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Aristotle's Understanding Of Epic And Tragedy

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Of all poetic compostions Aristotle ranked Epic and tragedy as the best. From the evidence of the surviving part of his ‘poetics’ we can affirm that Aristotle was more in favour of tragedy than Epic. Aristotle method of approach was analytic, and he dissets the art of poetry into its components, their nature, presentation, medium, and its moral and asthetic effect. The distinction that he makes are sharp and clear. Aristotle’s sees almost all the features of Epic poetry in tragedy. He defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude, in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative, through pity and fear affecting the proper purgation (Katharsis) of these emotions.”

It is a highly condensed definition containing all the essential features of tragedy. The first word ‘imitation’ contains the cardinal principle of the art of poetic production. Aristotle’s word is mimesis, which he has borrowed from Plato. It means representation or what the later generations preferred to call an imaginative recreation of the world and man. The word describes the nature of poetry as ‘an imitative’ art; it means that what the poet does is an imitation or representation. This word contains all that there is to be said about the art of poetry and no other poet or critic has been able to make a better description of the poetic process.

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The second word is ‘action’, which Aristotle describes as ‘human action’. So it is different from description or narrative. It is chiefly on account of the action that it is a representation of person. The human agents in the tragedy display certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought. The representation of action is the plot of the tragedy. The next word is ‘serious’. Tragedy deals with serious matters, and not with trivial matters as in comedies. It can be a tragedy only if the matter it embodies is serious.

“Complete in itself” means, first that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has all the relevant details needed for its unity. There cannot be any irrelevant part, and no omission of essential part is allowed. All the meaning of the action should be contained in the words spoken by the characters and the chorus. No extra information should be provided by any other means. The action must have certain amplitude. It must not be too short or too long there is scope for addition of irrelevant material. The amplitude is determined by the consequential relation of events for their proper development, and for the satisfaction of probability.

The next point is the appropriateness of the language of the tragedy. As tragedy is a serious art; its language should be powerful, evocative, and specially adapted to convey the experience of the characters. So it must be embellished with stylistic ornaments. The word and images must be selected with great insight or imagination. The words ‘in the form of dialogue, or with a mixture of lyrics and songs that help the action and not narrated as in the Epic. The incidents happen or are revealed through the words of the characters or by what happens to them.’

“Through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotion” define the function of tragedy. It is the tragic action that produces the emotions of pity and fear. Our pity is awakened by undeserved misfortune, and our fear for the suffering of someone just like ourselves-pity for the undeserving sufferer and fear for the man like ourselves.

“Effecting the proper purgation of these emotion” is a statement that has been subject to wild fancies and misguided interpretation. The two purgation (Katharsis) is the effect of the tragedy on the mind of the audience (and in a sense in the mind of the tragic hero if he survives- as Oedipus). Aristotle meant it as the right ending of tragedy. Katharsis is the kind of pleasure consists in the relief produced when the excessive flow of pity and fear subside, or when these emotions find relief in tears. The excess emotions are purged away and the mind experiences deep clam. (The suffering of Oedipus makes him a philosopher, a visionary, one who has discovered the meaning of life). It should be noted that Aristotle discusses ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ in some detail, but does not pause to explain ‘Katharsis’. It may not be an omission; it shows Aristotle’s strict adherence to the purpose and nature of literary criticism. He adopted a strictly analytic method, and aimed at exhibiting all the technical details of poetic composition. To explain the meaning of the effect of tragedy is a philosophic interpretation. Literature is expected to give us aesthetic pleasure and not philosophic wisdom. That is (perhaps) why Aristotle ended it there.


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