The genres of tragedy and epic have many similar components, however, they are not the same genre.
Certain elements differentiate the two genres from each other. While both are very similar, they are both imitations of great deeds, heroes, and tragic suffering, the way these elements are conveyed is different. Tragedy portrays all this through action, while epic depicts all this through language alone.
By reading and analyzing the Oresteia, Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey a reader is able to distinguish how the elements of plot, character, and performance of these two genres provide the reader with different experiences. When it comes to plot, epic and tragedy are similar in the basics but different in the complexities. Both maintain a unity of plot.
However, tragedy is often more concise. For example, The Oresteia is a combination of three different Greek tragedies, all of which are short and to the point. Epic poetry is often long, definitely longer than tragedy, and thus more likely to digress. These digressions, however, must be tied to the plot. It can portray a number of different incidents happening to different characters that are happening at the same time. An example of this is in The Odyssey. In this epic, the passage of time is ten years and there are many different locations in which the story takes place.
The reader is also able to read about different events all happening at the same time. In the epic of Gilgamesh, the reader is able to travel with Gilgamesh on his journey, with no constrictions of time. On the other hand, tragedy cannot do that and is also limited in time, while epic has no such limits. Another element in plot to note is that epic poetry can incorporate tragedy, but tragedy cannot incorporate epic.As far as character, there are several differences depicted in terms of tragedy and epic. When comparing, for example, Gilgamesh and Clytemnestra several differences are apparent. While both are of noble birth, there is a larger than life quality to Gilgamesh.
He is the child of a god, and thus inherently “better” than regular mortals. Gilgamesh is braver, stronger, more clever, and smarter than everyone else. He represents everything Ancient Mesopotamian culture values.
Clytemnestra, on the other hand, is more relatable. There is not anything “other” about her. In tragedy, the hero does not have to be good or bad, as demonstrated by Clytemnestra’s actions, as long as the reader can identify with them. A tragic hero also makes an error in judgment. Clytemnestra’s error being that she felt she was justified in killing her husband, Agamemnon, ultimately leading to her downfall. She realizes that her fate is a result of her own actions. It is the fact that the hero is ultimately responsible for their own downfall that makes them tragic.
Another major element that needs to be discussed when talking about epic and tragedy is performance. These two genres of literature are meant to be consumed in two different ways that ultimately affect the rest of the piece. Epic is meant to be spoken or read aloud. It is basically a long story that is being told or read to an audience.
This allows for epic to be longer and more complex. This also allows for a large passage of time to take place. An epic can last as long as a whole series of tragedies, as long as it can be presented in one hearing. Epic is a purely narrative medium, limited only by the imagination of the poet and reader. An epic poet can easily narrate improbable feats and occurrences without disturbing the reader. It is because of its narrative style that epic has a larger-than-life quality to it.
It can recount improbable tales because it is not going to be presented on stage, like in tragedy. Thus the degree of the irrational can be greater in epic because the only limit epic has is the imagination. Tragedy, however, is meant to be performed on stage. This limits the story-telling a bit.
The story and actions need to be more credible than those in an epic. By being performed on stage, a tragedy cannot be as long as an epic. It also cannot portray many different events or get away with improbable events. It needs to be more focused and compact.
Tragedy needs to be convincing, allowing the audience to see themselves in the roles of the characters presented. Another difference between epic and tragedy when it comes to performance is that tragedy can use music and spectacle to help with the story-telling. The use of these elements helps the audience become invested in the performance and adds vividness to the story-telling. It is obvious that the genres of tragedy and epic share many similar components, however, certain differences separate one from the other. Both are similar, meant to be imitations of great deeds, heroes, and tragic suffering, the way these events are conveyed is different.
Mainly, tragedy portrays all this through action, while epic depicts all this through language alone. By reading and analyzing the Oresteia, Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey a reader is able to distinguish how the elements of plot, character, and performance of these two genres provide the reader with different experiences.