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Book Review: "Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy"

What can William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan playwright of some of the most tragic and violent plays in the English language, teach us about kindness and empathy? A great deal, according to Shakespearean scholar Paula Marantz Cohen. Ms. Cohen began as a professor of nineteenth-century romantic literature. While she had read the major plays of Shakespeare, she didn't begin to fathom his depths, until she was asked to replace the Shakespeare expert at her university, who had retired. Teaching Shakespeare on a regular basis, she came to appreciate his greatness in a new way, namely the way Shakespeare's characters made her feel, and how feeling that way made her "a better person." At 146 pages, her book is not long. Nonetheless, it is well-written think-piece that requires careful reading.

Quoting literary critic Harold Bloom, she says Shakespeare, "invented the human"–a reference to the rich interior lives of his characters. She adds: "We are living in a time when empathy seems in short supply–when our nation and our world are riven by polarities and misunderstandings. If we can learn to pause and think about where others are coming from, we may begin to heal the wounds in our communities and make more endurable the pain that we all face as mortal beings . . . "

To drive home the point, she limits her analysis to two plays: "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello". Both plays revolve around what she refers to as "the other", characters whom we are "superficially unable to identify with and feel for." In "The Merchant of Venice" 'the other' is a jewish money-lender, named Shylock, who has been made a villain by the Christian society that mistreats him. Shlock knows this all too well, and laments: "(the merchant Antonio) hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies–and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?–fed with the same food, subject to the same diseases, hurt with the same weapons, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

In "Othello" Shakespeare extends the same idea into a new context. Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army who wins over the love of a well-bred Venetian woman, named Desdemonia. But Iago, a junior officer, preys on Othello's insecurity as a Black man in a white society, suggesting that Desdemonia's decision to marry him is "unnatural".

The author writes: "What is often missed in the play is how much the scheming, villainous Iago is also a target of prejudice . . . Shakespeare offers clues that the character's malevolence is generated by a deep sense of grievance." Early in the play, Iago, a coarse, lower class soldier explains that he is deeply resentful at having been unfairly passed over for promotion: "Tis the curse of service,/ Preferment goes by letter and affection,/ And not by gradation." The man promoted in his place is the inexperienced but more refined Cassio, whom Iago convinces Othello is having an affair with his wife.

Iago drives Othello to such jealousy that Othello, as a Black man, comes to believe his wife cannot possibly love him the way she would someone of her own background. Driven to a fit of rage by Iago, he murders his wife. Writes the author: "Iago becomes a villain because as a man without polish or pedigree, he believes he has been disrespected and overlooked: 'I know my price, I am worth no worse a place,' he says. Today, we understand the racial injustice that lies behind Othello's fate but we are likelier to remain blind to the class prejudice that instigated Iago's behavior."

Iago's wife Emilia has a speech that echoes Shylock's: "Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them: they see, and smell/ And have their palates both sweet and sour/ As husbands have." In the end, she is another of Iago's victims, stabbed to death after she reveals her husband's treachery.

The author also examines eleven more of Shakespeare's plays ("Richard III", "Richard II", "Henry IV Parts 1 and 2", "Henry V", "As You Like It", "Hamlet", "King Lear", "Measure for Measure", "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Winter's Tale"). Having said that, the reason to buy this book is for her insight into "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello."

She concludes: as Shakespeare developed as a playwright, "(he) became increasingly aware of the prejudices and exploitations of his society . . . In doing so, he makes it possible for us to understand the point of view of marginalized characters, such as Shylock and Othello. She also writes: "When we address one another with empathy, disagreements don't go away, but compromise and unity are easier to reach."

- END -

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