Fiction, Emotion, and Moral Agency

By Coodin, Sara | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Fiction, Emotion, and Moral Agency


Coodin, Sara, Shakespeare Studies


Now therein of all sciences, is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it.... He cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well enchanting skill of music, and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner ...

--Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry

I

SIR PHILIP SIDNEY FAMOUSLY CONTENDED that the poet nothing affirmeth and therefore never lies because his statements contain no propositional truths. The philosophical problem of fiction and emotion has, in a similar vein, typically been understood to involve fictional emotions--emotions that are not quite authentic because they are prompted by fictional contents. However, encounters with Shakespeare's plays frequently do just the opposite; they often evoke very real emotional responses that are prefaced upon a substantial overlap between fictional and actual contents. I was confronted rather vividly with some of these considerations this past semester in a course I taught entitled "Animals, Animalities, and the Human Experience" that began with a discussion of Renaissance bear-baiting and then moved into a study of Lear. As we discussed various forms of pre-modern animal combat, I tried to steer students away from what I felt was a knee-jerk affection for the animals toward something like an appreciation for their significance to early modern epistemology.

I could see from students' facial expressions when I described the ways in which mastiffs were pitted against bears in order to demonstrate their particular moral and physical virtues that I wasn't doing a very effective job. On those mornings, I looked out into a sea of shock-widened eyes, scowling mouths, and brows furrowed with disbelief, and barely managed to coax some of them to register anything additional, but nothing so monumental that it supplanted their basic pity- and scorn-filled reactions. I probably should have expected as much. After all, many of these students had pets, and shared their lives (if not their beds) with dogs, cats, and rabbits. Their animals had names, and in the case of one student, there was a whole tribe of rescued dogs with whom she shared her home, and one or another of them would occasionally be brought to class to sit by her side, quietly auditing lectures.

I suspect that I'm not alone in confronting the problem of fiction and emotion in teaching Shakespeare's plays, particularly tragedies such as Lear that bait and torture sympathetic characters in ways that call attention to spectatorship as not just a literal but a moral phenomenon. Right before he is blinded, Gloucester is baited as part of Cornwall and Regan's strategic attempt to extract information about Lear's whereabouts. The scene's baiting elements call uncomfortable attention to the inherent cruelty of those all-too-human modes of knowledge acquisition and their relationship to the torture of animals for sport--the least savory aspect of animal combat from a modern standpoint. These scenes call explicit attention to us--the people who orchestrate and watch such experiments, including the kind staged within Shakespeare's wooden O in which we, the theatrical audience, watch the cruel strokes of fate leveled against sympathetic figures for our own amusement. As my students' responses to baiting made clear, that mode of spectatorship is often tied to close emotional investments we make in the play.

Not terribly long ago, moral spectatorship was a hot topic within political Shakespeare criticism, particularly the criticism surrounding Lear. In the mid-1980s, Kathleen McLuskie focused on the political value of emotional response as she urged feminist spectators to withhold their pity from Lear and its protagonist's suffering. (1) The play's heart-rending emotional crescendo where Lear appears with Cordelia's corpse in his arms represented, in her view, a potent, dangerous, and seductive point of interface with the play and therefore an area of intense vulnerability for audiences.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Fiction, Emotion, and Moral Agency
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?