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
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.
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.
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
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 Lear, Othello,
Hamlet, or, indeed, of any of the tragedies.
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.
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/shakespearepathos.html >.