12.1 The Case against Tragedy. If superior art is “less vulgar,” it is clear that art that “imitates indiscriminately is vulgar.” This, some critics say, is the problem with tragedy. Epic is often thought to be meant for “decent audiences who do not need gestures,” while tragedy is thought to be made for “second-rate audiences,” which implies that tragedy is vulgar and therefore inferior.
Aristotle again implies that epic poetry is made for a more refined audience and that the “vulgar” imitations of the terrible acts depicted in tragedy are for less refined audiences. The use of “gestures,” i.e., acting, implies that tragic audiences need additional gestures and signs to understand what is understood by a superior audience without gestures.
12.2 Reply. Aristotle argues that criticism of tragedy as vulgar and inferior is a critique of the performance, not the poem. Furthermore, tragedy’s effects can be had from reading, not just watching, which means that gestures are not necessary to achieve catharsis. “Tragedy has everything that epic does,” Aristotle says—plus, tragedy has lyric poetry and spectacle, which are a “source of intense pleasure.” Additionally, a tragedy is shorter, and “what is more concentrated is more pleasant than what is watered down by being extended in time.” For instance, if Oedipus Rex were as long as the Iliad, it would be much less impactful. Lastly, there is less unity in epic, and it can be difficult to hold the whole object in view.
The gestures of an actor are similar to spectacle and music—they are not necessarily created by the poet; thus, the gestures involved in tragedy are not a reflection of the poet’s talent or the poem’s effectiveness. Lyric poetry is a “source of intense pleasure” because it involves rhythm and melody, which, like spectacle, is attractive to human beings. To Aristotle, spectacle and lyric poetry are added perks that epic poetry lacks. In this passage, Aristotle lays out exactly why he believes tragedy is superior to epic.
Tragedy, Aristotle argues, “surpasses epic in all these respects, and also in artistic effect,” as a tragedy is expected to provoke fear and pity in particular, and not just any emotion. Thus, “tragedy must be superior” to epic.