The Use of Catharsis in ‘Titus Andronicus’

January 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

In his tragedy Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare successfully engages his audience in a variety of emotions. Although these emotions are often negative, they still provide a cathartic release for the reader. Catharsis is defined as “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal, and revitalization for living”. Aristotle was correct in his argument that tragedy creates powerful emotions that “cleanse” the heart of the viewer. Plays, just like every other form of entertainment, distract us from our daily lives. We, as the audience, relate to and connect with the characters because on some subconscious level we see ourselves in them. As they experience problems and emotions, so do we. Once their troubles are resolved, we too feel satisfied. It gives us the sense that our lives aren’t so bad because it could always be worse.

The term catharsis was originated by Aristotle in his writing Poetics. It has now become a major instrument in the production and analysis of tragic drama (Kruse 162). According to Aristotle, catharsis occurs when dramatic action causes pity or fear and produces the same reaction within a person. Kruse attempts to reidentify catharsis according to three classifications: clarification, purgation, and cleansing (164). Clarification refers to the pleasure we get when we discover a connection between something we learn during the play and its relationship to our actual lives. The purgation interpretation of catharsis suggests that pity and fear are disturbing and uncomfortable emotions that need to be eliminated. These emotions are raised to the highest possible level and are cast off as the story is resolved. Finally, catharsis as cleansing is the most popularly held interpretation, especially as it refers to Shakespearean tragedy. In it, catharsis is the function of the plot and acts as a means of achieving a certain end. While scholars disagree as to what Aristotle meant exactly when he described catharsis, Shakespeare has effectively used each interpretation in many of his plays, including Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare effectively causes catharsis in its most basic definition by stirring up our emotions as the plot unfolds. The extreme situations and changes of emotion get us riled up and angry. We transition from disliking Titus for his staunch adherence to rules to sympathizing with his loss and defending his actions of revenge. Our pity for Tamora quickly dissipates into hatred and bitterness in the way she avenges her son’s death. Our feelings continue to grow and change until the final scene when everything is resolved. When justice is done, we feel pleased and purge all the emotions the tragedy created.

Based on the previous definition of catharsis, there are several scenes within the play that “cleanse” the reader of their feelings. The first of these occurs in Act II, Scene IV when Marcus discovers Lavinia in the woods. Chiron and Demetrius have raped her and cut off her hands and tongue so she will not be able to communicate with anyone. Marcus’s following speech is filled with sorrow and astonishment. His last lines sums up the dismay that her family, and the audience, feels:

One hour’s storm will drown the fragrant meads;

What will whole months of tears do to thy father’s eyes?

Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee:

O, could our mourning ease thy misery! (2.4.54 – 57).

Since the audience knows all that has happened, we are filled with sympathy for Titus at the loss of his children. We also grieve for Lavinia because she watched her husband’s murder, was assaulted and mutilated, must watch her brothers be punished for something they did not do, and must now face her father in shame. Worst of all, she is the only one who knows the truth, but cannot speak. The audience experiences yet another emotion here: frustration. In the film, the actress portraying Lavinia makes this the best scene of the movie, moving us to the verge of tears.

The second scene in which we experience an overflow of emotion occurs at the beginning of Act III. Titus is at a crossroad, both literally and emotionally. He has just watched his sons dragged off to their deaths, learns his only other living son has been banished, and sees the mangled Lavinia for the first time. Then, he is tricked by Aaron into cutting off his hand in an attempt to save his sons. When he discovers it was all in vain, he finally breaks down. At this point he must decide if he will continue to be loyal to Rome and all the rules he believes in so firmly or if he will honor his children by avenging the injustices they suffered: “Give me a sword, I’ll chop off my hands too;/ For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain;/. . . And they have served me to effectless use:” (3.1.72 – 73, 76). After a short fit of madness, he vows to return all the mischief done to him. This is a major turning point in the play and leads directly into the scene that cleanses all the emotions developed during this play.

The final two scenes of the play are the most cleansing. In Act V, Scenes II and III, we realize that Titus is not crazy, but deceiving his enemies to create his justice. He is merciless in his killing of Chiron and Demetrius and equally so in feeding them to Tamora (5.3.60 – 63). Although the action is quick, we are cleansed because everything is now out in the open and justice has been served to everyone who is wronged. I was confused when he killed Lavinia, but realized it was done in both their interests. He would no longer be saddened by her appearance and she would no longer have to live in shame of being disgraced. Tamora has finally gotten punishment equal to what she gave Titus. They have both taken all of each other’s children, the deepest pain one can receive. Even Aaron receives a torturous death, which ironically, is pleasing to the audience. The emotional roller coaster is over and as icing on the cake, we are happy when Lucius ascends to the throne as king (5.3.139 – 140).

All of the previous scenes move us to emotional extremes, which most would say leads to catharsis. Heather James, however, argues differently: “Shakespearean tragedy has the power to communicate sympathetic passions but does not necessarily lead, as Aristotle claims, to a purging of dangerous emotions. For the audience, the play substitutes one source of anxiety for another” (James 364). She believes the emotions evoked in the audience by the play, while moving, are too weak to create the reaction Aristotle intended in real catharsis. She goes on to relate the final scene of the play to Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid. The observance of tragedy and the sadness created by death all move the characters to pick up and create new lives. This, James insists, is not cathartic for the audience.

While James makes a decent argument for her assertions, there is room for disagreement. It is the final scene in which we feel most cleansed. While some of Titus’s actions throughout the play are quite confusing, in the end, we feel calm and satisfied. If for no other reason, it is because we, the reader, know Titus is pleased even though he is dead. His family also seems to be able to move on as things begin to turn around for them. Things can only go well now. This realization is universal and can be true within our own lives. For this reason, it can be a release for both the reader and the audience. We are left with one emotion, though: curiosity. We can only wonder if Tamora and Aaron’s son will seek revenge on Lucius in the future. That is, after all, the way Shakespearean tragedy works.

Works Cited

James, Heather. “Dido’s Ear: Tragedy and the Politics of Response.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 52.3 (Autumn 2001): 360 – 382

Kruse, Noreen W. “The Process of Aristotelian Catharsis: A Reidentification.” Theatre Journal. 31.2 (May 1979): 162 – 171

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Titus Andronicus : [Drama]. New York, NY :Penguin books, 2000. Print.

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