Hamlet Catharsis Essay

Hamlet: Shakespeare Tragic Hero

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Hamlet: Shakespeare Tragic Hero

        In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, the main character is a classic

example of a Shakespearean tragic hero.  Hamlet is considered to be a

tragic hero because he has a tragic flaw that in the end, is the cause of

his downfall.  The play is an example of a Shakespearean tragic play

because it has all of the characteristics of the tragic play.  As defined

by Aristotle, a tragic play has a beginning, middle, and end; unity of time

and place; a tragic hero; and the concept of catharsis.

        One of the main reasons this play is considered a tragic play is

because the main character is a tragic hero.  Hamlet's tragic flaw is he

spends too much time thinking and not enough time acting.  This is the

opposite of Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, in which the tragic hero spends

too much time acting, and not enough time thinking.  Hamlet dwells too much

on whether or not to act on something, and by the time he decides to act,

it is too late.  When Hamlet finally decides to kill Claudius, he sees him

praying and decides to wait longer.  The next time he gets a chance to kill

Claudius he takes it, but by then it was too late.  Hamlet was killed as

well.  He could have prevented his downfall if it wasn't for his tragic


        Another reason Hamlet is a classic example of Shakespearean tragedy

is because it incorporates the idea of catharsis.  Aristotle defined

catharsis as the purging of the emotions of fear and pity.  In the play,

Claudius has the emotion of fear because he is afraid of Hamlet knowing

that he killed his father.  Claudius knows that Hamlet is capable of

killing him.  He knows that he cannot kill Hamlet to protect himself or to

prevent the people from knowing who killed the king because the people love

Hamlet too much.  Claudius feels pity after he sees the "Mouse Trap"

because he realizes what he had done was wrong now that Hamlet knows the

truth behind the matter.

        Hamlet is a tragic play because it has a beginning, middle, and end,

and takes place in a short period of time.  The play has a specific

beginning, which consists of Hamlet seeing his father and considering what

to do about it.  The middle is one of the actions that he took, the "Mouse

Trap."  This set the course for the end, which was when the whole ending

fencing scene takes place, when Hamlet and most of the other main

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Tragic Hero         Tragic Play         Hamlet         Too Late         Main Reasons         Shakespearean Tragedy         Main Character         Pity        

characters die.  The play took place in a short period of time and moved

consistently without too many breaks in time.

        This is a tragic play because it contains all of the

characteristics of the classic tragic play.  It takes place over a short

period of time with a beginning, middle, and end.  It has a tragic hero who

possesses a flaw that causes his demise.  Hamlet did get done what he

wanted to get done, but because of his flaw, he ended up dying.  He could

have prevented his death, but because of his inaction and over analyzing,

the tragic flaw, he couldn't.

The Necessity of Catharsis in Drama

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The fundamental purpose of a theatrical drama is to provoke an emotional response from the audience. All of the elements available to the playwright—stagecraft, characters and dialog—must be effectively used for this purpose. Great numbers of plays have been written in a manner that tells a story that once portrayed leaves the audience with an emotional response.

A truly successful drama will, in a sense, “manipulate” the emotions of the audience. At the onset, the audience is a “blank slate” without any emotion. The playwright proceeds to develop the play in a fashion designed to produce emotion(s) that may change, diminish or intensify during the course of the play.

At the conclusion of the truly masterful play the audience has had a deeply emotional experience and will be left contemplating the impact. At different levels this is the effect of Sophocles Oedipus the King and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The ancient theatrical concept of catharsis is the crucial element to the emotional result and serves as an excellent method of analysis of the impact of these dramas.

The modern term and concept of the role of catharsis in drama is traced to Aristotle’s allusion to (Greek) katharsis, usually translated as “purging”. The modern definition of “emotional release” is appropriate to the theatrical setting. Aristotle places the word in the context of his idea of the “perfect” drama, recorded in his Poetics:

For the emotion which affects some minds violently exists in all, but in different degrees, e.g. pity and fear, and also enthusiasm; for some people are prone to this disturbance, and we can observe the effect of sacred music on such people: whenever they make use of songs which arouse the mind to frenzy, they are calmed and attain as it were healing and katharsis.

