False Catharsis in Shakespearean Tragedy
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Neither the controversies surrounding catharsis in literary criticism nor the differing opinions about the nature of catharsis itself concern this paper. Since, however, I use the term as a convenient focus for discussing the nature of the endings of the four tragedies, a definition of catharsis is necessary in order to determine the meaning of a false catharsis. For the purposes of this study catharsis will primarily be defined as clarification, a definition that comes from Leon Golden, who interprets Aristotle's "catharsis clause" in the Poetics to mean "achieving, through the representation of pitiful and fearful situations the clarification of such events" (58). Such a translation allows the tragic elements to proportion themselves in relation to motivation and action without an excessive emphasis on moral frailty that prevents the examination of other issues (Waters 93). G. F. Else also proposes an interpretation of catharsis relevant to this discussion. He claims that catharsis affirms the protagonist to be free from the guilt and blame of his criminal acts, and thus the protagonist may be shown pity (493). A false catharsis ultimately shows the hero's responsibility for his actions, despite the pity shown him. The protagonist fails to acknowledge this responsibility, but the audience recognizes it. This idea of a false catharsis also suggests that the intellectual obscurities within the tragedies are not clarified, especially those of self-knowledge, reestablishment of order, and negative imagery. Each of the four protagonists shares self-delusion and self-aggrandizement within his lack of self-knowledge. Neither Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, nor King Lear gains sufficient self-knowledge to transcend the tragedy that is and will be. Each follows the self-deceiving tendency to make the world dichotomous. Every person and event when considered individually becomes either good or bad, right or wrong in the mind of the protagonist. Such egocentric and absolutist judgements leave the heroes vulnerable to the catastrophes of their own making (Nollet 1). Each makes similarly absolute judgements about himself because he lacks self-knowledge and identity or rejects his own nature.
DescriptionProgram year: 1990/1991
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Bailey, Renee Denise (1991). False Catharsis in Shakespearean Tragedy. University Undergraduate Fellow. Available electronically from