Fiction, Emotion, and Moral Agency

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

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


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. …

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