Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of action … it arouses pity and fear.” The audience becomes aware of the fact that catastrophe in a tragedy, that is, the death of the hero arouses pity and fear. The words ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ cannot be reduced to one level of meaning. It was Aristotle who for the first time used the term ‘catharsis’ to mean the emotional cleansing – the release of the pent up overwhelming emotions of pity and fear. F.L. Lucas points out that catharsis is a medical metaphor. The end and the purpose of tragedy is purgation. In the obvious sense of the word, purgation comes to mean that some medicine is applied to the patient so that he may be purged off the superfluity of physical abnormalities which are lying in his body. In other words, purging off means complete elimination. Once something is eliminated, it will not occur again. Certainly Aristotle does not have such idea but he can point that his purpose was the purification of emotional morbidity so that audience may be able to regain its equivalent.
On the other hand, Humphrey House points out that the hero suffers from some flaw and the audience witnesses this. The scene of the suffering arouses a sense of pity. The persons in the audience feel that a similar fate may not overtake them. The main emphasis is on identification and the pathetic scene of the hero may arouse pity and fear but it is the objective centre of the subjective state of the audience. We can simplify this to self-pity. Similarly, the fear for the lot of the hero is the fear our own lot. Aristotle has also given his formula of means which refer to follow the middle path. The tragedy is intended to restore the means. In our day to day life, we find that the emotions of human beings have been inordinately charged. They may upset his nervous system. The scene of tragedy provides an opportunity to the audience to regain mental and emotional equilibrium. Hamlet suffers for no fault of his own. He becomes a victim of Claudius, Polonious and his mother. The entire society in which he is living is hostile, where he suffers and dies in the end. We can say that after observing the suffering of Hamlet on the stage, there is purification of emotional and mental state of the audience. Freud has termed this as the concept of ‘tragic pleasure’. It is labeled as ‘sadism’.
According to this viewpoint, when someone inflicts pain on others, he feels happy. The Freudian concept of sadism is true of certain human beings whose desires have not been fulfilled but this is not the whole truth. Many critics have given their own viewpoints regarding the concept of pity and fear but they do not give total explanation. In the modern age, pity and fear are treated as inferior feeling. Sydney points out that the tragedy should compel the admiration. When Tess is hanged at the end of the novel we feel a tragic haste. She could not be saved because of the ethical standards which were popular those days. When Hamlet dies, we feel “what a noble soul is overthrown.” Pity and fear have a therapeutic effect on the audience.
In Oedipus, the audience shows sympathy with Oedipus when he blinds himself with garden brooches. Though it was pre-ordained that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. The audience sees it on the stage and feels the pleasure but when the truth is revealed to him that he is the killer of his father the things become different. The audience feels pity for him. In ‘Dr. Faustus’, Dr. Faustus is without any job though he is well-read, he wants to enjoy life because he is fed up with his learning but he gives way to necromancy (which means communication with the dead). The audience feels involved and enjoys each act of Dr. Faustus, may be his slapping the Pope, his selling of the horse, his bringing of grapes, the presenting of Alexander and his paramour. But situation becomes pathetic at the end of the play when the bond comes to a close like the closure of his life. He repents and audience feels pity for him.
The identification of the suffering that the tragic hero undergoes reminds the audience immediately of their own, thinking that they may not face such a situation. If the emotions do not get outlet, man may turn neurotic. So the concept of pity and fear provides a sort of balance for the psyche of the individual.