Aristotle, in chapter 6 of The Poetics, discusses briefly the concept of “catharsis”: a “purgation of pity and fear” integral to tragedy by supplying a relief, or purification, of these emotions and leaving a feeling of fulfilled pleasure. Catharsis is either a “purification” (a reduction to a beneficent order and proportion), or a “purgation” (an expelling from our emotional system) by the drama.
As the term was discovered throughout history, it has always been interpreted to fit the age. From expositions like: tragedy forces the spectator to fear for himself when he observes the disastrous outcome from a character’s passions; the viewing of pity and fear on stage suffices to counteract those disturbing elements in the spectator; and this purgation is simply the expulsion of disturbing drives and conflicts.
Gerald Else, in his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, opines that the catharsis is a cleansing of whatever is “filthy” or “polluted” in the tragic act. This all centers around intent; was the tragic hero conscious or unconscious of his/her intentional tragic act? The former would seem to indicate that the character is of dubious moral standing, and is therefore not deserving our pity or fear; but instead a repugnance or a self-righteous disdain. On the other hand, the latter’s action would be “pure” to the audience’s satisfaction, and must be proved thus. For example: Oedipus’ slaying of his father at the crossroads was an intentional act, but also an unconscious one; therefore a “pure” one. Later, when Oedipus blinds himself, the audience is capable of exhibiting the correct emotional response: that of pity and fear. This act, after Oedipus’ recognition of his error, proves that he feels remorse (according to the Nicomachean Ethics remorse is the sole criterion for proving whether or not the tragic action was “pure.” see sections 3, 2, 1110b19 and 1111a20) for his actions and shows the audience that he would never have performed them had he known the facts. Therefore, Oedipus’ self-inflicted blindness is, in effect, his “purification” of his pathos and makes him eligible for our pity.
Katharsin, Monroe Beardsley defines as “to purge” in Greek medical writings which would suggest the removal of pity and fear (64-65). The reversal of this speculates that it is a religious cleansing, or “purification,” of these emotions, not their elimination. The former contention is the dominant in lieu of “the genitive form of pathematon often denotes the object removed” (Beardsley 64). The latter is argued that “the genitive can also denote the object [my italics] cleansed” (Beardsley 65). Therefore, the only mention in The Poetics of catharsis, Else stipulates, seems to have the meaning of a ritual purification that take place within the play: “carrying to completion, through a course of events involving pity and fear, the purification of those painful or fatal acts which have that quality” (127). By this statement we are to believe that the catharsis is the necessary result of the plot, and it is the tragic character that experiences this purging.
“In a successful tragedy,” writes John Gassner, “we see these drives [resulting from anxieties, fears, morbid grief or self-pity, sadistic or masochistic desires, etc.] enacted on the stage directly or through their results by characters with whom we can identify ourselves” (108). Or, as Aristotle said, tragedy “tends to imitate better people”; people that we would obviously look-up to, or even venerate, are ones that would incite the best response to their downfall. Whether or not the catharsis is meant to happen in the viewer or the character, it will still have the same effect. The viewer will experience this purging vicariously through the actions of the tragic hero, with whom we can relate so well.
Catharsis would seem to be an integral part of tragedy, but can it stand alone? Gassner thinks not: “Evoked ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ on the tragic stage may effect expulsion, but at least one other force is needed if a real recognition is to be effectuated” (109). Tragedy cannot exist solely on fear and pity, otherwise there would be little distinction between Hamlet and a typical revenge drama. A greatly stylized tragedy will combine pity and fear with an enlightenment. Gassner states that enlightenment is the decisive element in catharsis: “The ultimate relief comes when the dramatist brings the tragic struggle to a state of rest” (109). The audience cannot be left in a state of tension, the enlightenment restores the equilibrium above the chaos of emotion. This is necessary if the audience is to gain “a clear comprehension of what was involved in the struggle, an understanding of cause and effect, a judgment on what we have witnessed, and an induced state of mind that places it above the riot of passion” (Gassner 110). Therefore, only this enlightenment, brought on by the tragic hero’s anagnorisis, can round out the aesthetic experience in the tragic drama, and bring complete satisfaction to the viewer.
- Else, Gerald, Ed. The Poetics. Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1967.
- Gassner, John. “Catharsis and the Modern Theater.” Aristotle’s Poetics and English Literature. Ed. Elder Olson. U of Chicago P, 1965. 108-113.
- Grube, G.M.A., Ed. On Poetry and Style. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Publishing, 1958.