Catharsis In Oedipus
How does the play Oedipus the King provide a catharsis?
Sophocles's Oedipus Rex
With catharsis as a term used by Aristotle to describe emotional release of the feelings of pity and fear experienced by the audience at the end of a successful tragedy, the readers/audience experience this catharsis at the point in which Oedipus realizes his role in the plight of the people of Thebes. At the time of his realization, Oedipus feels great remorse and shame for what he has done: "When all my sight was horror everywhere."
It is at this same time that the readers/audience experience their feelings of sympathy and pity. The shepherd, for instance reminisces when he carried the baby Oedipus and a man took the boy to his country only to save him for such a wretched fate, "No man living is more wretched than Oedipus!" (4.1117) he exclaims. And, Oedipus himself says,
O Light, may I look on you for the last time!
Oedipus, danmed in his birth, in his marriage damned,
Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand! (4.1120)
It is at this point as the second messenger utters the profoundly true words, "The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves" (Exodus,1184), that the readers/audience feels sympathy for Oedipus the King, and fears what he may do. Then, after learning of his having blinded himself because he has been "blind to those for whom [he] was searching," the readers/audience experience pity for the once great man.
The process of catharsis, according to Aristotle, involves feelings of pity and terror that cleanse the audience's emotions. By feeling pity for the tragic hero in the play and by feeling terror at the tragedy that befalls the hero, the audience is able to experience an emotional release that affords them pleasure.
In Oedipus Rex, the audience comes to feel pity for Oedipus, even though he at first refuses to believe Teiresias's revelation that he, Oedipus, murdered the king. Over time, Oedipus comes to understand that he is cursed and that he indeed unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother. After his mother hears this news, she kills herself, and Oedipus blinds himself. The Chorus says of Oedipus: "What evil spirit leaped upon your life/to your ill-luck—a leap beyond man’s strength!/ Indeed I pity you" (lines 1491-1493). The chorus feels immense pity for Oedipus, and the Chorus also expresses terror at his sight. They say, "This is a terrible sight for men to see!/I never found a worse!" (lines 1488-1489). By evoking feelings of pity and terror towards Oedipus, the play evokes a catharsis in the audience.
Catharsis gives an audience the sense of having experienced the emotions of a tragic series of events without themselves having experienced the actual tragedy. This, according to Aristotle, is purifying.
In a Freudian reading, Oedipus offers a particularly satisfying catharsis as it plays out the unconscious drama that every young boy experiences. Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. According to Freud, all young boys secretly (unconsciously) want to kill their fathers so they can have their mothers to themselves. A boy also wants to kill his father because he believes his father castrated his mother and might castrate him. A boy wants to then replace his father by marrying his mother.
While ancient Greek audiences would have been completely unconscious that they were seeing their own childhood drama re-enacted, Oedipus's actions would have, first, helped them relive their own unconscious pleasure at seeing another person doing what they once most deeply desired, and, second, his punishment then would have helped them relieve their unconscious guilt over their unacceptable impulses.