S. T. Coleridge, Shakespeare, and the Literary Uses of Sympathy
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This thesis examines the role of sympathy in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s influential writings and lectures on Shakespeare. By the early nineteenth century, many Britons regarded Shakespeare as a literary genius and their national poet. But they also saw Shakespeare as a problematic figure because his plays did not conform to Enlightenment standards of morality and neoclassical aesthetics. Coleridge uses the idea of sympathy, a common topic in eighteenth-century moral philosophy and aesthetics, to put forward a new critical framework for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare. Sympathy informs how Coleridge understands Shakespeare’s artistic method. Like his eighteenth-century predecessors, Coleridge sees Shakespeare as emblematic of the “sympathetic imagination.” Shakespeare, Coleridge says, developed characters according to pre-existing principles of human psychology; he would then use sympathy to understand (and therefore represent) how a character might behave in certain dramatic situations given their psychology. As a result of this artistic process, Shakespeare’s characters possess what Coleridge calls “organic regularity.” For Coleridge, the organic regularity of Shakespeare’s characters contributes to their lifelikeness and serves as the organizing principle of Shakespeare’s drama. It also permits the reader to sympathize with Shakespeare’s characters to an unusual extent. Looking at Coleridge’s own sympathetic relationship with Shakespeare’s characters, I suggest that the reader’s sympathy provides both a mechanism for interpreting Shakespeare’s plays as well as a source of poetic inspiration.