How does the play Oedipus the King provide catharsis?

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Catharsis refers to the cleansing feeling that one experiences by witnessing a tragedy, particularly one that is performed, and going through the emotional phases of that tragedy without having to face their ramifications. The Greeks were extraordinarily ahead of their time for recognizing and giving a name to this complex facet of human thinking and emotional wellness.

The masterful nature of the catharsis in Oedipus is in how the reveal of the titular character's true identity creeps up on the audience. The art of experiencing a tragedy well is felt in the emotions of fear and pity. While tragedy strikes Oedipus all at once in a single, horrible realization, the audience, in contrast, becomes slowly aware of it. It is not some mystery that the audience is meant to puzzle over, but rather a blurry picture that becomes clearer with every passing moment of action. We begin to understand the truth at the same pace as Jocasta, who seems to implore Oedipus to stop his search, as though she can hide from it. She is seeing the blurry picture become clearer along with the audience, but since the truth actually affects her, she runs from it.

In the audience, safely behind the fourth wall, we await the moment that the picture becomes clear, because we feel all of our painful emotions of fear and pity bubbling to the surface, and that moment promises cleansing. As Oedipus stabs his eyes out and Jocasta ends her own life, we are filled with feelings that are miserable and even nihilistic. Indeed, much of Oedipus's lamentation is a commentary on the futility of everything. While this is certainly not something we should feel all of the time, it is an emotion that is always lurking inside, and it has to be felt in order for us to better understand it. The more familiar we are with our emotions, the less able they are to control us in ways that might be harmful. This is the very nature and purpose of catharsis.

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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.

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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. 

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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!

I, Oedipus,

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.

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How is catharsis used in Oedipus Rex?

An ancient Greek audience, coming to the theater, would already be familiar with the fate of Oedipus, the king doomed to kill his father and marry and his mother.  Thus, the playwright's skill had less to do with constructing unexpected plot twists or a surprising ending, for example, and more to do with telling the story well.  One way to achieve this was through the use of dramatic irony: when the audience knows more than the character.  Since the audience knew the end already, Sophocles could use dramatic irony to increase their tension; when Oedipus, for example, curses the killer of Laius and proclaims that the murderer will be exiled from Thebes forever, the audience realizes that he's unknowingly cursing himself to such a punishment.  The playwright builds tension like this via dramatic irony throughout the entirety of the play until, finally, Oedipus comes to understand that his terrible prophecy has been fulfilled; the truth is out at last, and the audience experiences catharsis: a release of tension that the play has created with the character's ultimate comprehension of truth.  In this moment, not only is the audience purged of emotion, but they also have the opportunity to realize one of the play's main themes: man cannot outwit the gods.

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What role does catharsis play in the play Oedipus Rex?

In terms of Ancient Greek drama, catharsis refers to the purging, or purifying, of the audience's emotions by the provoking of fear and pity. In the Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued, in contrast to his mentor Plato, that there was nothing wrong per se with the expression of emotion by an audience. Excess emotions, however, were a different matter. They put the various elements of the soul out of balance, and thus needed to be purged and purified by pity and fear, which Aristotle regarded as wholly rational emotions.

For Aristotle, Oedipus Rex provided the classic example of how catharsis should work. Oedipus excites pity because he is basically a good man who comes to grief through actions whose consequences he could not reasonably have foreseen. Yes, Oedipus can be criticized for certain of his actions, such as willfully ignoring the prophecies of Tiresias. But ultimately Oedipus is a victim of fate, and this excites pity among the audience.

As well as pity, we also experience fear as the action unfolds. We immediately grasp that what's happened to Oedipus—not to mention Jocasta—is an appalling tragedy, which cannot but incite feelings of terror. The gruesome nature of Oedipus's final actions in the play—gouging out his own eyes—is designed to inspire fear among the audience, providing them with an emotional release which curbs excess emotion.

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How does the play Oedipus the King provide a catharsis? What action in the play best displays catharsis?

Catharsis, one of the elements of Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not so much an element of the play itself as it is the effect on the audience.  Meaning “cleansing,” a catharthis is an emotional, social, and psychological change that the audience undergoes as they follow the plot and character development to a conclusion.  The tragedy begins in media res, as the sorry condition of Thebes is described, through some unknown cause, a punishment from the gods’ who are dissatisfied with something out of balance in the community.  As the story unfolds and we learn, through various dramatic devices, that the imbalance was caused initially by trying to avoid the prophecy (that Oedipus would kill his father), and the playing out of the events leading to his marrying his mother, as we witness the play’s developments, we as an audience (and especially as a social community) want to come back to a balance.  This occurs at the climax of the play, and the audience gets a catharsis, a “cleansing” or return to balance and to favor in the gods’ eyes once again.

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