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This lesson looks at catharsis, or the release of emotion, in the Greek tragedy ‘Oedipus Rex’ by Sophocles. The catharsis is experienced by the main character, king Oedipus, but also by the audience of the play.

Defining Catharsis

Catharsis is the release of emotion through art. These emotions that are released are bad emotions such as pity and fear. Catharsis is actually a word that comes from Greek originally.

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The Greek word meant to purge from the body. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, talks about catharsis. He says that Greek tragedy imitates serious and intense action. This intense action builds in the audience emotions of pity and fear that are then released at the climax and conclusion of the play. One important aspect of catharsis is that it is not just the release of emotion, but the release of emotion at a safe distance.

That is why in a Greek tragedy, the audience can experience the tragedy of art from their seats, purge the pity and fear from the comfort and safety of watching the play.

Summary of Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles. The story takes place in ancient Thebes. King Laius and Queen Jocasta, long before the play takes place, heard a prophecy that their son would kill Laius and marry Jocasta. So to stop the prophecy from coming true, they ordered Oedipus, their son, to be left to die in the wilderness.

But a husband and wife find Oedipus and raise them as their own son. Later in life, Oedipus meets Laius on the road and accidentally kills Laius in a fight. Then Oedipus saves Thebes from a plague and marries the widowed queen, Jocasta. But later, things are not going right in Thebes and Oedipus asks and oracle what he can do to fix it. The oracle tells Oedipus that he can only fix it if he finds Laius’s killer. As Oedipus starts to uncover the truth, he eventually realizes that Laius is his father, Jocasta is his mother, and that he married his mother and killed his father without realizing it.

In the end, Oedipus blinds himself and exiles himself from Thebes, a broken man.

Catharsis in Oedipus Rex

Because Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy, it is a play that uses catharsis to build the story. Imagine for a moment that you are in ancient Greece. You are in the audience of a performance of the tragedy Oedipus Rex. The play begins and you get introduced to the regal and powerful, but also good and kind king of Thebes: Oedipus.

You can see that he is a good king who is concerned about his people. That is why he wants to know how to stop the plague in Thebes. You watch as he discovers that he needs to find who killed Laius, the previous king of Thebes, to stop the plague. But when Oedipus talks to the blind prophet, Tiresias, to find out who killed Laius, Tiresias says that Oedipus killed Laius. You feel angry just like Oedipus is angry.

Of course Oedipus didn’t killed Laius! But then you also find out about the prophecy that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Also, you find out that the parents who raised Oedipus were not his real parents. With each new piece of information, you get closer and closer to the truth. At last, the herdsmen tells Oedipus, and you, that his father, the father of the abandoned baby, is Laius. It is at this point that the catharsis takes place. The pity and fear that you feel for Oedipus is released. You realize that Oedipus has done a terrible thing, but he did it without knowing what he was doing.

Lesson Summary

This lesson has looked at catharsis, or the release of emotion through art, in Oedipus Rex. The audience watching the play Oedipus Rex releases emotions of pity and fear once they discover that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother. Catharsis was an important element of Greek tragedies, of which Oedipus Rex is a good example.

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