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Resolution, Catharsis, Culture: As You Like It

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 248-260 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0099

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Philosophy and Literature 19.2 (1995) 248-260

Happiness does not lie in amusement; indeed it would be strange . . . if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.

Aristotle (NE 1176b30-35)

Comedy is a vision of dianoia, a significance which is ultimately social significance.

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

As with tragedy and music, it seems that there are several kinds of catharsis that are plausible in a comedy. Let us take the example of As You Like It, which would seem to be about as perfect an example of the art form as is possible. Indeed, one of the reasons to think it is so is that it allows, as we shall see, of every type of comic resolution and catharsis. In the last scene, Rosalind, whom we see through most of the play as both being in love (as a woman) and mocking romantic love's excesses (as a man), becomes a unified being, loving and sensible; so there is an intrapersonal integration or resolution which follows from what she experiences and recognizes about love. There is, as well, an interpersonal integration -- each member of the pairs of country copulatives is united with what it really desires; and further, there is a larger social redintigratio in statuum pristinum--the duke is returned to his lands, Oliver to his, and the whole green world society which has turned around Rosalind and Orlando is set to take its place in the normal world outside of the forest of Arden. So, due to the recognitions made in Arden there are three axes of resolution within the play. Similarly the audience members, who have gone into the golden world of the theatre, and who may have come to some recognitions of their own, are about to go out into the normal world, which is their true inheritance. If the play has worked, they have suffered at least one kind of catharsis. This essay explores those recognitions, their accompanying resolutions and their plausible resulting catharses, and then turns to some cultural implications.

We have mentioned a parallelism between the audience and the characters of the play; that parallelism no doubt includes a similarity in emotional effect, on the one due to being in Arden (where the effect on the characters is the play's resolution), on the other due to being in the theatre (where the effect on the audience is the comic catharsis). Something like this parallelism probably underlies Aristotle's statement that the final cause of tragedy is a catharsis of the emotions of fear and pity raised by the fearful events in the tragedy, as his comments on those emotions in the Rhetoric make clear. Hecuba, for example, not only has fears, what happens to her is fearful, and what she does is fearful too. Those things that we would fear if they threatened us, arouse pity when we see them happen to others (Rhetoric 1386a25): the object of pity and fear is the same, the subject's relation to that object (direct in fear, and indirect, or distant, in pity) seems to make up the largest part of the difference between the two emotions. The fearfulness of the tragic events evokes the pity of the spectators, the resolution of the plot provides the catharsis of those emotions. Catharsis is not the same as resolution, but the resolution of the plot helps cause the catharsis in the audience.

To return to As You Like It. The characters in the play are embued with eros, desire. I suppose it is not unusual for some members of the audience to become directly embued with that same passion for Rosalind or Orlando, or perhaps Touchstone or Audrey. Less directly -- but more obviously and more powerfully -- the audience will have sympathy for those erotic characters, for we all know what it is to desire and to be separated from what we desire. It is, of course, most likely that audience members will feel something of both emotions (as we feel both fear and pity in tragedy)--an immediate attraction...

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