Why do we feel differently about behaviors in real life than when we see them reproduced in fiction?

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                      “The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

                                                         ~ William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”, Act 2 scene 2

I can offer no studies or scholarly articles on parables or fiction that parallels real events producing catharsis (as Aristotle would say) intermingled with guilt and horror in viewers who committed similar deeds.

It’s interesting that by the point in the play where Hamlet has the players stage the play, he has only the word of a ghost who is rather suspect claiming to be his father and asking his son to commit regicide and exact revenge on his uncle. Hamlet doesn’t even have circumstantial evidence of a murder, but he does have the very hastily tasteless marriage of his uncle to his mother. But we have no backstory on Claudius, and can’t reasonably assume that a provocative play depicting the events of his cruel deed will compel him to explode in rage, guilt, and horror. Yet, somehow Hamlet suspects he will. He infers in the quote above that he will catch the conscience of Claudius, but we don’t quite know if it is rage at being lulled into a false sense of safety watching a play, only to be confronted by an accusation he was unprepared to address. Or was he embarrassed in front of his court? If we decide Hamlet is prescient about the King;s reaction, than it is indeed guilt he will f

Hamlet

When we commit an act or deed — whether in kindness or in malice — we are understandably focused on the task at hand, and have a limited vision of what the precise implications of what our actions might be. That is why murder suspects — at least in the U.S. — are tried on different counts for premeditated and involuntary manslaughter, among other charges. While in the midst of our actions, we aren’t necessarily outside of ourselves, looking at the events as they unfold. We have tunnel vision, and both see what we want to see, and only see what we can reasonably see. For it stands to reason, if we could see more, we’d likely not want to, and may in fact be thwarted from our purpose. We are the protagonist of our own stories, and like an actor in a play, have super-objective we must accomplish, and must pursue them at any cost, using various tactics to achieve our goal. Actors can only see what the character sees, and not what the other characters or the audience witnesses.

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When both Claudius and King David watch and listen to a story hauntingly similar to their own, they cannot look away. They are now spectators of their own murderous past. And as we in the audience do, they are confronted by the heinous nature of their deeds, precisely because they must see the story from every side, as if it were Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, where multiple eye witness accounts describe the same incident from many different perspectives. They are forced to spread empathy and understanding around. A well made play or other narrative work allows us to see the action from multiple viewpoints, and empathize with several different characters at once. If Claudius was forced to witness the murder he committed of his brother, he would have been forced to see an actor portray a happy and healthy King Hamlet, carefree and unaware of the horror that was about to befall him. Claudius likely saw little of this during the act, and for good reason. It’s hard to murder an innocent person, especially when vulnerable. We see proof of this later in the play, when Hamlet resists killing Claudius while he prays. He reasons that it’s because he doesn’t want Claudius sent to Heaven–struck down in the midst of prayer–but it’s more than that, and we know it. Hamlet is not a murderer. The thought of viciously taking a life so mercilessly revolts the otherwise pacifistic and cerebral Prince.

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Claudius, like David, must see their victim from the victim’s perspective, and reconcile the justice in taking a life so cruelly and unfairly. They witness the injustice of their acts. Not like when they were committing them, and could only seethe with the rage and sense of righteous cause at what they felt compelled and justified in doing. Now, they could see the other side of the coin. Furthermore, they had to view the bloody act. It’s almost worse to see violence and bloodshed on stage because it has that suggestion of verisimilitude, yet it’s always stylized to some degree. It looks like a gruesome and macabre dance played out on stage, and that sheen of artistry makes it all the more sick and reviling. While it was being done in real life, it was hurried and lasted only a few blurry seconds. In fiction, it is drawn out and magnified, for all to experience the full impact of the deed. For a murderer, it must feel like an eternity to sit and watch undoubtedly the worse thing they’ve ever done in their life play out in front of them. Time stands still, and it’s like being sentenced to some kind of Promethean loop of sin, forced to relive the horror over and over for time eternal.

Once the murder has been committed, the viewer must witness the aftermath of his deed. He must view the lifeless body and contemplate the injustice of taking a life. But he must also see the grief and dismay that the death — any death — has on a family, a community, a kingdom. He took a husband, a father, his own brother, a king, and above all, another human life. And he saw it all played out in front of him.

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Fiction and art are not real life. They take real life, and project it through the lens of imagination and the artists point of view. What we end up with is always a mimetic, stylized, contextualized, topical, and slightly exaggerated point of view on a topic or incident, with all the requisite moralizing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing. Even a documentary is not real life. It is a perspective and always has a point of view. A murderer or guilty person being forced to witness their actions is perhaps the surest way to induce guilt and dismay at what they have done. On one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, they show an alternative method of punishment that involves implanting a chip in a prisoner’s brain which then goes off at the precise time they killed their victim, and forces them to witness themselves committing the murder every single day for the rest of their lives. Can you imagine?

Perhaps seeing yourself and your actions portrayed in an art medium offers more context, humanizes the victims, and shows the aftermath of the deed much more than the actual committing it, and only then can a perpetrator feel the true impact of their crime.

Why do we feel differently about behaviors in real life than when we see them reproduced in fiction?

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