Sympathy in Medea, Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Orlando Furioso, and Hamlet

Sympathy in Medea, Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Orlando Furioso, and Hamlet

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Sympathy in Medea, Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Orlando Furioso, and Hamlet  

    Euripedes tugs and pulls at our emotions from every angle throughout The Medea. He compels us to feel sympathy for the characters abused by Medea, yet still feel sympathy for Medea as well. These conflicting feelings build a sense of confusion and anxiety about the unfolding plot. In the beginning, the Nurse reveals the recent background events that have caused Medea so much torment: "She herself helped Jason in every way" (13) and now he "has taken a royal wife to his bed" (18). Right away we are angry with Jason for breaking his wedding vows, and we are building up sympathy for Medea as the Nurse describes her acts of suffering. When we first see Medea, she speaks passionately to the women of Corinth and convinces them to side with her. She evokes their sympathy by drawing further attention to her suffering and speaking in terms that bring them all to common ground. Aegeus becomes Medea’s first victim when he, unknowingly, provides the final building block in her plan for revenge against Jason. We sympathize for Aegeus in his ignorance. Medea now has confidence in her plan, so she reveals it to the women of Corinth. She is going to send her children to Jason’s bride with a poisoned dress that will make her die in agony. We are still compelled to sympathize with Medea at this point because she has justified her reasons for seeking revenge. However, the princess is oblivious to Medea’s plot; she will accept the gift for its beauty then meet an unexpected, agonized death. The image of pain and agony elicits our sympathy as well. Medea presents her most perverse speech when she explains how she will kill her own children then flee Corinth. Alone, these acts provoke pure disgust, but Euripides has developed Medea’s character as a coercive force; we still sympathize with her for her plight, yet we also hate her for her decisions. The women of Corinth try to persuade her away from this morbid choice, but their arguments are ineffective. Euripides employs stichomythia in the exchange between the women and Medea to show Medea breaking down boundaries between self and other, which prevent sympathy (811-819). Euripedes focuses on suffering, ignorance, and rhetoric to leave us torn in our sympathy for every character.

Vergil elicits sympathy from readers in the beginning of The Aeneid when characters suffer physically and emotionally.

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In Book I, Aeneas declares, "Triply lucky, all you men/ To whom death came before your father’s eyes" (I 135-136). He seems to be wondering why he is here, and why he must live through all of these losses instead of die from them. We sympathize with Aeneas because he is uncertain about life and he has lost many of his close family members and friends. When Dido first meets Aeneas, she hears his story and wants it repeated because she also feels sympathy for all he has endured. These emotions fuel her love for Aeneas. We develop pity for Dido when Aeneas must to leave Carthage and feel sorry for Aeneas as well because he is reluctant to go, but duty forces him. Vergil continues to arouse sympathy in our minds as the losses pile up, yet also labels sympathy as an emotion that must be sacrificed for duty to be fulfilled. The second half of the epic is plagued with gory deaths, but we find ourselves more entertained by their details than disturbed by the loss. He tests our ability to ignore sympathetic emotions in the final scene of The Aeneid when he describes Turnus’ pain and then describes the escape of his spirit "with a groan for that indignity" (XII 1297) after Aeneas strikes him. If we are not able to thwart sympathy at this point, we are not sure how to feel about Aeneas as a hero.

Ovid generates sympathy in multiple ways in the numerous tales collected in The Metamorphoses. We feel most sorry for the raped women in his tales because they seem powerless and unable to fight back when they are taken advantage of. When Apollo chases Daphne through the woods, she does all she can to escape; she gives up human life and transforms into a tree. However, Apollo believes "the laurel nodded; and she shook her crown,/ as if her head had meant to show consent" (25), so he follows through with his sexual intentions. Daphne suffers ultimately because she has no control. We sympathize for Callisto and Semele in each of their tales because neither girl realizes what she has done; yet both suffer dearly. Acteon is one of the few male figures that Ovid generates sympathy for. He accidentally comes across Diana bathing and is punished for his innocent mistake. Echo is denied the love she innocently seeks from Narcissus. She has been punished to only repeat what others say, so she cannot interact with Narcissus as she wishes. We feel sorry for her misread motives when Narcissus shuns her. Ovid repeats some tales to show how circumstantial our sympathy can be. For example, Byblis and Myrrha both seek incestuous love, which disgusts us in itself, yet we feel sorry for them both in the end due to their metamorphosed images that weep tears. When Byblis carries a broken heart we sympathize with her, yet instead of being happy when Myrrha consummates her love, we are disgusted when the forbidden conception is carried out, even though her desires have been fulfilled. Tears appear in the final images of both tales after the girls have been metamorphosed, so ultimately we feel pity.

