Shakespeare’s Pathos

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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 LearOthelloHamlet, 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.

Shakespeare on Youth:

Thus far we have been concerned, for the most part, with the general nature of pathos as a quality of dramatic representation. I turn now to a brief consideration of the particular aspects of human life with which the Shakespearean pathos is most frequently associated. It would be tedious to catalogue methodically all of the “seven ages of man”, with their varieties and activities, that appear in the theater of Shakespeare; it will be helpful to collect into somewhat orderly form such few of life’s phenomena as have especial significance from our point of view, and so regard them.

The stage of human life to which Shakespeare most consistently attaches a pathetic significance is, of course, childhood and early youth. The young princes in Richard III, Arthur in King John, Falstaff’s page inHenry IV and Henry V, the boy, Lucius, in Julius Caesar, in Macbeth, the son of Macduff, and the youth, Fleance, over whose unconscious head a royal destiny “broods like the day”, with whose escape begins the fatal ravelling of Macbeth’s ill-wrought ambition, young Marcius in Coriolanus, Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale, and Imogen’s brothers, the stolen princes of Cymbeline, are all introduced or developed in some degree for pathetic enhancement of the scene, though in varying degrees connected with its motivation.

Of the same character are the earlier and fainter sketches of “young Talbot”, “pretty Rutland”, “young Henry, Earl of Richmond” in the Henry VI plays, and young Lucius in Titus Andronicus. All of these, it will be noticed, are boys and nearly all are instruments of comedy as well as pathos. How well Shakespeare understood the principle that life is not exclusively a serio-solemn business and that those who lay hold of our affections do so, in part, by amusing our lighter fancy, not by eternally edifying, these childhood sketches clearly demonstrate. Childhood, by its innocence and helplessness, its perilous buddings of untimely spring, its physical sweetness, its playfulness of spirit, and its invitation to the mind to look toward the coming years, childhood, when it meets with misfortune, suffering, or dissolution, is of the very essence of pathos. To the examples already enumerated some would doubtless add the Fool in King Lear, as being a child in heart, at least, if not in years.

And, finally, Shakespeare’s awakenedness to the sympathetic promptings of tender years is shown by his exclusion from Othello of any reference to the child of lago which plays so striking a part in Cinthio’s story, and by the almost hectic charm of seeming youthfulness with which he invested Romeo, his prince of lovers, and Hamlet, his most beloved of princes.

Shakespeare on Old Age:

Towards old age, which, in an opposite way to childhood, walks near the gates of life, Shakespeare is less uniformly tender. He is no less disposed to laugh than weep over the fatuity of years that bring the philosophizing mind, but no true grasp of life. One thinks of Polonius, Falstaff, and Shallow and of such doddering old lords as Montague and Capulet, and as Leonato and his brother Antonio in Much Ado. It may be surprising to find Falstaff in this list; but I suppose, notwithstanding his creator’s and our delight in him, Falstaff, as a philosopher, stands confuted; his duel with time is a drawn battle, won by the latter through sheer waiting. There are numerous examples of solitary and garrulous age in the plays totally unconnected with their motivation, but introduced for picturesque or choric effect, detached and wandering fragments of humanity that drift across the scene and shake their feeble heads.

At least two old men, Duncan in Macbeth and Adam in As You Like It, seem to have been specifically drawn for pathetic contrast. There are touches of the same quality in Titus Andronicus, a first sketch of Lear, and in Cymbeline. In the historical plays, the subject matter, since times succeed to times, naturally led to numerous portraits of men past their powers: “Old John of Gaunt” and York in Richard II, Gloucester inHenry VI, and, for the women, the Duchess of York in Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II are early examples of old age full of sorrows and bitter memories.

But none of these are precisely pathetic; they are too much in monotone, and they appear more or less at random in the scheme of emotional values. The character of Henry IV is more fully wrought and the failure of life in him is consistently drawn out to a specifically pathetic result. The dramatist’s growing deftness in the handling of pathos is particularly shown in the king’s occasional flashes of his old “efficiency.” It remained for Shakespeare, in midst of other woe, to bring home, once and supremely, the pathos of age, in Lear.

Shakespeare on Heroines:

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.

Heroism 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 Wellis 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 felt,

While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony and the deep power of joy
We see into the life of things

Shakespeare on Attention on Details:

Shakespeare skillfully associates his pathos with the leisurely pursuits and the most sensitive opera tions of the mind: such occupations as reading, listening to music, meditation, friendly converse; such intuitive operations as are involved in shy and random reminiscence, recapitulation, or comparison, or in half-conscious or vaguely relevant planning, premonition and presentiment.

