Aristotle's Poetics: Chapter 26

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Chapter 26

Finally, the question can be raised about whether the epic or tragic form of imitation is superior. Some claim the less vulgar genre is superior, and the one addressed to a higher class of listener is less vulgar. It would follow, then, that an art that imitates anything—that is not discriminating in its subjects—is vulgar, and that tragedy can be thought of this character. Epic poetry, they say, is addressed to a higher audience that doesn’t need to see the exaggerated gestures and effects of tragic actors, and that tragedy is directed to a common audience, and that therefore epic is superior to tragedy.

 

This is wrong because the complaint only concerns the art of acting. But just as a tragic actor can exaggerate certain effects, so too a rhapsode can exaggerate when reciting epic poetry, as Sosistratus did. Moreover, bodily movement cannot be condemned in itself, because such a condemnation would also imply a criticism of dance. Only the attitudes and gestures of ignoble people are worthy of condemnation. But tragedy produces its effect without any movement in the same way as epic poetry. Thus, if it is superior in other ways, acting is not worthy of consideration.

 

Tragedy is in fact the better form because in addition to having everything the epic form has, it also has music, and can provide superior pleasure. Moreover, tragedy has vividness either when read or acted, and excels because the imitation in tragedy is more concentrated, pulling off its effect in a shorter space of time, as for example comparing Sophocles’s Oedipus to a section of the same length in the Iliad. And the imitation of epic poets is less unified than that of the creators of tragedy. Thus, since tragedy is superior to epic in these respects, and is also more suited to performance, tragedy is a better form of the two.

 

Chapter 26, Analysis

Here, Artistotle looks at the differences between the epic form and the tragic form, evaluating their pros and cons. He approaches the argument by examining the various criticisms that have been leveled against tragedy by those who hold the epic form to be superior, breaking them apart, and suggesting that many of these criticisms are limited, if not simply false, in that they are limited to acting. Tragedy, Aristotle argues, is actually superior to epic for several reasons. It is more concentrated than epic, and a section of a tragedy will necessarily be richer than a section of similar length from an epic. The performed aspect of tragedy is thus something of a supplement rather than a legitimate aspect to be critiqued. Ultimately, tragedy is more unified, and is better at achieving its desired end.

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