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

Meek, Richard


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Dr Richard Meek
Lecturer / Programme Director for the MA in English


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.


Meek, R. (2013). ‘O, what a sympathy of woe is this': passionate sympathy in Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare survey, 66, 287 - 297.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Nov 1, 2013
Journal Shakespeare survey
Print ISSN 0080-9152
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 66
Pages 287 - 297
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This article has been published in a revised form in Shakespeare survey This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use. © copyright holder.
Contract Date Aug 21, 2019


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