The Meaning of Catharsis:
What is Catharsis In Hamlet ? According to Aristotle’s dictum, a tragedy should arouse in the readers or spectators the feelings of pity and terror. Pity is produced by the hero’s tragic fate, while terror is aroused by the dreadful events which occur in the course of the play and which bring about the tragedy of the hero and of certain other characters too. By arousing these feelings of pity and terror, a tragedy brings about the catharsis or purgation of these emotions. According to the homeopathic system of medicine, cures like: that is, a sick person is given doses of a medicine which, if given to a healthy man, would produce in him the symptoms of the ailment from which the sick man was suffering. In the same way, a tragedy, by arousing pity and terror, treat us of these hiddren feelings which always exist in our breast in a dormant condition, and thus afford emotional relief. As a result of this emotional relief, the spectators of a tragedy rise at its end with a feeling of exhilaration and pleasure. This, according to Aristotle, is the artistic function of tragedy.
Pleasure Based Upon Human Ill-will
Aristotle’s theory of tragedy is not very widely accepted now. Various opinions regarding the nature and function of tragedy have been advanced and exposed. One critic, points out that the pleasure we find in a tragedy is due to the fact that we receive a malicious satisfaction from witnessing the sufferings and misfortunes of others. According to this view, our nature is essentially evil and, therefore, we feel happy at the misery of others. This is not how-
Ever, a convincing views because it is difficult to believe that the great tragic writers of the world wrote their tragedies in order to appeal to or satisfy human ill-will or malice.
Man’s Helplessness in This Universe
Another critic says that tragedy exhibits the helplessness of man in the universe and it shows that man is born to suffer and that there is no hope for him. But if this be so, how can we explain the feeling of pleasure that we experience in witnessing the performance of a tragic play?
According to still another view, tragedy affords us pleasure by virtue of its exhibition of human endurance and perseverance in the face of calamities and disasters. In other words, when we see a man like Hamlet or Lear or Brutus facing his misfortunes bravely or heroically, we begin to think that human nature is noble and great and therefore we experience a feeling of pleasure.
A Moral Order in the Universe
Still another view is that, by witnessing a tragedy, we get the feeling of the existence of a moral order in the universe and that this gives us moral satisfaction. In other words, we begin to believe that a man suffers chiefly on account of his own errors and faults, so that the sight of eternal justice enables us to accept our misfortune calmly.
Several Feelings Are Aroused
The fact is that tragedy arouses a variety of feelings in us. The heroic manner in which human beings undergo their sufferings and misfortunes fills us with admiration for human nature. The greatness of human character gives rise to a feeling of self-confidence in us and arouses a new hope in our hearts. The grandeur of verse and rhetoric, the splendor of eloquence and the beauty of words in a tragedy give us a keen artistic pleasure. Hamlet’s soliloquies, for instance, have a wonderful appeal because of their splendor of language as well as their depth of meaning. In short, a whole multiple tragic feelings and impressions are aroused in us when we witness a tragedy. That is why we never rise with a feeling of despair or cynicism after seeing or reading a Shakespearean tragedy. It must, however, be admitted that every great tragedy excites also the feelings of pity and terror, and that these feelings are more dominant than others; and Hamlet is no exception to this.
The Feeling of Terror
The reference of the guards to the appearance of the Ghost which has been seen by them on two occasions creates a feeling of fear in our minds. Marcellus refers to the Ghost as “this dreaded sight, twice seen of us.” The feeling of tragic fear is intensified when the Ghost actually appears on the stage. Horatio’s reaction to the Ghost is: “It harrows me with fear and wonder. Horatio supports this view with reference to the aggressive designs of Fortinbras on the State of Denmark. Horatio also recalls the supernatural omens that were witnessed in ancient Rome “a little ere the mightiest Julius fell.” Horatio, who was skeptical about the existence of ghosts, trembles and looks pale. The Ghost reenters, though it refuses to speak to anyone. Thus the very first scène of this play strikes terror and tragic in our hearts. The feeling of terror or horror is expressed again when the Ghost reveals to Hamlet the circumstances in which Claudius committed the murder of the late King. This revelation is shocking not only to Hamlet but to us also.
In Act III, Scene ii, the feeling of terror is aroused in us when Hamlet says:
’Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world; now I could drink not blood”.
These words of Hamlet make us think that he will now commit some bloody deed (though he does not do so). In Act Il, Scene iv, the feeling of terror is again aroused when the Queen thinks that Hamlet is going to murder her and when she shouts for help: “what wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me. Help, help, ho?” And, when, Hamlet, wittingly or unwittingly, slays the hidden Polonius, we are horrified beyond description.
‘We are gripped by the feeling of fear or terror again when we hear of Claudius’s plan of sending Hamlet to England and having him murdered there. Claudius reveals his murderous plan to us in his soliloquy in Act IV, Scene iii. Another situation that horrifies us is the revolt of Laertes against Claudius. Laertes bursts in upon Claudius and says: “O thou vile king, give me my father.” Although the King remains calm, Laertes continues to use insulting language and to utter threats.
The climax of horror is reached, of course, in Act V, Scene ii, when a number of deaths take place before our very eyes on the stage. The Queen, Laertes, the King, Hamlet—all of them fight an end which is terrifying because of the circumstances in which they die and the manner of their death.
Facts You should know About Catharsis In Hamlet
The Feeling of Pity
There are several situations that arouse the feeling of pity. There is, in Act II, Scene ii, the First Player’s recitation of a speech describing the death of Priam, and the grief of Hecuba over his death. This account is so moving that the First Player himself is seen shedding tears of pity after he has recited the speech. But the scenes which describe Ophelia’s madness and her death are even more poignant and more moving. In Act IV, Scene v, we are told that Ophelia, in her crazy condition, beats her heart, spurns enviously at straws, and speaks things that carry only half sense, and so on. When Ophelia appears in this scene, she is singing snatches of old songs. It is obvious that Hamlet’s “madness,” and, even more than that, the murder of her father, have driven her crazy.
This is a deeply touching scene. Equally touching is her second appearance in this mad condition in Act IV, Scene v, when she is again harping on the death of her father. In Act IV, Sconce vii we learn of her death by drowning when the Queen gives us a most pathetic descriptions of the manner in which Ophelia met her end : “Her clothes spread wide, and, mermaid-like a while they bore her up ;Till that her garments, heavy with their drink.”
Hamlet’s fate also arouses a deep pity in us. We pity him because we find that the Ghost has imposed upon him a task which he is incapable of accomplishing. We pity him when he, in his soliloquies, castigates himself again and again for not being able to carry out that task. We pity him when he puts on a disposition behaves in a manner calculated to create an impression that he has gone mad. We pity him when we find him thinking that he has been betrayed by Ophelia, the one person from whom he sought*support and solace. And we pity him when he meets a terrifying end. Indeed, our hearts are filled with intense pity and anguish at the thought that a great personality, a man of many parts, an intellectual genius endowed with a high sense of honor and cherishing high moral ideals, should meet a premature end because of the machinations of a rogue and villain, King Claudius. The death of Hamlet creates in us a feeling of tremendous waste, and this feeling certainly has a saddening effect on us.
The Catharis of Pity and Fear Really Effected.
There is no doubt that the play of Hamlet arouses in the audience and the readers deep feelings of pity and fear and brings about the catharsis of these emotions, although the effect of pleasure produced by this tragedy, as by every other tragedy by Shakespeare, is due also to several other reasons which have been stated above.