These moods fall in moments of reunion or leave-taking, of happiness after sorrow or safety after peril, of momentary release from labor or pain, in the lulls of grief or conflict, which, in tragedy, are but the suspensive pause before the blow, a momentary hush of the unexpended storm “from whose solid atmosphere, black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst” in the final cataclysm.

For the accentuation of these moods, Shakespeare frequently employs certain incidental accessories upon which he securely relies for the pathetic modulation of the scene. One of these accessories, already hinted at, is music, not extraneous, usually, but motived by the action and an organic part of it. The boy, Lucius, touches the lute while Brutus watches in his tent on the eve of Philippi; Ophelia’s mad snatches, Desdemona’s “Willow” song, the music which the Doctor prescribes for the awakening of Lear, Fidele’s dirge in Cymbeline, and numerous minor instances are to the same purpose. Flowers, also, are accessories of pathetic suggestion. Nothing in the mad scenes of Ophelia, when portrayed on the stage, is more conducive to tears than her business with the flowers:

Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself
She turns to favour and to prettiness.

Other flower passages in the plays have been frequently commented on, because of their exquisite poetry. Such are Perdita’s “I would I had some flowers o’ the spring”, etc., and Arviragus’s less famous or at least less frequently quoted, but hardly less beautiful

With fairest flowers

Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten thy sad grave. Thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins, no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweet’ ned not thy breath.

Shakespeare on Sleep:

Those who have lingered over the quieter scenes of Shakespeare must have been often aware of still another aspect of life which drew from him some of his wooingest and most lovable touches I mean his references to, and his portrayals of, sleep. Two qualities of this phase of our natural being seem to have especially impressed Shakespeare its pathos and its mystery. Both tones are congenial to the subdued movement of his scenes of suspense and preparation, and it is seldom that either is quite absent when sleep is thought of. The mystical bond between man and the secret workings of the invisible universe that clips him round, as shown in the restorative virtue of sleep, but also in “the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose,” the involuntary and apparently lawless, but often startlingly significant operations of the mind off guard, its recapitulation in dreams of the waking past, its random foreshadowings of things to come, made this do main of experience peculiarly attractive to him as a dramatic agency.

Sleep is the surprisal of the essential, the very man. It strips from the recital of his acts and the confession and analysis of his psychic life, the artificiality of studied narrative or of self-conscious soliloquy, and it surrounds its revelations with an aura of wonder which allies them to the supernatural. It raises them to a higher power of emotional idealization which in tensifies their livingness just as art, just as Shakespeare’s representation itself, is more real than actuality.

Again, sleep is one of the natural goods of life, beautiful in itself, like flowers, like the songs of birds. It is the touchstone of health; as the man sleepeth, so is he. Where virtue is, it is more virtuous, and where beauty is, more beautiful.

The relation to sleep therefore becomes an index of character and of psychic constitution and a means of portraying them. Such intimate revelations are pathetic; their very intimacy tends toward pathos. There is something magical in the mere sight of a sleeper; the sheer passivity, the immobility, the innocence, the helplessness, even of the strong, even of the wicked, come home to us, with out comment, directly; the sleeper is made one with nature. And sleep has another direct effect on the imagination to which Shakespeare, like other poets, was keenly alive: it is the portrait and prognostic of the sleep that ends all. Death itself, except in association with childhood, he almost never rendered pathetically; but, in sleep, “death’s counterfeit”, and in the preparations for it, he seemed to find exactly that fanciful and tender symbol of the dread finality which harmonized with his pathos.

The plays are full of these sleep scenes, some times merely described or hinted, sometimes actually represented; usually bound up with the motivation of character and action, but seldom without some direct suggestive value as spectacle and symbol. Such is Tyrrel’s picture of the sleeping princes (Richard III, IV, iii.)

girdling one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms:
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
Which in their summer beauty kiss’d each other:
********************
We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature
That from the prime creation e’er she framed.

There is pathos, not quite lost in voluptuousness, in the picture of the sleeping Lucrece, with Tarquin’s ruffian face thrust toward her through the parted curtain:

Showing life’s triumph in the map of death
And death’s dim look in life’s mortality:
Each in her sleep themselves so beautify
As if between them twain there were no strife,
But that life liv’d in death, and death in life.

The same group reappeared, refined and chastened, some fifteen years later in the exquisite chamber scene of Cymbeline, where Imogen, fallen asleep over her book, is displayed to the prying eyes of Iachimo.

‘Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus; the flame of the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure lac’d

With blue of heaven’s own tint
**********************
On her left breast
A mole cinque spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip.

How to cite this article:
Pyre, J. F. Shakespeare’s Pathos. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1916.