What is Catharsis
According to Aristotle, a tragedy should arouse in the spectators the feeling of pity and terror—pity chiefly for the hero’s tragic fate and terror at the sight of the dreadful suffering that befalls the characters, particularly the hero. By arousing these feelings of pity and terror, a tragedy aims at the catharsis or purgation of these and similar other emotions. According to the homoeopathic system of medicine, like cures like; that is, a sick person is given dose of a medicine which, if given to a healthy man, would make him sick. Similarly, a tragedy, by arousing pity and terror, cures us of these very feelings which always exist in our hearts. A tragedy, therefore, affords emotional relief and the spectators rise at the end with a feeling of pleasure.
This, according to Aristotle, is the aesthetic function of tragedy. The catharsis of pity and fear and similar other emotions does not mean that men are purged of their emotions; it means that the emotions are reduced to a healthy and balanced proportion. It is also to be noted that pity and fear are not the only emotions believed by Aristotle to find a healthy relief in tragedy. Aristotle refers to these and similar other emotions. An audience also experiences such feelings as contempt, repugnance, delight, indignation, and admiration while witnessing a tragedy. However, these emotions are less important or less intense. Pity and fear are the dominant emotions and they are intensely produced.
A Multitude of Feelings Aroused by Tragedy
This is, however, a limited interpretation of the function of a tragedy. Tragedy provides, by means of pity, fear, and other emotions, not only relief but also exercise and nourishment for the emotional side of human nature. Nor is that all. Tragedy also satisfies in certain ways our love of beauty and of truth, of truth to life and truth about life. Experience, and more experience, is a natural human craving. Tragedy leads to an enrichment of our experience of human life. It may teach us to live more wisely, but that is not its function. Its function is to widen the boundaries of our experience of life. Tragedy deals primarily with evil and with suffering, and it shows human beings in the grip of these. Tragedy shows us the eternal contradiction between human weakness and human courage, human stupidity and human greatness, human frailty and human strength. Tragedy affords us pleasure by exhibiting human endurance and perseverance in the face of calamities and disasters. Broadly speaking, tragedy also supports the view that there is a moral order in the universe, thus arousing in us a feeling of eternal justice. In short, tragedy arouses a multitude of feelings in us. At the same time the beauty of the writer’s style and imagination arouses also an artistic emotion. The total effect of tragedy, hard to analyse, is to remould our whole view of life towards something larger, braver, less self-centred.
Feelings of Pity and Fear Aroused in the Prologue
There is no doubt that pity and fear are the dominating feelings produced by the play, Oedipus Rex, though a number of subsidiary feelings are also produced. And there is no doubt that, apart from providing a catharsis of these feelings, the play greatly deepens our experience of human life and; enhances our understanding of human nature and human psychology. The very prologue produces in us the feeling of pity and fear, pity for the suffering population of Thebes and fear of future misfortunes which might befall the people. The Priest, describing the state of affairs, refers to a tide of death from which there is no escape, death in the fields, death in the pastures, death in the wombs of women, death caused by the plague which grips the city. Oedipus gives expression to his feeling of sympathy when he tells the Priest that his heart is burdened by the collective suffering of all the people. The entry-song of the Chorus which follows the prologue, heightens the feelings of pity and fear. The Chorus says: “With fear my heart is riven, fear of what shall be told. Fear is upon us.” The Chorus makes yet another reference to the sorrows afflicting the people of Thebes: “The city reeks with the death in her streets.” The effect of the whole of this first Choral ode is to deepen the feelings of terror and pity which have already been aroused in our hearts.
Feelings Aroused by the Clash
Between Oedipus and Teiresias
Between Oedipus and Teiresias
Oedipus’s proclamation of his resolve to track down the murderer of Laius brings some relief to us. But the curse, that Oedipus utters upon the unknown criminal and upon those who may be sheltering him, also terrifies us by its fierceness. The scene in which Oedipus clashes with Teiresias further contributes to the feelings of pity and terror. The prophecy of Teiresias is frightening especially because it seems to pertain to Oedipus in whose fortunes we have become deeply interested. Teiresias speaks to Oedipus in menacing tones, describing Oedipus in a veiled manner as “husband to the woman who bore him, father-killer and father-supplanter,” and accusing him openly of being a murderer. The reaction of the Chorus to the terrible utterance of Teiresias intensifies the horror. The Chorus refers to the unknown criminal as the shedder of blood and the doer of evil deeds, and expresses its feelings of perplexity and awe all the terrible things the prophet has spoken.
