In Chapter 6 The Poetics, Aristotle discusses briefly the concept of “catharsis.” This is the only time in the Poetics that the term is mentioned, yet there is still on-going contention about its significance and meaning in tragic drama. This “purgation of pity and fear” is an integral part of tragedy by supplying a relief, or purification, of these emotions and leaving a feeling of fulfilled pleasure. Aristotle’s definition, however, leaves us wondering just what catharsis meant for him and how he thought “pity and fear” produce the necessary purgation.
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. There are countless more definitions all which leave us wondering: who is supposed to experience the catharsis?
Gerald Else, in his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, opines that all the various definitions of catharsis “have in common a focus on pity and fear which are aroused in the spectator” (97). He goes on to say that the catharsis is a cleansing of whatever is “filthy” or “polluted” in the pathos, or 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.
So a 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. But, as we have seen in the previous paragraph, there seems to be a subtle, moral dimension to catharsis. Does this differentiate between the feelings we have for Oedipus and those we have for Macbeth? If a character’s moral standing is doubtful, will that affect the catharsis?
This question also arises, states G.M.A. Grube, out of Aristotle’s first clause of his definition of tragedy: “an imitation of an action which is good” (xii). He also agrees that the quality of an action is concomitant with the mind of the doer. He differs by offering that the action is not a particular incident, but the whole play. We must not look at Oedipus’ one action, albeit his tragic mistake (hamartia), but it is his vicissitude of actions that denote his true character. While Oedipus was impetuous and hasty causing his true error, the audience can still have the correct reaction of pity because of his moral purity in ignorance.
Oedipus’ act is also most terrible according to chapter 14 of the Poetics: when these tragic deeds are “done to one another by persons who are bound by natural ties of affection — when a brother kills or intends to kill a brother, or a son a father” in the case of Oedipus. This will also stimulate the correct fearful response.
There are still questions that remain. Should tragic poetry be viewed as solely a therapeutic form emotional medicine for the spectator? Katharsin, Monroe Beardsley defines as “to purge” in Greek medical writings which would suggest the removal of these emotions (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, Professor 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,” states 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.
This brings up another interesting point, one of spectacle. While Aristotle believed that the visual elements, i.e. the masks, costumes, etc., are important for the lasting effect of the tragedy, graphic depictions of gory details is unessential and unwanted within the aesthetic of the drama. These actions, it would seem to Aristotle, would take away from the true effect of the catharsis by offering cheap thrills with spilled blood. Also, excitement, while it keeps the attention of an audience, it is not enough to invoke pity and fear; this is the difference between tragedy and melodrama. It was not until Roman tragedies that these graphic spectacles were introduced.
Catharsis would seem to be an integral part of the 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” (anagnoresis):
This is what we mean when we attribute their superiority to the significance of their content, the depth and scope of their conflict, or of the relevance of their action to the major aspects and the problems of humanity. In tragedy there is always a precipitate of final enlightenment — some inherent, cumulatively realized, understanding. (Gassner 110)
The actions of the play up until this moment have brought about a catharsis which bring about the release of pity and fear, and they are left with a higher rational concept that can be related to the tragic hero’s “higher wisdom.” This is the third, necessary phase of catharsis according to Gassner.
This enlightenment exists in harmony with pity and fear; in fact, without it the actions and meaning of the play would have been for naught — superficial and fleeting. The enlightenment supports, or justifies, the emotional response and helps the viewer to remember the events and gain knowledge from those events. Who would remember the significance of Oedipus Rex without its anguish?
Gassner concludes his essay by saying 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 anagnoresis, can round out the aesthetic experience in the tragic drama, and bring complete satisfaction to the viewer.
Catharsis seems to delve much deeper than Plato’s medical treatment of it as a “release of emotion” (Beardsley 66). It contains an enlightenment for the tragic hero as well as for the audience. Through pity and fear we are enlightened, and through enlightenment we can attain sagacity by the acknowledgement and understanding of our emotions. Beardsley sums up this discussion of catharsis:
The playgoer is like the religious enthusiast who feels cleansed and lightened and brightened by his emotional release. The play-going citizen, in the long run, is probably the calmest and the wisest, for he gets rid from time to time of those festering emotional irritations the poison the temperament of the mind. (67)