The Distance Of Empathy In Byron's "Manfred"

1046 words - 4 pages

In his essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare,” Charles Lamb criticizes the theatrical performances of Shakespeare for providing an experience that inherently provides at worst, a misrepresentation or at best, a shallow representation of a particular character’s emotional depth. This is not to say that Lamb is necessarily criticizing bad acting, but rather he argues that the activities of acting and judging of acting raise “non-essentials” to an unjustified importance that is “injurious to the main interest of the play.” In other words, the viewer’s experience of watching a play is an experience inferior to a reader’s experience of reading the play. It is precisely for this reason that dramatic plays, such as Byron’s Manfred, cannot be staged. The experience of reading Manfred, a closet drama about Manfred, a noble tormented by his guilt for a mysterious transgression, provides a more emotionally intense experience than seeing the play acted out. The chamois hunter’s struggle and eventual failure to empathize with Manfred’s emotional turbulence in Act II, Scene I of Manfred can be interpreted as an experience which parallels the inevitable emotional chasm between audience and characters and ultimately hinders the audience’s sense of character empathy.
Much like how the audience relies on physical cues from the actor to understand the nature of the character, the chamois hunter relies on his observations of Manfred’s manner of dress and speaking to draw conclusions about Manfred’s background. Upon saving him, the chamois hunter notes is Manfred’s noble status: “Thy garb and gait bespeak thee of high lineage” (7). The hunter’s methodology draws on the effect of what Lamb describes as “theatrical representation,” where the viewer’s eye is pulled to notice the character’s form and gesture, the means through which the actor conveys information to the viewer to guide them to a certain conclusion. It is a method that solely relies on conveying information through appearances. For the hunter, it is not what Manfred is but “how he looks; not what he says, but how he speaks it” (Lamb). The physical concreteness of a staged character is a sharper image than the nebulous impression a reader may have of a character but the drawback of having a staged character is that it is, in a sense, a foreign entity, because the character is the product of the actor’s interpretation, rather than the reader’s. This immediately creates distance between the viewer and the staged character, a distance mirrored by the hunter’s distance from Manfred. Because Manfred is a stranger, the hunter has no access to Manfred’s interiority, and therefore does not understand the meaning of Manfred’s words. When Manfred feverishly insists on his vitality—“Look on me—I live” the hunter has access only to Manfred’s shivering physical body and comes to the conclusion that Manfred’s condition is a medical problem—“this is convulsion, and no healthful life”—rather than a spiritual one...

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