Catharsis in As You Like It
Literature is meant to teach. Its purpose is to shed light upon the soul and offer up the best and worst of humanity. All the stories we read, all the characters we relate to and begin to understand, they all have a tale to tell and a lesson to be learned. This is precisely what makes literature so vital to the human spirit. It is here that we enter the world of William Shakespeare's As You Like It , a story set in a fantastical forest. As we follow the true love of Orlando and Rosalind and the brotherly betrayal by Oliver and Duke Frederick, readers begin to have a spiritual renewal, a cleansing of their spirit, while observing the conflicts that take place. As You Like It is a play where characters seek out truth and simplicity in the Forest of Arden, a mystical place that offers a chance for time to stop and the mind to mend. We come to believe, through the text, that there is an element of evil, but that it only exists in the court and society outside the forest. William Shakespeare involves “his characters in issues and events which force decisions literally touching the emotional strings of tragedy” (Champion 447) but without the death, destruction, and despair typical of that genre. The characters are safe to experience a new type of living while in the confines and safety of the wood and hopefully restore a balance they all so dearly strive for. The concept of catharsis was first discussed by Aristotle in his treatise Poetics , which was primarily a work on the aesthetics of poetry. He believed that “the poet's aim is to produce pleasure in the spectator by eliciting from the representation the emotions of pity (for others) and fear (for oneself)” (“oetics”). He was in firm disagreement with his teacher Plato on the validity of catharsis, believing that the purging of emotions is beneficial. Although most readers associate catharsis with tragedy, especially works like Macbeth and King Lear , it is easily found in Shakespeare's comedies. William Thompson, in his essay “Freedom and Comedy”, explains the differences between these two genres: “Comedy offers a way out, a rebirth; tragedy also offers a way out, but it is a way through evil, through death. Comedy avoids evil; tragedy confronts it” (216). Tragedy is a necessary element in a comedy; without out it there would be no conflict, thus no harmonious resolution for the end of the play. The moral lessons are not always as clear in As You Like It , as compared with the tragedies, but the same cathartic process takes place nevertheless. It is precisely through the mishaps and misfortunes of comedic characters, and the optimistic end they all experience, that gives the reader a “purification of ... emotions by vicarious experience” (“Catharsis”). The themes and actions of As You Like It reinforce, in a cathartic process, that evil, hate, and wrong-doing can be overcome with love, simplicity, and the generous nature of the human spirit. HBO's As You Like It
A fine example of the night and day relationship between brothers, and the spiritual renewal with both character and audience, is exemplified with the Dukes. At the beginning of the play the reader is informed that Duke Senior, the rightful ruler, has been usurped by his brother, Duke Frederick, and banished to the woods. Charles, a wrestler within the court, says that Duke Senior has “many young men flock to him every day and / fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden / world” (13; I.i.116-118). We are given a comparison between the evils represented within the new court and the timelessness of the Forest. Duke Frederick, the usurper, continues his path of paranoia and wickedness when accusing his niece, Rosalind, of being her father's spy. He commands: “Mistress, dispatch you with your safest haste, / and get you from our court” (37; I.iii.40-41). Frederick not only wants his wronged niece out of court for fear of spying, but also because Rosalind is pitied by the...
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