SEIS Academic Forum Series （No.730 ）
Forum on Renaissance Studies
Empathy and Witnessing in King Lear
Speaker: Penelope Geng
Time: 15:00-17:00 p.m.
Date: 4 June, 2019 (Tuesday)
Venue: Room 111, School of English and International Studies
This lecture discusses the function of poetic description in communal witnessing in the Renaissance period. Specifically, it explores King Lear’s depiction of the power and limits of description in creating empathetic intersubjectivity among characters. There exists a network of witnesses in the play, one that involves not only the major characters (Cordelia, Lear, and Gloucester) but also the minor ones such as the Servants and the Duke of Albany. However, even as the play highlights the potential of empathetic or intersubjective witnessing to repair the fractured political community, it draws attention to empathy’s limits. In the Dover Cliff scene, Edgar generates a virtual reality for Gloucester—an entirely imagined landscape that hinges on both physical presence (the swaying of their bodies) and descriptive language. Composed a few centuries before the word “empathy” entered the English lexicon, King Lear nonetheless anticipates many of our questions about the role of literary devices in generating empathy.
About the speaker:
Penelope Geng is an Assistant Professor in Macalester College. Her research focuses on Early Modern literature, Shakespeare, British literature (c.1500-1700), law and literature, Reformation, history of rhetoric, Formalism, critical theory, and gender studies. Her most recent publications include: “Jurisprudence by Aphorisms: Francis Bacon and the ‘Uses’ of Small Forms”, “On Judges and the Art of Judicature: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2”, “Before the Right to Remain Silent: The Examinations of Anne Askew and Elizabeth Young”, “‘He Only Talks’: Arruntius and the Formation of Interpretive Communities in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus.” Currently, she is working on her first book Communal Justice in Shakespeare’s England, an investigation of lay magistracy in early modern English literature. Key texts include John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs, domestic tragedies (such as Two Lamentable Tragedies and A Warning for Fair Women), and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, King Lear, and Macbeth.