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THE EPIC AND THE TRAGEDY

In the Poetics, Aristotle has given a brief outline of how poetry could have evolved. He claims that
tragedy evolved from the heroic strain, which in turn originated from the hymns of gods and the
songs of the great heroes. Thus Aristotle establishes an affinity between the epic and the tragedy.

Aristotle’s treatment of 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.

Fine arts are distinguished from one another by their (i) objects of imitation, (ii) manner of
imitation, and (iii) medium of imitation. There may be three manners of imitation: (i) the poet may
use the narrative method throughout; (ii) he may use the dramatic method i.e. describing things
through assumed characters or show things actually being done, or (iii) he may use a combination
of these two methods. He may narrate a part of his story, and represent a part of it through a
dialogue between characters. On the basis of manner of imitation, poetry is classified as epic or
narrative and dramatic. In dramatic poetry, the dramatic personages act the story; in epic poetry, a
poet narrates the story, as well as tells it through a dialogue between the dramatic personages. Epic
writer uses both the narrative and dramatic method; the tragic writer uses only the dramatic method.

Both epic and tragedy are imitations of serious subjects, and deal with characters of higher type i.e.
better than the average. They do so in a grand and elevated style. However, there are several
differences between the epic and the tragedy. Epic is narrative while tragedy is dramatic in form.
Epic uses only one meter “the heroic”, while tragedy can use different meters in different parts
(verse for dialogue and song for the choric parts). Epic is much longer because the action is not
limited by time or place, while the action of tragedy is confined to “a single circuit of the sun”. It
was this statement from which were derived the unities of time and place.

The plot of epic may be simple or complex. The constituent elements of an epic and tragedy are
same, with the exception of spectacle. The plot of an epic poem should, as in tragedy, be
constructed on dramatic principles. Epic should consist of, as in a tragic play, a single action, whole
and complete, with a beginning, a middle and an end. In this respect, the supreme excellence of
Homer is obvious. He does not try to make the whole Trojan War the subject of Iliad. The whole
war as a theme for Iliad would have been too vast and would not have been easily liked by the
reader in a single view. On the other hand, if Homer had kept the theme within moderate limits, it
would have become over-complicated by the multiplicity of the incidents. Aristotle expresses his
admiration for Homer in this, and 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.

There are also many differences between epic and tragedy. The first difference that matters is that
of length. Tragedy is more concentrated and compact than epic. 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 is good for epic also. But the length of epic
can be greater than that of tragedy. The time limits for epic are not fixed. The epic has another
advantage; it can relate a number of incidents happening simultaneously at different places.
Tragedy cannot show more than one incident happening at one place at one time.

Tragedy can make use of greater variety of meters, while the epic has to content itself with the
heroic meter. The heroic meter is more dignified and stately. It can make use of rare and strange
words. Aristotle says:

“Nature has established appropriate meters for all forms of poetry.”

The epic allows greater scope for the marvelous and irrational. Tragedy cannot make 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 the stage. Indeed the elements of
marvelous add to the artistic pleasure and wonder of the epic.

In chapter XXVI of Poetics, Aristotle himself compares tragedy with epic in a number of respects
and demonstrates the superiority of tragedy over epic. Both epic and tragedy are imitation of
serious objects in a grand kind of verse, but they differ in as much as epic imitates only in one kind
of verse, and tragedy uses different kinds of verse for its choral songs and dialogues. The epic is
much lengthy while tragedy is compact and concentrated so is more effective. The epic lacks music
and spectacle which are important constituents of tragedy and enhance its effect. Tragedy has also
unity of action and reality of presentation both of which the epic lacks. The tragedy is superior
because all the elements of epic are included in it, but those of tragedy are not all of them to be
found in the epic.

In short, Aristotle considers the question of the relative importance of epic and tragedy. He
maintains:

“Tragedy is richer in its effects, adding music and


spectacle to epic resources; it presents its stories
even when we read less vividly than epic; it has a
stricter unity; its methods are more concentrated;
and it produces more effectively the requisite result;
i.e. a pleasure arising from catharsis of pity and fear.”

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