Necessarily, precisely the same effect applies to those prone to pity or fear or, in general, any other emotion, and to others to the extent that each is susceptible to such things: for all there occurs purification and pleasurable relief. (Butcher)

Aristotle’s usage of the word continues to create debate. The historical record indicates Aristotle planned realized a fuller definition was required: “(what I mean by katharsis will be stated simply now, and more clearly in the Poetics)”, however his explanation or clarification has yet to be found. (Heath)

Nevertheless, Aristotle sets the concept of catharsis within the emotional responses of the audience, particularly fear and pity. However, there can be a broader concept in addition to his statement that “there occurs purification and pleasurable relief” from pity and fear. Perhaps the appropriate result is akin to the overused word “closure”. The audience has been evoked to feel pity or fear and the drama continues until these emotions have been resolved.

Fear, pity, love and hatred are the most powerful emotions a drama can produce. Obviously, these emotions can stand opposite one another in the audience’s feeling towards a single character. The tragic figure may initially evoke pity, even love, and as the drama develops the figure’s actions could produce fear and hatred.

In running through a cycle of emotions the audience has a sense of closure. William Harris uses a mathematical model in his essay “Aristotle’s Poetics: A New Approach to Katharsis to describe his theory. Believing pity attracts the audience to a character and fear repulses, the net result is “a nullity”:

If these two can be combined at a single time, the beholder may go out of the theater with a “null” or empty feeling. I think this is often the feeling one gets after watching good modern Cinema, this null-ness, often almost numbness, which opens the mind to calmness, re-consideration, thoughtfulness. These are the qualities many of us feel after reading a Greek drama right through. (Harris)

However the effect of catharsis does not have to be caused by dramatic action that would fulfill a “cancellation” or “nullity” theory. If a pitied character continues to encounter tragedy until an underserved demise the audience will not lose pity; conversely, if a feared and hated character triumphs in the end, the audience is not at a loss.

The playwright can freely assume the emotions initially created may or may not change by the drama. The playwright has planted the seed in the audience’s mind, and regardless of the action of drama, a successful drama will leave the audience with “re-consideration and thoughtfulness”.

Essentially, the effective drama will take an “empty” audience, “fill” it with emotion the “drain” the emotion to such a level the audience is left contemplating the overall emotional experience, and in so doing consider other results not illustrated in the dramatic presentation.

This is an appropriate analysis to both and Hamlet and Oedipus the King. Both authors place before the audience several characters evoking various emotions. During the course of the dramas the audience is successfully filled and drained of these emotions, most notably fear and pity.

However the final outcome for the tragic heroes may not afford itself to a neat “nullity” of emotions. Both leave the audience fulfilled from the overall emotional experience and contemplative as to their internalization of the drama and the possible “lessons illustrated” and/or “lessons learned” about the human experience.

Hamlet is arguably the longest and most complex of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet is of course a classic Shakespearean tragic hero. He is noble by birth and finds himself enmeshed in unwarranted circumstances with a foreboding that “foul deeds will rise” (Shakespeare 19). He is not disappointed; he learns from his father’s ghost of his murder, poisoned at the hand of his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.

Claudius has taken the crown and the king’s wife for himself, thus Hamlet is duty-bound to avenge the murder. This of course results in other obligations for revenge. Despite the size, complexity and number of characters, Shakespeare has carefully embedded the catharsis theme.

Hamlet’s pursuit and ultimate acquisition of vengeance follows a very convoluted path. There is a conspiracy launched for his death while he makes plans for the death of Claudius. He spends a great deal of time thinking and dramatically misses some opportunities for revenge. The audience finds him feigning madness, arranging murders and staging a play hoping it will wring a confession.

It is a very “busy” drama, and a very busy tragic hero. The opening circumstances generate pity or at least sympathy for him as he learns of his father’s murder. Thereafter audience emotions are much less clear than those exhibited by the characters.

The element of fear is bountiful; Claudius fears the actions of Hamlet, Hamlet fears he will not be successful, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should be in fear of their lives, and Fortibras is in fear of defeat. Although the audience really has no epic villain to fear, Shakespeare has made that device unnecessary.

It is much easier for the audience to be in constant fear and apprehension of which plots and actions will be affective and which will not. In this manner Shakespeare has “filled” an empty audience with emotion, holds them in suspense and in true dramatic style “drains” them in a violent and appropriately tragic ending.

This is the point of catharsis for both Hamlet and the audience. He is able to kill Claudius with the poison intended for him but at the cost of his mother’s life. Claudius and Laetres are both slain by their own poison. A vengeful Hamlet is purged: (h)ere, thou incestuous, murd’rous damned Dane, drink of this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother” (141). His mission is fulfilled, albeit at a cost he had anticipated and could not have easily borne.

