Compassionate Perception and Touching Experiences in Shakespearean Drama

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This article explores examples of emotion and perception in a number of Shakespearean dramas. It discusses compassionate perception as a process of synaesthesia, referring to recent theoretical strands from fields such as the cultural history of emotions and historical phenomenology, and consults early modern sources, such as Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Minde in Generall (first published in 1601). Focusing especially on the relation between compassion – here literally defined as shared emotion – and tactility, it discusses what the familiar notion of being emotionally 'touched' (or 'moved') implies in an early modern context. Locating 'touching experiences', potentially produced by performances of plays such as Titus Andronicus, the article, at the same time, places such experiences in the context of contemporaneous contesting cultural discourses on whether such experiences might be considered beneficial and instructive to the minds and bodies in the auditorium or whether they might have the reverse effect as both morally and physically corruptive.

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