Catharsis as a Dramatic Act

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Rick Whisenand


          Because the term “catharsis” in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics is too subjective for a formal definition, and because the interpretations of purging or purifying pity and fear vary widely, the author recommends discovering a type of catharsis that is independent of the feelings of audience members.  Rather than purging pity and terror from the spectators, catharsis could be a way of delivering a tragedy’s protagonists from their terror and suffering.  The author read 32 tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and found that, in some plays, a god enters (the deus ex machina) and saves the characters; in a few plays, a human hero steps in to stop the villains; but the majority of plays have a fully tragic ending.  A definition of catharsis as deliverance is also offered.

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