Dennis Britton (University of New Hampshire): "Pity and Difference in Titus Andronicus" (2016-2017 Medieval and Renaissance Graduate Student Association Lecture)

September 16, 2016
Friday, March 3, 2017 - 4:00pm
18th Avenue Library, Room 090
Dennis Britton Publicity Photo

In Rhetoric, Aristotle provides a set of conditions for feeling pity: “we pity those who are like us in age, character, disposition, social standing or birth; for in all these cases it appears more likely that the same misfortune may befall us also.” If this is true, pity is an egocentric emotion; pitying another is predicated upon concern for oneself. Pity also seems to require a limited imagination; individuals only pity others who are similar to themselves. This understanding of pity, especially when considered alongside Aristotle’s belief that tragedy is a genre that elicits pity (and fear), suggests that how we feel about others in life and in the theater is intimately linked to how we identify others and ourselves. Aristotle suggests that identifying similarity precedes responding emotionally to the suffering of another, but I wonder in what circumstances might the inverse also be true. Can an emotional response to a spectacle of suffering inspire the finding of similarity where difference was presumed? Alternatively, can pity alter how we identify ourselves?  In this talk I will ask these questions of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play in which the words “pity” and “pitiful” often appear, and which contains various types of social difference—gender, racial, and national. I will consider how and why characters come to pity other characters, as well as moments when characters find pitying another impossible. I argue that Titus reveals just how dependent racial, imperial, and nationalist projects are dependent upon the ability to illicit and legislate pity. I also suggest that Titus provides an example of how the emotions produced by Shakespearean tragedy consequently help establish feelings about “others,” and how dramatic genres create parameters for social relations and the construction of racial and national identity.

Bio: DENNIS AUSTIN BRITTON is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. His published work primarily examines early modern English encounters with Spaniards, Muslims, and Jews—exploring in particular the connections between race and religion in the formation of national identity. In addition to a variety of journal articles and book chapters, he is the author of Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance (Fordham UP, 2014), a study of literary representations of non-Christian to Christianity conversion, emerging ideas of racial difference, and Reformation theology in the works of Spenser, Harington, Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Massinger. He is currently co-editing a collection of essays entitled “Rethinking Shakespearean Source Study: Authors, Audiences, and Digital Technologies” (Routledge, expected 2017) and working on a monograph, “Shakespeare and Pity: Feeling, Social Difference, and Early Modern English Drama.”

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