Catharsis: The Function of Tragedy

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      “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude...through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”.. According to this definition, Aristotle means that the function of tragedy is to arouse ‘pity and fear’ in the spectator for both moral and aesthetic purposes. One has to remember in this context that Aristotle had in mind Plato’s famous charge against the immoral effects of poetry on people’s minds. Witnessing the tragedy and suffering of the protagonist on the stage, such emotions and feelings of the audience are purged. The purgation of such emotions and feelings make them relieved, and they emerge as better human beings than they were. Thus, Aristotle’s theory of Catharsis has moral and ennobling function.

      Catharsis is originated from Greek katharsis meaning ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’. In tragedy, it is the rise of pity and fear and a proper purification and purgation of those emotions. It is that element in a tragic play, which makes the audiences or readers think as if they are the tragic figures suffering a lot or facing the destruction. The catastrophe of the plot and disastrous consequences of the play overwhelm the audience. Firstly during the middle of the play, they fear about behaviors of the protagonists and gradually get tensed lest the protagonists confront any misfortune. At last, when their apprehension comes true, the audiences feel sympathy for the characters what is technically called pity. The audience emotionally plunge into deep sorrow and leave the theatre hall in gloomy mind. For some more coming hours since the end of the tragedy, they cannot turn themselves from such sympathetic ruminants. Of course, the good consequence of such thinking is that the audience can modify their own characters so that they can avoid such calamity in their personal lives. The entire post-drama situation is termed as cathartic situation.

      The terms, ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ are closely connected in Aristotelian theory. There are different types of fear. Fear can be centered on an individual, in the form of some vague feeling of insecurity and anxiety. It could possibly derive from a feeling for others, even for society or the state. Fear could be the outcome of facing some inexplicable events, or some disastrous and awful incidents. Fear may also arise out of feelings of guilt, or rather recognition of this guilt in ourselves, when we see it portrayed in someone else. It is apparent that tragedy can easily encompass all these forms of fear, either singly or collectively.

      Pity, we are told by Aristotle, is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves. In the Rhetoric, fear is defined as “a kind of pain or disturbance due to a mental picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future”. The impending evil in this case must be near at hand, not distant. When mishappenings takes place in our lives it causes fear in us. When the same happens to others it arouses our pity. Pity is a “sort of pain at an evident evil of a destructive or painful kind in the case of somebody who does not deserve it, the evil being one which we might expect to happen to ourselves or to some of our friends, and this is at a time when it is near at hand.” (Goodman n.d.)

      Pity and fear are related emotions. Pity turns to fear when the object is closely related to us that the suffering seems to be our own, and we pity others in circumstances in which we should fear for ourselves. Pity is derived from the feeling that similar suffering might befall us. It is because of this that the tragic character should be like us and at the same time slightly idealized. In such a case, we feel pity for the suffering of the innately good person, while having a sympathetic fear for one who is so like ourselves. Aristotle everywhere says that pity and fear are the characteristic and necessary tragic emotions.

      According to Aristotle, a tragedy must deal with incidents arousing pity and fear and an accomplished catharsis for such emotions. While tragedy is a spectacle of calamity and suffering, yet it gives us pleasure. Indeed, it is paradoxical when a tragedy in life pains us, but in literature, it pleases us. Aristotle explains this paradox by saying that pleasure consists in the catharsis of pity and fear. Catharsis describes the effect of tragedy principally on the audience. By catharsis, Aristotle means ‘expulsion by excitation’, ‘elimination by irritating drugs’ or ‘purgation’. Tragedy expels pity and fear by exciting them. The pleasure of tragedy, therefore, consists of the pleasure of relief from the oppressive burden of the painful feelings of pity and fear. Pity and fears are the unwholesome emotions experienced by the audience during a tragic performance. By purging away the feelings of pity and fear, catharsis does a yeoman’s service.

      In his works prior to the Poetics, Aristotle had used the term catharsis purely in its medical sense usually referring to the evacuation of the catamenia - the menstrual fluid or other reproductive materials. Here, however, he employs it as a medical metaphor. F. L. Lucas maintains, therefore, that purification and cleansing are not proper translations for catharsis; that it should rather be rendered as purgation. It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions. To be more specific, catharsis means the partial removal of the excess of ‘humors’. The theory is as old as Hippocrates and Plato who thought that the health of body and mind depends on a true balance of the feelings. Aristotle’s disciple Theophrastus applies catharsis even to the pruning of trees - with the same idea of excesses.

