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Shakespeare's Pathos

From Shakespeare's Pathos by J. F. Pyre. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Shakespeare's pathos is one of the ground tones of his passionate genius, like his humour, his pure joyousness, his serene exaltation, his voluptuous melancholy, his sense of thrilling excitement, his stirring heroic strenuosity, his sense of weirdness and mystery, his romance, his imperious tragic grandeur. Such a list of qualities is perhaps not strictly categorical. It merely enumerates some of the dominant Shakespearean moods and might be measurably condensed or enlarged, at will. It has a different basis from the scheme of the elementary passions as they are ordinarily classified. Possibly no two men would exactly coincide in their analysis or their characterization of phenomena which are so complex and in which subjective elements play so large a part. At the same time, there will be a fair agreement among educated persons as to the general effect produced by an exhibition of the passions in any given case.

Representations of the passions may excite in us their like, but not necessarily so; the same elementary passions make very different appeals according to the conditions under which their effects are shown. The passion of fear, so terrible in Macbeth, is ludicrous in Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is both comical and prettily pathetic in Viola, and passes into the realm of supernatural awe in the ghost scenes of Hamlet, with a varied key for each character that encounters the dreaded sight.

Clearly the passions are only working colors of the dramatist and their emotional appeal depends upon the manner in which they are blended with one another and the objects to which they are applied. We may be amused by an exhibition of anger or roused to an emotion resembling anger by an exhibition of levity; we may be frightened or appalled by a powerful presentment of rage, or we may be kindled to indignation or scorn by a dastardly exhibition of fear. The sight of grief begets in us, not a precise imitation of the passion but a modified form of it which we call pity, and the nature and intensity of our sorrow is deter mined by the character of our sympathy. The amenities of art require, moreover, that the emotions awakened by such representations shall be of such nature and intensity only as make for a generally pleasurable result, and this is effected through the capacity of the representation to awaken sentiment in us: that is, emotionally modified thought or fancy whereby we are guided to a perception of the causes and relations of things, their meaning, fitness, and proportion, mingled with a sense of the adequacy or beauty of the representation.

Passion, like action, awakens emotion partly through its revelation of character, and our response is regulated by our sympathy or antipathy toward the character our conception of which it augments. We are further excited by passion on account of its bearing, through character, on fate; we feel in it an immediate or a potential force which may influence the fate, either of the character in whom it is exhibited or of other characters in whose fate we are interested. Such, in part, is our state of mind while witnessing the intemperate outbursts of Lear in his first scene, the overwrought transports of Othello when reunited with his wife in Cyprus, the first ecstasies of Romeo and Juliet, the abnormal melancholy of Hamlet, or Lady Macbeth's devouring ambition.

In one respect, all these violent moods thrill us to admiration, exalting our sense of the powers of the human soul; but, also, they alarm us; they are "too like the lightning"; we feel them to be charged with fatal potentialities. Action in turn excites us, not only because of its immediate occasion for the expression of human nature, that is, for demonstrations of passion and revelations of character, but, likewise, because of "some consequence yet hanging in the stars" which may produce joy or suffering in the actor himself or in the persons acted upon. We respond to representations of passion, therefore, first, as excitants, through suggestion and sympathy, of similar, but agreeable, activities in ourselves; second, as revelations of character; third, as consequences of previous action or as sources of further trains of action which may, in turn, produce further consequences, to gether with new manifestations of passion and new revelations of character.

In a work of representative art, in drama especially, all these dynamic elements are ultimately resolved into a static condition of feeling in which we receive, not the impact of the final scene alone, but in which the imagination turns backward upon its series of experiences and the whole related scheme of passion, character, act, and consequence, streams through us like the related notes of a musical chord, leaving us, thoughtful, hushed, impressed, appalled, warmed, delighted, touched, refreshed, envigorated, exalted, or in some similarly stilled and passive mood of unified but unvolitional excitement, according to the nature and intensity of the representation.

