Excerpt 'Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy' by Paula Marantz Cohen


Unknown artist, The Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare, c. 1610

I spent my teen-age years stretched out on the living room couch reading novels—Victorian triple-deckers with earnest, morally uplifting plots and characters. I could lose myself in these books and make believe that I was one of their virtuous, long-suffering heroines, destined to find my high-minded soul mate at the end. This made me feel secretly vindicated as a superior person and less like the odd and awkward adolescent I was.

I went on to study nineteenth-century literature in college and graduate school, and to teach this literature at a university. It continued to be reassuring for me and for my students to feel we were like the exceptional heroes and heroines in these books and not like the “ordinary” people who surrounded us. Quite frankly, I was a snob, and I encouraged snobbism in my classroom.

Until I began to teach Shakespeare.

This happened twenty years ago, when the Shakespeare expert at my university retired and I stepped in to replace her. Although I had read the major plays in college and seen numerous live and film productions, I had never studied Shakespeare’s canon closely. But I was a seasoned teacher by this point, and I knew that not being an expert can have its advantages. It can allow for more openness to others’ viewpoints and more originality in one’s own. I also suspected that I might learn something—that my diet of nineteenth-century literature needed to be supplemented by wider and more generous nourishment.

Teaching Shakespeare on a regular basis, I came to appreciate his greatness in a new way. This is not to refute the familiar pronouncements: that Shakespeare is a master of the English language and a superb poet; that his plays contain complex and varied characters; that they are full of clever wordplay, exceptional wit, and laugh-out-loud farce; and that they can be productively parsed using the latest literary and cultural theory. But I came to understand something more—namely, the way Shakespeare’s characters made me feel, and how feeling that way made me a better person.

I should note that I began teaching Shakespeare at a time when his place in the university was being questioned. He was the product of an entrenched patriarchal society in which women were not allowed to perform onstage. His audience was almost entirely white and Christian. What relevance did he have in a multicultural classroom?

This question was not a theoretical one. My university had undergone a transformation since I began teaching there in 1982. It had evolved from a predominantly male engineering- and business-focused school into a comprehensive institution in which there were now as many women as men. These students were of varied ethnicity, religious affiliation, economic background, and gender identification; my class list reflected the diversity not only of our nation but of our world. Yet Shakespeare’s plays, written more than four hundred years ago in a closed, homogenous society, spoke to these students in a way that no other work I have ever taught has been able to do.

The insights and range of identification my students derived from the plays astonished me—and continues to do so today, more than twenty years later.


The late eminent and erratically brilliant literary critic Harold Bloom asserted that Shakespeare “invented the human”—a reference to the rich interior lives of his characters1 What I want to argue here, and what my experience teaching the plays has demonstrated, is that this human dimension also involves an intimate connection to us, who study him. Shakespeare invented complex individuals who elicit empathy, whom we, audience or readers, feel for even when they fall outside the realm of our own experience.

When we think of the emotional effect of great drama, we think of catharsis, the term used by Aristotle to denote the outpouring of emotion—of pity and fear—that an audience is supposed to feel at the end of a tragedy. Watching characters brought low by fate and their own shortcomings is supposed to purge us of repressed emotion—to cleanse us of the anxiety and sadness that weigh us down. But emotional release of this kind can be isolating and self-indulgent, a way of avoiding responsibility for others’ suffering. It can make us more complacent about who we are, more able to function smoothly and efficiently in the world as it exists. Empathetic emotion, by contrast, is disruptive. It is a humanizing and potentially instrumental variation on catharsis.

Empathy involves feeling beyond the self—feeling for others—and, at its most extreme, feeling for the Other: the individual whom we are superficially unable to identify with and feel for. This is the case, most notably, for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who prepares the way, as I shall argue, for Othello and Lear—monumental, tragic figures who are ostensibly nothing like us yet are capable of making us see, understand, and feel for them in their difference. Shakespeare’s ability to create such characters, comprehensible even when they are unsympathetic and entirely alien to our experience, is reflective of his particular genius.

