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In this lesson, learn about catharsis, a purging of feelings that occurs when audiences have strong emotional reactions to a work of literature. Explore examples of literary works which lead to catharsis, including tragedies.
What Is Catharsis
Confession: Sometimes I like to watch a movie or read a book that I know is going to make me cry. While often characterized as a particularly female type of behavior, I've had more than one male friend tell me they bawled their eyes out while watching the sappy, romantic film 'The Notebook.' It's a fact; moviegoers like to cry into their popcorn from time-to-time.
Why do we seek out literature and other entertainment that makes us so sad? It seems like crying is something we would like to avoid if we could, but instead we feel kind of good and refreshed afterwards.
Aristotle called this kind of experience catharsis - when literature provides strong emotional experiences that ultimately result in a sense of purification. Like a toddler playing quietly after a tantrum, tragedy (and comedy) can make us feel cleansed of emotions.
While Aristotle was speaking specifically about catharsis and theater, we know that all types of art can make us feel deeply, from Shakespeare's tragedies to blockbuster movies to the vivid paintings of Marc Rothko. We seek those feelings out because they make us feel good in the end, even if they make us feel sad first.
Catharsis and Tragedy
Aristotle defines a tragedy as a complete story featuring high-stakes situations. Tragedy must also be told through pleasing language and performed onstage rather than read. Finally, 'through pity and fear', the audience should leave feeling cleansed emotionally (catharsis). That's one tall order, Aristotle.
Aristotle considered 'Oedipus the King' by Greek playwright Sophocles to be a tragedy that had it all. First performed around 429 B.C., 'Oedipus the King' is as high stakes as it gets. King Oedipus seeks the advice of a prophet who says he must find the man who killed the previous king, King Laius, at a crossroads. Closer inspection into Laius' killing, though, reveals that - whoops! - Oedipus also killed a man at a crossroads.
Eventually, Oedipus figures out he was the one who killed Laius, and that Laius was his father. Since Oedipus' wife, Jocasta, is Laius' widow, it is revealed that she is both Oedipus' wife and his mom. High-stakes situation, indeed.
Then, if that wasn't enough, the audience watches as Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus pokes out his own eyes. It's enough to make you feel both pity and fear, especially as you watch these scenes performed onstage. It was the Ancient Greek equivalent of watching an Oscar-winning drama.
Classical Greek drama from Sophocles and other Ancient Greek and Roman playwrights set the stage, so to speak, for Shakespeare's tragedies of the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). 'Hamlet', 'King Lear', 'Macbeth', and 'Romeo and Juliet' are some of his best-known examples. Like 'Oedipus the King', they contain high-stakes plots, typically resulting in the deaths of at least four characters per play.