The "pathetic" mood, then, is one of the general modes of feeling, or complex states of emotion awakened by representative art, and "pathos" is a quality of the representation by which this effect is produced. The attempt to set metes and bounds to a field of emotion where all terms are variable and many of them imply the others may seem a foolhardy undertaking; and yet some further discrimination seems necessary. The most obvious process of pathos is the awakening of sympathy for suffering or misfortune, the emotion which we call pity. But pity itself is a constituent of numerous moods not all of which possess the quality of pathos. In popular usage there is a tendency to attend exclusively to the pitiful element in pathos so that almost any misfortune which awakens emotion will be referred to as "pathetic", especially if the sense of it be sharpened by some irony of circumstance or association. This is plainly undiscriminating. The effect of pathos is most frequently obtained through an appeal to the sense of misfortune combined with a further stirring of tender sentiment through the coincident revelation of some gracious or admirable trait in the object of compassion. By these means there is produced a commingling of warm and sympathetic emotions which is extremely pleasurable, is allied to the passive side of our natures and is the effect of what we call "pathos."

The quality of a pathos depends upon the proportions in which are mingled the elements of pity, on the one hand, and of other tender emotions such as affection, gratitude, admiration, or joy, on the other. An example of the interoperation of pity, admiration, and affection, is well delineated in Othello's analysis of the witchcraft by which he won Desdemona, ending
She loved me for the dangers I had passed
And I loved her that she did pity them.
And yet, despite the touching elements in it, Othello's story of his wooing is not pathetic, for we have yet to reckon with his dignity of manner which carries the entire recital out of the domain of pathos and this, it should be noted, is in accord with Othello's main purpose as an orator, which is, not to touch merely, but to convince.

On the other hand, in some cases of true pathos, the element of compassion is so slight that the emotion appears to depend upon a response to beauty or admirableness alone, or even to joy itself. Ruskin somewhere describes a natural landscape as possessing "pathetic beauty." It is doubtful, however, if beauty or joy are ever truly pathetic save through some (however delicate) arriere pensee of their transiency, helplessness, insecurity, or the like; as of "beauty whose action is no stronger than a flower", and "joy whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding adieu." Pathos may arise from a sense of contrast between present joy and foregone hardship, suffering, or peril.

In these last cases, of course, the emotion of pity is deflected from the present, to a past, or an imagined condition, and the two emotions, of joy in the present happiness, and of pity for the contrasted condition, coalesce to produce a pathetic mood in which a feeling akin to gratitude is predominant. The converse of this situation is too commonplace to require analysis.

All of these conditions of sentiment, it will be readily seen, if they become habitual or constitutional, or if they be too little relieved by the brighter emotions, will be depressed to the mood which we call melancholy. Pathos and melancholy are adjacent, therefore, but not identical. They may even coalesce; but they are, in most cases, easily distinguishable. There is a rich vein of melancholy in Shakespeare; but his pathos is not, usually, an outgrowth of his melancholy; rather is his melancholy a deepening of his pathos.

Shakespeare's pathos, and it may be added his melancholy also, lies quite close to his humour; and the reason for this is manifest when we enquire into the nature of both. Since his pathos consists largely in a conflict of agreeable and painful emotions, a slight change in texture may readily give us, instead of a pathos enlivened by humour, a humour sweetened with pathos.

One further important distinction remains to be made; but, as it has been often discussed elsewhere, it may be briefly disposed of here. This is the distinction between the pathetic and the sublime. Shakespearean commentators not infrequently refer to the pathos of his great tragic scenes, and although this is not necessarily wrong, it can easily be misleading. Of course, no one with an eye to their total effect would think of applying the term, "pathetic" to the finales of Lear, Othello, Hamlet, or, indeed, of any of the tragedies.

The fact is, that Shakespeare never, whether in comedy or tragedy, ends in the pathetic key, a point to which I shall return later. That there is an admixture of compassion in these great scenes is true; but the passions with which it is commingled are so agitating, the action so frantic, the consequences so prodigious, that pity is smothered up in dismay. At the very end, to be sure, the winds fall and cease, and the waves break back on them selves in a mighty subsidence; but it is the calm of a supreme exaltation. We ourselves, like the hero at his last breath, seem to be snatched up out of the storm and the struggle which roll harm lessly backward below us, and the emotion we feel, if emotion that mood can be called which consists in a momentary superiority to all finite agitation, is "that emotion of detachment and liberation in which the sublime really consists". [Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, p. 239.]

The emotion of the sublime is like that of pathos in that in both cases we are totally passive; but in the one case, our passivity is that of a breathless, almost benumbing contraction, as if for a sudden spring; the passivity of the pathetic mood is relaxed, unnerved, deep breathing, as of the languor which precedes contraction. In the one we are close to the infinite; in the other, we feel our kinship with mortality, deliciously, warm, in every cell.

How to cite this article:
Pyre, J. F. Shakespeare's Pathos. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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