Ariosto elicits sympathy in Orlando Furioso when characters cannot obtain what or whom they long. We are especially effected, when Orlando tries his hardest, yet still fails to win Angelica. We see him go mad after he sees her initials on trees in the woods and discovers that she has consummated her love with Medor. Ariosto proves how powerful sympathy can be when we side with Bradamant in her decision to marry against her parents’ wishes. We do not want to see her heart unfulfilled, and we support her defiance of authority since we sympathize with her plight. Ariosto recognizes that we usually cannot help but feel sympathetic, so when he reminds us of Vergil’s ending to The Aeneid, he eliminates any sense of sympathy for our hero’s foe. This way, we can feel more certain about the conclusion and not have any lingering questions about the status of the hero.

Shakespeare elicits sympathy through "falling" in Hamlet. We pity Ophelia the most for her mental fall into insanity which then leads to her death. Hamlet also falls mentally and we feel sorry for the torture he endures throughout the play. He lost his father and cannot trust his mother. Gertrude gains some of our sympathy in that she does not appear to intend to do harm, yet she does anyway; she lacks control. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we pity Hermia and Lysander when their love is denied. We feel the most pity for Helena when she feels utterly betrayed in the forest. Antonio captures our sympathy in The Merchant of Venice because he appears stuck in a downward spiral of losses. First he loses his ships at sea, and then consequently he cannot uphold his bond, so his life is put on the line. In the end however, Antonio encounters a happy ending. Shylock gains our sympathy when he looses his daughter and his wealth. We pity him ultimately because he is a scapegoat throughout the play. The anti Semitism subplot tests out compassion and sympathy since Shylock is painted as the villain as well as a victim.

Milton makes us feel sorry for Eve with his emphasis on her inferior position to Adam. We still pity her when she eats from the tree of knowledge and causes the downfall of man since Satan tricks her. She does not realize what she does is wrong. The tortured imagery Milton paints for the fallen angels in hell compels us to sympathize with their plight. Even though they turned their backs on God and now support Satan’s quest to destroy man, their suffering grabs our attention. They also must endure the fact that God is creating a new race to replace them. Eve makes us feel sorry for Adam when she describes how she turned her back on him after she is created. Adam appears heartbroken and has no control over his current despair. After Adam discovers Eve has eaten the forbidden fruit, he follows her sinful example. We feel sorry for both since they must now live in sin, but we especially pity Adam because he had to choose between life and love.

In response to Plato's attack on Greek epic and tragedy for encouraging a shameful indulgence in sorrowful emotion, Aristotle argues in his Poetics that tragedy allows a healthy release or purifying of emotions. This tragic catharsis is achieved through the emotions of pity and fear in the forms of sympathy or empathy, which are aroused in the audience by the tragedy of a protagonist who suffers unjustly but is not wholly innocent. When a morally typical character, one who is not overwhelmingly good or evil but remains susceptible to error, acts due to ignorance or passion and consequently suffers, we pity their pain. The protagonist's misfortune seems worse that he or she deserves, and we can relate because we see our own potential errors and suffering through their acts.

Works Cited

Ariosto. Orlando Furioso. Trans. Waldman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983

Aristotle. Poetics. Ed. Fergusson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961.

Euripedes. Medea, in Euripedes I. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1995.

Shakespeare. Hamlet. New York: Viking Penguin, 1963.

Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice. New York: Viking Penguin, 1965.

Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Vergil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1990.


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