The climactic scene of vengeance and unintended results serve as a great catharsis for the audience. Throughout the drama it was expected and yet the tension slowly was accelerated. Even if anticipated, the audience has been dramatically “drained” and left to think about the lessons witnessed but perhaps not yet appreciated.

The concept of catharsis within the audience is much easier to analyze in Oedipus the King. Here are much fewer characters within a theme absent unnecessary complexity or sub-plots. As in Hamlet there is no evil villain or even a protagonist. Sophocles successfully introduces fear and pity from the very beginning.

Oedipus is called upon to remove the blight upon the land; his power is fearful. Oedipus learns the blight may be due to an unknown man who murdered his successor. In his remarks he is able to engender pity in the audience: although he “stand(s) forth a champion of the God” in ignorance he states “(i)f with my knowledge he lives at my hearth I pray that I myself may feel my curse” (Sophocles 120). From that point on it is only a question of how bad and how soon he feels the curse, as the drama begins to “fill” the audience.

Similar to Hamlet there is a “blight” or “misdeed” at the very onset of the drama which is thrust upon the tragic hero, gaining sympathy or pity from the audience as well as providing a starting point for the heroes’ actions and emotions. Although there is no intrigue to carefully follow as in Hamlet the audience is held in suspense while the oracles’ visions as given to Oedipus and his mother/wife are explored.

It is almost a story in “time travel”; her vision cannot come to life as she disposed of the cursed child, and his vision cannot become reality because he is far away from his “parents” and then his “father” dies of natural causes. The audience can pity the fools for not being mindful of the visions when they married, and fear either Oedipus will strike out at those whose words he cannot bear or cause further damage than what has been done.

As with Hamlet the final scene provides unexpected and tragic death as well as the catharsis for Oedipus and the audience. Learning the truth of his birth and the death of his wife/mother Oedipus does not kill himself. His rage is turned inward and he tears out his eyes with her jewels leaving him with the “horror of darkness enfolding, resistless, unspeakable visitant sped by an ill wind in haste!” (168).

He has lost his wife, his vision, his crown—and worse—his children must live with the incestuous stain upon them. Oedipus is left only with what little satisfaction there is in knowing he has “purged” the evil sin he committed. As with Hamlet, the scene efficiently “drains” the audience.

In Aristotle on Greek Tragedy Dr. Larry Brown states

Endless debates have centered on the term “catharsis” which Aristotle unfortunately does not define. Some critics interpret catharsis as the purging or cleansing of pity and fear from the spectators as they observe the action on stage; in this way tragedy relieves them of harmful emotions, leaving them better people for their experience. (Brown)

This is not invalid nor must it stand in isolation. It is a very common plot device that will always be in use: pity the good, fear the bad, tremendous relief when, against all odds, good finally triumphs. Brown also suggests we look inside the play as well:

Therefore, commentators such as Else and Hardison prefer to think of catharsis not as the effect of tragedy on the spectator but as the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot. The dramatist depicts incidents which arouse pity and fear for the protagonist, then during the course of the action, he resolves the major conflicts, bringing the plot to a logical and foreseeable conclusion. (Brown)

Conspicuous is the absence of any authority, from Aristotle to date, who will claim the catharsis formula is critical to an “enjoyable” play; that, of course, is up to the individual viewer. Both Hamlet and Oedipus have stood the test of time and analysis as tragic heroes. Both plays can be interpreted with either audience or character catharsis.

However, there is a focus and simplicity to Oedipus that is more profound, along the lines of “less is more”. The audience’s emotions fill and expand in direct relationship to Oedipus, without distraction. Similarly, the audience is drained of emotion as directly as must be the overwrought Oedipus. It is the merger and synchronization of the emotional impact between hero and audience in Oedipus the King that best illustrates catharsis.

Works Cited

Brown, Larry. Aristotle on Greek Tragedy. July, 2005. Accessed May 22, 2007

Butcher, S. H. Aristotle on Tragedy: Selections from the Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by S.H. Butcher 1895. Public Domain; accessed May 21, 2007

Heath, Malcolm. Aristotle’s Poetics: Supplementary Texts. March 2, 1988. Accessed May 22, 2007

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Signet Classics, 1998.

Sophocles. “Oedipus the King”. Greek Tragedies. Ed. David Green and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 111-176.

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Author: Russell Ransom

in Hamlet, Oedipus the King

The Necessity of Catharsis in Drama

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