‘O, what a sympathy of woe is this' : passionate sympathy in Titus Andronicus

In: Shakespeare survey

Meek, Richard, 1975-

REF 2014 submission; Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Titus Andronicus

Book chapter

©2016 University of Hull

Various critics have considered Titus Andronicus in relation to questions of language, grief, and violence. In this paper I want to explore a more specific aspect of the play's interest in the passions: its preoccupation with the concept of sympathy. In 3.1 Titus appears to propose a physiological model of sympathy as he compares the exchange of grief between himself and Lavinia to the processes of the natural world: ‘When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?' (3.1.222). Yet Titus' powerful meteorological metaphors coexist with a cognitive and imaginative conception of sympathy. Earlier in the same scene, Titus attempts to imagine Lavinia's thoughts, and what she would say if she still had the facility of speech, prompting him to exclaim: ‘O, what a sympathy of woe is this, / As far from help as limbo is from bliss' (149-50). This is an important moment in the history of the term sympathy; Shakespeare not only uses the term to describe an exchange of grief but also suggests that emotional exchange is bound up with communication, understanding, and the imagination. By considering Titus in relation to other early modern usages of the term, this paper argues that Shakespeare's treatment of sympathy is more complex - and indeed more optimistic - than some critics have suggested. Shakespeare's early dramatic and poetic works, I suggest, dramatise the shift away from the earlier conception of sympathy as occult attraction or affinity, and facilitate the term's redeployment as a means of expressing a complex emotional and cognitive process. The paper thus seeks to raise larger questions about emotion in the Renaissance, and the relationship between physiological, rhetorical, literary, and imaginative conceptions of the passions.

292 KB

Publication information

Cambridge University Press
QR Code