What is the concept of catharsis in Aristotle's Poetics?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Aristotle's Poetics was written in approximately 335 BC, in part to summarize the characteristics of the tragic plays from ancient Greece. One such characteristic that Aristotle noted was that tragedies should evoke from the audience the emotions of pity and fear. The evocation of these feelings is what Aristotle...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Aristotle's Poetics was written in approximately 335 BC, in part to summarize the characteristics of the tragic plays from ancient Greece. One such characteristic that Aristotle noted was that tragedies should evoke from the audience the emotions of pity and fear. The evocation of these feelings is what Aristotle defined as catharsis, or, in the adjective form, the cathartic process.

Aristotle's ideas about tragedies found new popularity in the Renaissance period, which is why Shakespeare's plays, for example, borrow so heavily from them. Indeed, many if not all of Shakespeare's tragedies rely upon Aristotle's catharsis for their emotional impact. We pity Romeo and Juliet, for example, because their love is fated to end with their tragic, needless deaths. We fear Macbeth for his escalating brutality. Othello we pity for his blindness to the machiavellian Iago's malignity. And for King Lear we might feel both pity and fear. We pity the lonely, psychologically fraught state to which he is reduced, and we fear that he might die a desperate madman's death, shouting futilely into the storm.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The concept of catharsis in Aristotle's Poetics is based on a phrase at the end of his famous definition of tragedy. He states that

Tragedy . . . effects by means of fear and pity the catharsis of the pathemata.

The term catharsis in ancient Greek means some form of purification or purgation. The pathemata are emotions in their etymological sense of internal states produced by external impetuses. They are referred to in the genitive case, which, in this sentence, means that we have the sense of the emotions being purged (i.e., the audience being rid of a specific emotion) or the emotions being purified in the sense of being made more pure or improved. The medical sense of the word would suggest purgation and the religious sense either purgation or purification.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team