The Use of Catharsis in the “Hamlet” Tragedy
Critic Northrup Frye has evaluated Hamlet as a play without catharsis, a tragedy in which everything noble and heroic is smothered under ferocious revenge codes, treachery, spying and the consequences of weak actions by broken wills. While the play deviates from the traditional definition of catharsis as given by Aristotle in Poetics” through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” it nonetheless offers a strong purgation of feelings of disgust at the denouement of the play. The elements that Frye argues prevent catharasis are actually what generate the disgust necessary for catharsis to take place. This emotion is suddenly purged through heroism, virtue and restoration of the chain of being at the conclusion of the play.
Frye speculate that ferocious revenge codes, treachery, spying, and consequences of weak actions by broken wills intervene with catharsis, but on the contrary, they develop the feeling of disgust that needs to be purged. This differs with the Aristotelian definition of catharsis as purging pity and fear, but is a form of catharsis nonetheless, one that delivers a similar final effect on the audience.
Disgust is emphasized early in the play when Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on his son, Laertes, who is away studying in France. Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing, / Quarreling, drabbing” you may go so far (II.i.25-26) states Polonius, instructing Reynaldo to exchange inaccurate statements with LaertesÃ, friends. This illustrates Polonius distrust in his son and his will to use all means necessary to gain information about Laertes, even if it runs the risk of jeopardizing his reputation. Corruption within the family directly enhances the sense of repugnance. Hamlet’s unnecessary murder of Polonius also emphasizes the emotion. His quasi-madness and ignorance of circumstances lead him to the false conclusion that Claudius is behind the arras as he states: Is it the King (III.iv.26). This event reveals a flaw in Hamlet’s character, which diminishes Hamlet’s heroicism in the minds of the audience and creates the feeling of disgust in its place. Laertes and Claudius contribute to this revulsion as well as they conspire an unfair duel to triumph over Hamlet, I’ll anoint my sword. With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly, / It may be death (IV.vii.139-147). Once again, the corruption in royal families generates disgust that fuels catharsis in the end.
What purges the sense of disgust is an exposition of characters heroism and virtue. Laertes contributes to the catharsis by expressing doubt about his sinful and unfair fencing duel with Hamlet: [Aside] And yet it is almost against my conscience (V.ii.300). Laertes uncertainty in his subsequent actions represents some good in his conscience. This quality makes evident Laertes virtue, which purges the disgust built up earlier. Relief extends further as Laertes continues to exhibit righteousness: Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee (V.ii.334-335), and when it is acknowledged by Hamlet, Heaven make thee free of it. I follow thee (V.ii.337). Horatio’s altruism through the blessing of Hamlet also contributes to catharsis: Now cracks the noble heart. Good night sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest (V.ii.364-365). Similarly, Fortinbras acknowledgement of Hamlet’s death reveals heroism in both of their characters as he compares Hamlet to a soldier: Let four captains / Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, / For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov’d most royal (V.ii.400-403). The virtue and heroism that surface in the concluding scene of the play greatly contribute to the well-placed Shakespearian catharsis.
Another way catharsis is made evident is through the restoration of the chain of being at the conclusion of the play. Disarray of the chain is evident from the beginning of the play and remains an important theme throughout. The immediate deaths of corrupt Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, and Laertes serve as a testament to the end of corruption. Once the corruption is eliminated, the restoration of order is necessary; this is done by establishing Denmark’s new leader. Hamlet is not a suitable leader because of his corruption, which originated from his tragic flaw; therefore, he supports Fortinbras in the upcoming election: But I do prophesy thelection lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice (V.ii.360-361). Although the kingship is not definite, Hamlet’s popularity and support from the public creates a strong belief among the audience that Fortinbras will be crowned. He is depicted as a strong, determined, and capable leader throughout the play, Witness this army of such mass and charge, / Led by a delicate and tender prince, / Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d, / Makes mouths at the invisible event (IV.iv.47-50). A new royal family is, indeed, the most logical solution to the restoration of the immensely disrupted chain of being. It establishes a sense of renewal while purging the negative emotions established earlier.
In conclusion, two elements are important in terms of catharsis: the emotion and its purging. The emotion, disgust, is apparent throughout the play via the ferocious revenge codes, treachery, [and] spying that overwhelm the audience. Purgation occurs through apparent heroism and virtue, along with the newly established feeling of renewal of the chain of being at the conclusion of the play. In his criticism, Northrup Frye disregards these points and fails to recognize that Hamlet is indeed a cathartic play.
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