From Shakespeare's Pathos by J. F. Pyre. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
When enumerating the sketches of youth in the plays, I silently reserved for separate mention Shakespeare's heroines, so many of whom seem
just emerging from girlhood, and so many of whom, by the way, give us enchanting glimpses of boyishness through the chiaroscuro of their own impersonations. More and more, as he went forward, Shakespeare seems to have been taught to
find in the women of his stories the staple source
of his pathos. Shakespeare's heroines are not with
out initiative and courage; indeed, in many cases,
these are among their most distinctive traits.
But therein lies, it may be said, much of their
appealing quality. It is by chance of these necessities, in contrast to the conventional helplessness
of their position and the passive bent of their
natures, that they make their exceptional claims on our admiration and our sympathy.
is inspiring in Shakespeare's men; it is touching in his women. Their own gayety under hard
conditions makes us no less disposed to give them
our hearts. And it is curious, when one comes to look into it from this point of view, how large
a proportion of his heroines Shakespeare has placed at some especial disadvantage in their coping with
the world and the decision vital to women. Almost every one of them is motherless, and somehow
we receive the intangible impression that most of them have long been so. Juliet alone has the
full complement of parents and both of these are represented as intemperate and unsympathetic.
Portia and Viola are orphans, the first with a legacy of wealth encumbered with a crotchety restriction, the second, separated by shipwreck
from her brother and penniless on a strange coast. Helena in All's Well is newly orphaned, brotherless and in poverty. Isabella is a nun, with an erring
brother. Perdita and Marina are castaways and grow to maturity among strangers. Rosalind
follows a banished father into forest exile. Imogen has a cruel and wicked step-mother. Jessica,
Hero, Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia are all
estranged in some manner from their far from fault
less fathers. Only Miranda in the critical moment
of life has the guidance of a wise and sympathetic
parent. That, in a majority of cases, the special
conditions surrounding the Shakespearean heroine
exist for romantic as much as for pathetic toning
and for the purpose of placing the heroine in situations favorable to dramatic entanglement, need
hardly be said. Nevertheless, these conditions
are favorable to pathetic effect in proportion to the
naturalism of the treatment, so that, in most of
the dramas of Shakespeare's maturity, even when
the interest is lodged primarily among the male
characters, the heroine will be found to be central
to his main scenes of pathos.
Since the natural affections are the chief sources
of pathetic emotion, there is a sacrifice of materials
involved in the motherless condition of the Shakespearean heroine. Considering the exhaustiveness
with which, generally speaking, Shakespeare covered the range of human relations, he must be admitted to have used but sparingly the motive of
mother and child. Fatherhood appears in full
gamut, but motherhood, especially in the relation
ship of mother and daughter, is almost, though
by no means quite, absent.
Possibly acting conditions were partially responsible for the omission,
though this explanation would seem to be confounded by the examples which the plays afford.
Here again, as in the case of old age, the early
histories are prolific of random examples: Margaret
in Henry VI, the women of Richard III, the Duchess of York in Richard II, Constance in King
John, are emphatic, though not essentially pathetic,
portrayals of sorrowing motherhood. It is not
until the very latest plays, if we except the Countess in All's Well, and Mistress Page in the Merry
Wives, both of whom are somewhat brusquely motherly, that we encounter any adequate interpretations of motherhood; for Hamlet's mother will
hardly be accounted an exception and Lady Macbeth's allusions to her children are not reassuring.
But Hermione touches us notably, as Volumnia
almost entirely, through the quality of her motherhood, and the effect, in both cases, is that of a
noble pathos. Katherine's last scene in Henry
VIII contains some touching references to her
children; but this is probably in Fletcher's part
of the play.
The insistence of the plays upon the relation of
father and daughter has been indicated. Of the other natural bonds I will not pursue all the instances, for they are of the fullness of Shakespeare.
The bond of father and son, of brother and sister,
of husband and wife, of the lover and the beloved,
of kin and country, of friendship and old acquaintance, in all degrees between men and between
women, the affiliations of master and man, of
mistress and maid, of liege lord and loving subject, these natural and domestic bonds of human
society furnish the bases of affections and of endearing expressions, in act or word, of loyalty,
admiration, sacrifice, gratitude, and forgiveness,
through which the personages of Shakespeare's
scene, caught in a quivering but gentle net of hours, make their appeals to our tender sympathies,
loosen and set free the flow of our sweetest emotions.
Since in the least restless moments of life the
motions of the heart are most clearly and humanly
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony and the deep power of joy
We see into the life of things,
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) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearepathos3.html >.