Tragedy and Catharsis in Literature and Film

Throughout history, poets, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters have all made use of tragedy in their work. Some keys that distinguish tragedy from other forms of drama include themes of darkness, death, or sadness, as well as a main hero who has a “tragic flaw” which will lead to his downfall. From death to financial ruin to the corruption of moral character, we can look back at the themes of great tragedies from every age. Tragedies come in several forms, made popular by different writers.

In Ancient Greece – the earliest developer of tragedy as a distinct form – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were some of the greatest playwrights. They based their plays on myths and epics, and it was Sophocles who popularized the use of actors instead of a chorus to give exposition. Aristotle wrote about the art of tragedy in his books, and was the first to lay out the rules. He believed plays should have unity of time, place, and action. He also wrote that the main role of tragedy was to provide the audience with catharsis, an emotional cleansing.

What exactly is catharsis? Scholars remain divided over Aristotle’s use of the term. Some believe it simply means a fulfilling and emotionally satisfying conclusion. Others say it provides an education for the emotions. Overall, though, scholars agree that by watching tragedies, people can see their darkest thoughts realized and dealt with in the confines of the play. This provides the “emotional cleansing” Aristotle spoke of, where the audience comes away from the experience more inclined to think about the deeper meaning in the story.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle, we are introduced to a hero who, through fate and unhappy chance, fulfills a prophecy he has been running away from his whole life. In Macbeth, audiences can see the results of unchecked ambition and madness. In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller reflects on the loss of identity in modern life and man’s inability to accept change. In Breaking Bad, a recent TV show, the audience can see the main character descend into chaos and moral corruption by following a noble ideal in an immoral way.

Pure tragedy is often overlooked in society today in favor of drama or “tragicomedy”, but there are still many valuable lessons it can teach us. In addition to providing catharsis and cleansing for the emotions, tragedies can also be a way to express humanity’s deepest fears about itself and its most violent tendencies in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. Tragedy can teach us much about the nature of man and how to deal with tough situations and emotions.

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