Epic and Tragedy

Saturday, November 23, 2013

 According to Aristotle, both tragedy and epic are imitations and reflections on life and human qualities, but both fulfill this in starkly different ways.  One of the more obvious differences between epic and tragedy is that of length.  By its very nature, tragedy is more concentrated, both in plot and character development.  This is primarily because tragedy had to be accepted as an artistic whole within time constraints, for it was intended for performance in Greek theatre.  Therefore, the narrative elements of tragedy were more limited to a singular incident or series of episodes.  The length of epic, in contrast, was far greater, with more intricate detail and narrative backstory.  Furthermore, because epic is not limited by the scope of a theatrical presentation, it can relay events happening simultaneously at various times in the plot.  The stylized writing in epic is traditionally full of grandeur and prolonged in its narrative illustrations.

In an epic poem, the hero is usually a man of nobility, strong in both mind and body.  Because he is mortal, he is thereby subject to natural fears as he faces extraordinary obstacles, which are usually exaggerated.  The epic hero is traditionally pursuing a specific goal on a quest with allies who travel with him.  In most forms of Greek epic, the hero is helped by the gods and remains steadfast when he faces adversity.
In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is the hero who has now become the representative mold for the genre of epic writing.  Odysseus suffered an ill-fated journey home to Ithaca because of an entanglement with the gods.  Through his pain, he was strong and clever in spite of his tribulations.  Arguably the only reason he succeeded in the end was because of Athena’s divine providence and her assistance along the way as he faced extreme difficulty, from the Cyclops to monsters such as Scylla.  Though he was fearful, he remained strong, resulting in his heroic victory and ultimate success at the end of a 
lengthy and prolonged chronicle of his misadventures.
In a tragic play, similarly to epic, the hero is noble in stature.  According to Aristotle in his Poetics, there are three crucial elements to Greek tragedy: recognition, in which the hero discovers something; reversal, in which the protagonist changes his perspective or actions; and then there is the tragic flaw, which ultimately leads to his downfall, for which he is partially to blame but which is also not completely deserved.  Such a hero is intended to gain the audience’s empathy and also to provide a specific perspective on the miseries of life.
In Euripides’ play Medea, the tragic hero is not presented in the traditional sense, where the audience is intended to sympathize with the misfortunes of the protagonist.  Medea is considered the tragic hero because of her flaw of betrayal, which was caused by hubris or pride.  She turned against her own family in a violent act of revenge, challenging Jason’s infidelity with her own act of corruption as she killed her children and murdered Jason’s new bride and father-in-law.  A crucial element in this play is that of reversal, for when Medea killed her children this not only showed an alteration in her own character, but this action nullified the sympathy the audience may have felt for her; Euripides masterfully reversed the sentiments of the spectators.  Unlike other tragic heroes, she is not subject to the will of fate but, in a manner that bestows her divine qualities, she ushered in her own fate because of her choices.  She is also different in that she is not morally praiseworthy compared to the audience, for she—unlike Clytemnestra in Oresteia—gets away with murder.  Regardless of such discrepancies, Medea fulfills the purpose of a tragic hero, which is to analyze suffering through the lens of a purposeful character. 
Both tragedy and epic provide a unique glimpse into the human psyche and the portrayal of events.  Greek poems and plays greatly impacted the world of modern literature, where today readers see epic heroes like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, and tragic heroes such as the Phantom of the Opera or Jay Gatsby.  Understanding tragedy and epic is crucial to understanding the beauty and significance of literature as they serve to enlighten the readers to a deeper awareness of the human condition.

Where else in modern literature do we see elements of classic tragedy and epic?

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