The Climax of Pity and Terror in the Scene of Discovery
In the scene with Creon, the feeling of terror is considerably less, arising mainly from Oedipus’s sentence of death against the innocent Creon, which, however, is soon withdrawn. The tension in the play now diminishes to some extent but it begins to reappear with Oedipus’s suspicion on hearing from Jocasta that Laius was killed at a spot where three roads met. Oedipus’s account of his early life before his arrival at
arouses the feeling of terror by its reference to the horrible prophecy which he received from the oracle at Thebes Delphi, but even to both terror and pity subside in this scene mainly because Jocasta tries to assure Oedipus that prophecies deserve no attention. The song of the Chorus severely rebuking the proud man and the tyrant revives some of the terror in our minds, but it again subsides at the arrival of the Corinthian after hearing whom Jocasta mocks at the oracles. The drama now continues at a comparatively low key till first Jocasta and then Oedipus, find themselves confronted with the true facts of the situation. With the episode of the discovery of true facts, both the feelings of pity and terror reach their climax, with Oedipus lamenting his sinful acts in having killed his father and married his mother.
Pity and Fear in the Last Scene
But the feelings of pity and fear do not end here. The song of the Chorus immediately following the discovery arouses our deepest sympathy at Oedipus’s sad fate. The Chorus extends the scope of its observations to include all mankind: “All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing.” Then comes the messenger from the palace and he gives us a heartrending account of the manner in which Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself. This is one of the most terrible passages in the play, the messenger concluding his account with the remark that the royal household is today overwhelmed by “calamity, death, ruin, tears, and shame.” The conversation of the Chorus with Oedipus who is now blind is also extremely moving. Oedipus speaks of his physical and mental agony, and the Chorus tries to console him. Oedipus describes himself as the “shedder of father’s blood, husband of mother, Godless and child of shame, begetter of brother-sons.” The feeling of profound grief being expressed by Oedipus is experienced by the audience with an equal intensity. The scene of Oedipus’s meeting with his daughters is also very touching. His daughters, laments Oedipus, will have to wander homeless and husbandless. He appeals to Creon in moving words to look after them.
Relief, Exhilaration, Upliftment
As we leave the theatre or as we complete our reading of the play at home, our hearts are heavy with sorrow and grief. We are hardly in a position to speak a word on account of the intensity of the feelings, mainly of pity and fear, which we have been experiencing from the very opening scene of the play onwards. Other feelings aroused in our hearts were irritation with Oedipus at his ill-treatment of Teiresias, resentment against Teiresias for his obstinacy and insolence, admiration for Creon for his moderation and loyalty, liking for Jocasta for her devotion to Oedipus, admiration for Oedipus for his relentless pursuit of truth, and so on. But the feelings of relief, exhilaration, and pleasure have also been aroused in us. These feelings are the result partly of the felicity of the language employed and the music of poetry, but mainly the result of the spectacle of human greatness which we have witnessed side by side with the spectacle of human misery. The sins of Oedipus were committed unknowingly; in fact Oedipus did his utmost to avert the disaster. Oedipus is, therefore, essentially an innocent man, despite his sin of pride and tyranny. Jocasta too is innocent, in spite of her sin of scepticism. There is no villainy to be condemned in the play. The essential goodness of Oedipus, Jocasta, and Creon is highly pleasing to us. (Teiresias lives on a different plane altogether.) But even more pleasing, though at the same time saddening, is the spectacle of human endurance seen in Jocasta and Oedipus inflicting upon themselves a punishment that is awful and terrible. In the closing scene, the blind Oedipus rises truly to heroic heights, displaying an indomitable spirit. Blind and helpless though he now is, and extremely ashamed of his parricide and incestuous experience as he is, he yet shows an invulnerable mind, and it is this which has a sustaining, cheering, uplifting, and exhilarating effect upon us.