The word ‘catharsis’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘kathairein’,which means ‘to cleanse’ or ‘to purge’ – it stems from an Ancient Greekstory about a Phoenix rising from ashes, with the ashes representingcatastrophe and the rise of the bird representing purification. In GreekTragedy, this term is used to describe the suffering a character facesbecause of a flaw in his nature, followed by a transformation orpurification as a result of enduring the pain.
One of the best examples ofcatharsis is shown in Sophocles’ Antigone.Antigone is a play that deals with the conflict between divine andsecular law, as represented by Antigone and Creon, respectively. Theconflict begins when King Creon delivers an order to the public statingthat Polyneices body, whom he regards as a traitor to the country, shouldnot be buried. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister and Creon’s niece, objects tothis order because she believes that depriving someone of a burial is beingdisrespectful to the gods. As a new king, Creon finds that he must beassertive in order to be respected. He believes that giving in to awoman’s demands when she goes against his own decree is unbecoming, andtherefore rejects Antigone’s plea by sending her off to a dungeon. Evenwhen his own son, Haemon, and a respected prophet ask Creon to reconsiderhis decision, he dismisses them as foolish and remains firm.
For example,he calls his son a “woman’s plaything” and claims that he is a weak personfor protecting a woman’s interests. Even while Teiresias is the mosttrusted prophet in his city-state, Creon claims that “you (Teiresias) andthe whole breed of seers are mad for money”.Creon’s obstinacy and his lack of reverence for the gods are hisultimate flaws, and soon lead to the loss of everyone most dear to him -his niece, son and wife. Above all, he loses his dignity and self-respect,which are the very things he sought to protect with his tenacious policies.In the end, Creon is reduced to someone who, instead of being followed, ispitied by others.Even while the pain and suffering he brings upon himself isunbearable, Creon does a heroic deed when he accepts his harsh fate andunderstands that he alone is responsible for the deaths of his loved onesas well as his tarnished pride.
By comparing Creon’s behavior before andafter the ‘catharsis’, we see that he does in fact change. In thebeginning, he is so power-hungry that he refuses to listen to any advicethat goes against his ruling, saying “The city is the King’s – that’s thelaw” and “Am I to rule this land for others – or myself?” After enduringall the grief, however, we understand that Creon accepts his poor judgmentand is willing to work to correct himself.For example, he says “…
Andthe guilt is all mine – can never be fixed on another man, no escape forme. I killed you… I admit it all.
..” While he is more egocentric beforethe catharsis, he becomes much more humble afterwards, saying, “I don’texist – I am no one.
Nothing” and “…everything I touch goes wrong…” Inthe end, while the other characters give up and take the easy way out,Creon lives, suffers, faces his flaws, and accepts his guilt, whichultimately transforms and purifies him.