In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates expresses fear about the contagion that imitative fear and pity excites because it affects how one reacts to one’s own suffering. In his Poetics Aristotle responds to this concern by suggesting that imitative fear and pity can “effect proper purgation of these emotions” (61). Aristotle chooses not to expand on this idea of catharsis anywhere else in the book, but the point is made that whatever is meant by the concept of purgation of emotions it is clearly a positive reaction to viewing imitation of an action. Aristotle refers to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Taurus as competing examples of the best form of imitation of an action despite the fact that these examples are often diametrically opposed in every way. Ultimately, Iphigenia at Taurus can be regarded as a more defensible form of tragedy because it is more successful than Oedipus Rex in using reversal and recognition based on imitation of actions which are probable and necessary to arouse fear and pity as outlined by Aristotle while also successfully neutralizing the pernicious effects of arousing fear and pity as expressed by Socrates.
Iphigenia at Taurus successfully engages Aristotle’s call for reversal to be coincident with recognition in the best form of tragedy by appealing to reasonable probability and necessity in order to arouse pity and fear while counteracting the negative effects of that arousal through the use of reason in advancing the plot. The reversal and recognition in Iphigenia at Taurus is accomplished through the reasonable probability that Iphigenia would have had a letter she hoped one day would be delivered by a messenger and, although denigrated by Aristotle, the recognition of Orestes is not only probable, but is handled with reason through Socratic dialogue questioning Orestes’ claims to truth. Fear is raised by the possibility of kin unknowingly killing kin and then fear is raised by the new possibility that kin will be forced to kill knowingly: “What route can I find / to send you away from the city, away from the slaughter / back to your Argive home / before the sword draws your blood?” (Euripides 860-863). Having aroused pity and fear through the reasonable construction of the threat of tragedy within family, furthermore, the play defuses any menace of emotional contagion by further constructing the plot on reason as the participants devise a plan for escape. The emotional catharsis contained Iphigenia at Taurus is accomplished through imitation of actions that don’t rely on inferior representations of truth.
The coincident reversal and recognition in Oedipus Rex, on the other hand, is contaminated by relying on the inferior imitation of lucky coincidence and appeals to the inferior part of the soul by arousing lachrymose pity too easily imitated. The reversal and recognition in Oedipus Rex relies upon questionable effects of probability and necessity. Aristotle undermines his own argument in favor of the recognition and reversal in Oedipus Rex when he writes “the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus, and free him from his alarms about his mother” (72). In fact, the messenger isn’t even aware of Oedipus’ fears about his mother when he arrives and doesn’t come for any other reason than to reveal to Oedipus that his father is dead. Necessity is thereby torn from its partnership with probability since the necessity of the messenger arriving is not built upon allaying Oedipus’ fears, but rather upon the possible but not necessarily probable coincidence that Polybus dies at the exact moment that Oedipus needs his recognition as mandated by the plot. The arousal of fear among spectators in this case is diluted by the introduction of improbability and instead the emotion of pity is brought to the fore.
This pity is furthermore never defused through appeal to reason in the same way as in Iphigenia at Taurus and, in fact, is presented demonstrably as the exact sort of imitation of action that Socrates warns against. Oedipus gives in to lamentations and sorrow and his method of dealing with recognition and reversal further vindicates Socrates’ fears about poetry through the possibility that audience contagion will result in spectators blaming the Gods and other people for their own miseries. Oedipus first blames Apollo: “It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, / that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion” (1329-1330). Next he blames the man who saved him: “Curse on the man who took / the cruel bonds from off my legs, as I lay in the field” (1349-1350). Then, betraying one of Socrates’ worst fears, Oedipus shows no shame in lamenting his woes in full view of other people: “If there is any ill worse than ill, that is the lot of Oedipus” (1365-1366). Indeed, Oedipus spends the rest of the play appealing to pity. This easy imitation of fitful temper is a perfect characterization of Socrates’ fear of indulging in irrational nature. Oedipus’ extraordinary outpouring of grief stands in stark relief to Socrates’ view that “no human thing is of serious importance, and grief stands in the way of that which at the moment is more required” (36), that requirement being to use reason to determine the best course of action.
Iphigenia at Taurus stands as a more defensible example of tragedy than Oedipus Rex does because it better exemplifies the rules governing tragedy by Aristotle to make it more acceptable in the eyes of Socrates. Euripides’ play better handles Aristotle’s call for necessity and probability in recognition than does Sophocles’ play because it more successfully incorporates reason both in imitation of actions and in catharsis.