But what makes my argument so useful is the realization that Shakespeare’s ability to feel and evoke empathy did not come into being fully formed. He learned empathy for a wide range of human beings not only by living a life that brought him into contact with diverse people but also through the process of writing his plays. Shakespeare grew both more empathetic and better at relaying empathy as he wrote, using the hints of earlier characters to flesh out later ones. I say this because I understand how the act of writing can create new insight and inspire growth. I also say this because, having spent so much time reading and teaching Shakespeare’s work, I have been able to trace the development of his characters—to see how they build on one another in eliciting empathy.

My reading of Shakespeare has affected my own development as well. It has made me a better wife, mother, and teacher. When I took on an administrative role at my university six years ago—a position that I never thought I had the temperament to do—I found that the lessons I learned from Shakespeare served me here, too. The Victorian literature that was my first love and in which I was trained as a scholar had been far more doctrinaire and singular in its sense of what was true and virtuous. Shakespeare expanded my horizons, complicated my thinking, and, by extension, deepened my humanity.

I write this now in the belief that others can profit from the lessons I learned. 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. For the Other exists within us as well as outside us. This is a lesson that Shakespeare teaches as well: how to recognize our own divided nature and embrace the human condition in which we all share.

Shakespeare’s Empathetic Imagination

What was the method Shakespeare followed in the development of an empathetic imagination? How did he travel from an adolescent lovesick Romeo to a mature passion-driven Antony; from a flat if delightfully conniving Richard III to a profoundly divided Hamlet and an abused, murderously jealous Othello—characters who challenge us to feel more deeply beyond ourselves? One might argue that time and practice made Shakespeare wiser and more adept, but this seems to me to beg the question. There must have been a foundation, some kind of scaffold, on which time and practice anchored and elaborated themselves.

That scaffold, I contend, was “the Great Chain of Being,” the cosmic moral hierarchy that the Elizabethans inherited from medieval Christian theology. God stood at the top of the chain embodying absolute order; Satan at the bottom, embodying absolute disorder or chaos. This fundamental dualism was an organizing principle of the Elizabethan worldview: God and Satan and their various lesser representatives were in continual battle for control in the world and for the human soul, which, in modern terms, we would call our character. For Shakespeare, this Manichaean battle was a starting point for the elaboration of his plots. It would drive him both to develop and to deviate from an original template. It would cause him to acquire greater empathy for different kinds of people—and to elicit empathy in those attentive to what he wrote.

Shakespeare’s use of contrasting, often warring structures, inherited from his culture’s theological worldview, was, in short, more than a simple tool for composition or the creation of dramatic conflict. It was a means of inspiring  habits of mind in the playwright, with the result that greater attention begins to center on the figure who stands in opposition to the society’s norms.2 Shakespeare may have begun with a conventional sense of how a hero or, indeed, a person worthy of notice acted. But by placing such a person in dramatic opposition to another who was different and who generated the difficulty and the interest of the plot, he was compelled, given the nature of his genius, to imagine what that Other was like: to produce dialogue and performed inner thoughts (soliloquys) for that character and thereby imbue the character with complex human dimension. This imaginative transformation did not happen in a vacuum. We know very little about Shakespeare’s life, but we can speculate that experiences in his upbringing and career, nourished by his unusually observant and sensitive nature, made him susceptible to the habit of empathetic imagination.

This habit would, over time, produce more and more original effects—original insofar as they would involve finding interest and meaning in characters who in other hands would have been flat antagonists: villains or simple foils for the hero. Eventually, we see such figures taking centerstage—if not becoming heroes themselves, certainly becoming more comprehensible, even admirable in their Otherness—and forcing us to see aspects of ourselves, otherwise unacknowledged or hidden, in them. This process begins through contrast; the antagonist to the hero becomes a locus of interest rather than a simple foil. We have only to measure the distance between Richard III, an engagingly tricky but essentially one-dimensional villain with no clear antagonist, and the more complex character of Richard II, who grows in dimension as he faces Bullingbrook, the future Henry IV. The process is elaborated when we arrive at Henry’s son Hal, later Henry V, whose personality has been further complicated through his positioning with respect to a range of other characters. As we progress through the canon, we see the playwright develop characters who, at an earlier point in his career, might not have figured in the action or might have been left in undeveloped, stereotypical form.

