The pleasure of Tragedy; Theory of Catharsis; The Paradox of Tragedy

The paradox of tragedy lies in the fact that a drama dealing with pain, vice, misery and often culminating in death is not only able to interest us but even give us pleasure. Comedy posses not such riddle since is deals with an ostensibly happy tale; often ending in mirth and the pleasure of the audience is commensurate and therefore needs no explication. But critics from Aristotle onwards have felt obliged to explain the phenomenon of audiences’ pleasure being inversely proportional to the suffering of the protagonist of the play in the case of tragedy.

The earliest specific answer to this problem is that offered by Aristotle in which he affirms that by arousing pity and fear tragedy affects a catharsis or ‘purgation’ of these and kindred emotions. As Aristotle did not elaborate on the concept of catharsis laid down in his celebrated definition of tragedy in the sixty chapters of the poetics, the question of what he actually meant has given to diverse interpretation. What Aristotle says is apparently quite simple.

Tragedy is an imitation of an action this is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself, incidents arousing pity and fear, where with to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions. The definition was doubtless framed as on answer to Plato’s charge that poetic drama encourages cowardice and weeping by feeding and watering then. Aristotle held on the contrary the excessive emotionalism is most effectively prevented not by starving and repressing the emotions but by giving them expression in a wisely regulated manner he regarded tragedy as the chief instrument of such regulation. Tragedy works in a twofold way, first exciting the emotions of pity and fear and the allaying them, there by effecting an emotional.

The usual interpretation of Aristotle‘s catharsis is in part medical and in part religious. The concept of catharsis also occurs in Hippocratic school of medicine where it refers to the discharge of the excess of bodily elements produced in excess of sickness, and the consequent return of the body to that state of right proportion which is health similarly, Aristotle considers that in its ‘natural’ condition of the human mind is well balanced and serene but that it falls readily away from this nature state into intemperance. The action of a well-made tragedy strikes pity and fear into the audience that these emotions become ‘digested’ as in the Hippocratic description, with the result that a new proportion and blend of the emotions is produced.

The residue of superfluous emotional impulses is ‘catharated’. The religious meaning of catharsis may be traced back to Plato’s Phaedo where he opines that catharsis consists “ so far as possible, the soul from the body ……….and in living alone by itself, freed from the body, as from fetters”. The religious viewpoint emphasizes ‘purification whereas the medical had emphasized ‘purgation’. This involves a new spiritual and intellectual vision.  Wisdom is distilled from tragic suffering; man is  ‘taught by suffering’ as the chorus in Agamemnon sings. 

Many critics have agreed with Aristotle although some with minor modifications. Lessing insists that the special effect of tragedy must come from the union of the two emotions and that Aristotle’s ethical standards of ‘due measure’ is applicable to such a union that seems the importance of catharsis, not in reference to the spectator but in the reconciliation and expiration of the characters in the play. Million in his preface to Samson Agonistes interprets Aristotle to mean that tragic catharsis operates on the home opal principle of ‘the like cures the like’. He would claim that by the use of sour against sour ant salt against salt tragedy affects a unique calm:
                                                      With peace and consolation hath dismist
                                                        and calm of mind all passions spent.

Wordsworth declares that by the operation of catharsis the readers are to be  ‘humbled and humanized ‘, and to be purged of the prejudices and blindnesses arising from false sophistication and snobbery I. A. Richards interprets the cathartic process as a reconciliation of ‘pity, the impulse to approach and terror, the impulse to retreat’ (Principles of Literary criticism).

   Ardhendu De  


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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