      Some critics think that catharsis of pity and fear does not mean that the passions are purified and ennobled; it means simply that the passions themselves are reduced to a healthy and balanced proportion. A poetic line gives the appropriate expression: “Weep not nor pity thine own life too much”. Men should lessen their general dread of destiny. It is generally understood that Aristotle’s theory of mimesis and catharsis are responses to Plato’s negative view of artistic mimesis on an audience. Plato argued that the most common forms of artistic mimesis were designed to evoke powerful emotions such as pity, fear from an audience, and ridicule which override the rational control that defines the highest level of our humanity and lead us to wallow unacceptably in orgies of emotion and passion. Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, in all of the major senses attributed to it, contradicts Plato’s view by providing a mechanism that generates the rational control of irrational emotions. Cathartic doctrine is Aristotle’s answer to Plato’s criticism of dramatic art in his Republic. Harmful emotions, such as pity and fear, must have some outlets. Fictional and dramatic representations are such outlets. Our souls will be less troubled when we meet misfortunes in real life.

      Tragic sufferings give rise to pity, fear and glory. The enlightenment of the hero with the recognition of his folly gives rise to a similar enlightenment of the audience. His spiritual energy enables the hero who is defeated in the physical plan but remains victorious in the spiritual plan; this spiritual grandeur of man gives pleasure in a tragedy. The discovery by Othello of Desdemona’s unfaltering fidelity gladdens him but at the same time, the sense that he has murdered his faithful wife grieves his heart.

      However, it should also be at least once mentioned that catharsis is a controversial term. The term ‘Catharsis’ is used, only once in the course of Aristotle’s Poetics in the fourth chapter. Yet there is hardly any other single term which has given rise to so many different interpretations and controversies. The difficulty arises out of the fact that Aristotle does not define or explain the term. Perhaps, he did so in the second book of the Poetics, which is lost. The term has been explained by critics in the light of its use in Aristotle’s other works, such as his Politics and Ethics. It has also been noted that the term ‘Catharsis’ has three meanings: it could mean ‘purgation’ or ‘purification’, or ‘intellectual clarification’. Critics have interpreted Aristotle’s views in the light of each of these meanings — and it has not done much to ease the difficulty. Only one thing has been agreed upon — that tragedy should arouse pity and fear. But there is difference of opinion as to how the arousal of these emotions leads to ‘tragic pleasure’.

      As the application of catharsis in literature is concerned, we can refer to some of the tragic plays of Shakespeare. For example, in Macbeth, the audience and readers of Macbeth usually pity the tragic central figure of the play because he was blinded by his destructive preoccupation with ambition. In Act I he is made the thane of Cawdor by King Duncan, which makes him a prodigy, well-regarded for his valor and talent. However, the era of his doom starts when he, like most people, gets carried away by ambition and the supernatural world as well. Subsequently, he loses his wife, his veracity and eventually his life. The temptation of ambition robs him of the essence of his existence as a human being and leaves behind nothing but discontent and a worthless life. In Act V, Macbeth (5.5.24-28) gathers this idea in his soliloquy. He says while speaking of his life:

“...a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing”

      In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo commits suicide by drinking the poison that he erroneously thinks Juliet had tasted too.

“Here’s to my love! (Drinks)
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick.
Thus with a kiss I die. (Falls)”

      The audience usually finds themselves crying at this particular moment for several reasons. Primarily because losing a loved one is a feeling that all of us share. Watching or reading such a scene triggers the memories of someone we have lost (either by death or by mere separation) and because we are able to relate to it, we suddenly release the emotions that we have been repressing.

      To sum up, the real source of pleasure is not from the restoration of calm that is disturbed by the arousing pity and fear, but from the appreciation of sublimity in the midst of the tragic struggles of the hero and his glorious destruction. Moreover, in a tragedy, pity and fear, the personal and individual feelings, are transformed into the universal and transcendental feelings. The poetic art of the dramatist transmutes the cathartic effects into the universal and the eternal.

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