extraordinary and the irrational, whereas tragedy cannot excessively rely on extraordinary events within the plot as it would appear implausible and unconvincing.

·         The epic employs a narrative mode, while tragedy adopts a dramatic mode. Both the epic and tragedy require a unified plot.

·         However, within the overarching unity, the epic allows for a greater number of incidents and longer durations compared to tragedy. The epic permits multiple storylines, a concept that would be inconceivable in tragedy.

·         Nevertheless, there are elements exclusive to tragedy, namely Music and Spectacle. Tragedy possesses a vividness that is absent in the epic, even when tragedy is merely read and not performed on stage.

Tragedy is Superior to the Epic: Aristotle’s Conclusion

Aristotle delves into the inquiry of comparing the worth of epic and tragedy. In his viewpoint, despite criticism labeling tragedy as “vulgar,” he argues against such claims. According to Aristotle, tragedy surpasses epic in terms of its impact due to several reasons. Firstly, tragedy incorporates music and spectacle, enhancing its expressive capabilities beyond what epic can offer. Moreover, even when read, tragic stories possess a vividness comparable to that of epic narratives. Additionally, tragedy maintains a stricter unity in its structure, ensuring a more cohesive and focused presentation. Lastly, tragedy achieves the desired emotional outcome, namely the pleasure derived from a catharsis of pity and fear, with greater effectiveness. Overall, Aristotle contends that tragedy, far from being inferior, possesses unique qualities that elevate its artistic and emotional power in comparison to epic.