The Failure of Compassion in Titus Andronicus
An Augustinian and Cavellian Perspective
The purpose of this essay is to argue that Shakespearean revenge is not, as is typically understood, rationality subsumed by the raging passions. On the contrary, I argue that revenge is the failure of passion to be transformed into compassion through disowning the rational self. To make my case, I read William Shakespeare's early tragedy Titus Andronicus through Saint Augustine's view of the passions and the epistemological lens of ordinary-language philosopher Stanley Cavell. Cavell understands Shakespeare's tragedies to be inseparable from the epistemological questions of Shakespeare's time, namely the problem of skepticism as most popularly represented by Rene Descartes. Tragedy, for Cavell, is an interpretation of what skepticism is itself an interpretation of - the failure to acknowledge the self, other and world. Following Cavell, I argue that Titus Andronicus is a tragedy about the failure of compassion as a result of the ownership of knowledge. The location for the failure for compassion in Titus Andronicus is based around the structure of pleas for forgiveness and mercy riddled throughout the play. Through the failure to disown knowledge of the self, world and other, the characters in Titus Andronicus (specifically Titus and Tamora) objectify, avoid and destroy each other. The possibility of passion to be converted into an instrument of compassion is thwarted by the ownership of self, and the objectification and avoidance of the other, thus commencing the dance of revenge.
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