While the term was first used to describe the former, catharsis is now commonly used in visual arts to describe how a painting, sculpture, or other art form makes viewers feel. In regard to the theatre, catharsis happens when the audience gets invested in what they’re watching and feels invested in a character’s fate. They should be able to feel the same emotions as the people they’re watching on stage, understand the risks, fears, and expectations of the possible outcomes.
Definition of Catharsis
A cathartic experience is what a theatre-goer, reader of literature, or viewer of a piece of art, feels when their emotions are released.
Catharsis comes from the Greek word “kathairein,” meaning “to clean” or “to purge.” It was first used by Aristotle to describe the emotional release that spectators experienced while following the plot of a tragedy. In his words, only the audience can experience this, not the author or the actors on stage. It’s important for the audience to develop an attachment and identification with the characters on stage. Without this, they won’t care what happens to them or be emotional invested enough to experience catharsis.
It should be noted that cathartic experiences do occur outside the realm of art—for example, social or physiological catharsis. For example, coming to terms with a loss through therapy or resolving a long-term dispute.
Examples of Catharsis in Literature
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare creates the foundation for audience members to experience catharsis at the end of the play. The audience should find themselves moved to sadness or at least feel distressed as they watch Romeo and Juliet kill themselves. The scene should trigger memories of losses one has experienced themselves and or perhaps inspire one to consider love affairs of the past or present.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poems.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, she depicts the Ramsay family and what happened on their summer vacation on the Isle of Skye. There is a wonderful example of Catharsis partway through the novel when one of the characters, Mr. Ramsay, reads from The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott. Here are a few lines that describe the experience:
And he went on reading. His lips twitched. It filled him. It fortified him. He clean forgot all the little rubs and digs of the evening, and how it bored him unutterably to sit still while people ate and drank interminably, and his being so irritable with his wife and so touchy and minding when they passed his books over as if they didn’t exist at all. But now, he felt, it didn’t matter a damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it—if not he, then another.
Woolf goes on, describing how he forgot about his past, present, and future. He lived entirely in that moment and that he felt “so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears.” This is a perfect example of what viewers, readers, and audience members should experience if they’re truly attached to the subject matter they’re experiencing.
Othello by William Shakespeare
Othello follows the story of a general, Othello, who is tricked by Iago into believing that his wife, Desdemona, has cheated on him. Slowly Othello loses his grip on reality and ends up killing Desdemona in a rage. In Act 5 Scene 2, Othello learns the truth and takes his own life, realizing the horror of what he’s done. Before dying, he speaks these words:
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
Othello’s suicide is a great example of a cathartic moment. The audience should feel regret that Othello has been driven to kill himself, but at the same time, it is easy to understand why he’s chosen to do so. He could not live with the knowledge that he’d killed his wife for no reason. Then, since his pain is released through his suicide, there should also be a feeling of relief.
Read all 154 Shakespeare sonnets.
Why Do Writers Use Catharsis?
Catharsis gives readers the opportunity to experience extreme emotions from a distance. Readers can live a character’s life alongside them, feel everything they feel, and then walk away from the content at the end, having experienced a great deal. This is even more impactful if the characters live in a time or manner that’s unfamiliar to the reader. This makes the experience novel and ideally more moving. Some believe that by living and knowing these emotions through literature, it makes real-life emotions easier to deal with. Others have suggested that the opposite is true and that strong literary emotions make the real-world harder to contend with. Either way, writers use catharsis in order to make sure the reader feels something and is changed in some way due to it.
Related Literary Terms
- Catastrophe: a turning point in a story, usually a tragedy, in which something terrible happens to the main character/s.
- Tragedy: refers to a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Play: a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Read: 16 Examples of Catharsis Psychology
- Watch: The Importance of Cathartic Art
- Watch: Why is Aristotle’s Catharsis Important for Genre Analysis?