All writers tend to repeat themselves, to retrace patterning used before, and to indulge in compositional habits that make it easier to get from here to there. I know this from my own experience as a fiction writer who returns to certain structures of plot and character for reasons of laziness or convenience. In Shakespeare, however, this repetitive patterning seems to have been more than a compositional crutch. Far from promoting laziness, it was a spur to conceptual amplification and the rethinking of established ideas. His imagination was not conventionally fertile (most of his plots were borrowed from other sources), but it was elaborative and richly analogical. Once he imagined more about a given kind of character, he could not go back, and, indeed, was driven to extend that imagining to other kinds of characters, similarly placed.

Since I have tried to look at empathy in Shakespeare’s plays as a function of his development as a playwright, some of my assumptions about chronology might be challenged. Speculation about dating varies for the histories and early comedies, in particular. It would seem to me, however, that Shakespeare was driven to work quickly and have a number of plays ready for performance at the same time, so one work might well have influenced another, even if it was technically completed later.

Despite uncertainty regarding chronology, the principal evolutionary arc in Shakespeare’s canon seems to me irrefutable: the British histories and early comedies lead into the great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, and Lear, in particular—which are especially attuned to Otherness as it exists both in the society and in the self. The plays that have been labeled Romances, which assimilate tragic elements to a philosophical long view in which things end happily, complete the canon.

And yet it is in one earlier work that I see the playwright’s most important breakthrough with regard to empathy. The Merchant of Venice, written before the great tragedies, seems to have found its way to a rounded representation of the Jew Shylock almost by default—as if Shakespeare were forced in this direction by virtue of the twists and turns of the plot he borrowed from his sources. No work that I know of is such a dramatic example of form dictating content or, as the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan would say, of the medium shaping the message.This play is further complicated by its representation of a suggestively homosexual character, at once poignant and culpable of setting in motion the maliciousness that permeates the action, and of a female character who doles out the eventual justice with an ample dose of cruelty. These characters will return in altered form in Shakespeare’s subsequent plays. As I shall argue, there could not have been an Othello if there had not been a Shylock before him.


I am writing this book at a time when Shakespeare is no longer at the center of the university curriculum. Colleges no longer place as much stress on the humanities as they once did, but even in the context of literary study, Shakespeare has lost ground. He has been displaced by authors supposedly more relevant and enlightened. And yet I still see students who say they love Shakespeare, though their contact with him has been rudimentary or slight. Some of this passion is put on: Shakespeare is hard, at least when encountered for the first time, and for certain people there is glamour in what is hard. But these students’ response, I am convinced, is more often genuine. They have been moved by the power of the plays, by an enduring charisma that makes itself felt even when the work is poorly taught or barely understood. What concerns me is that this exposure is diminishing and that fewer students are given the chance to read Shakespeare in high school and college. His absence in these formative educational contexts is bound to be a profound loss to humanity.

There is no denying that Shakespeare was the product of another time and, as a result, implicated in the sins of that time—that is, the patriarchal, colonialist, misogynist, and racist aspects of his society and culture. Yet his ability to understand the inequities and injustices of his world and to trace their effects on human character and relationships was exceptional. I know of no other author who has Shakespeare’s penetrating consciousness of how we shape and are shaped by the society we live in.

My claims in this book derive from my having read Shakespeare closely with the help of two decades of undergraduate students whose insights extended and deepened my own. I deliberately refer to reading, knowing that this focus runs counter to the fact that Shakespeare was, first and foremost, a playwright. Didn’t he write his plays to be performed? Wasn’t he himself an actor who acutely understood the dynamics of the stage? He did and he was. But he was also a great poet and thinker whose full profundity can be grasped only through a close reading of what he put on the page. A great performance is a singular interpretation; it filters the play through the lens of the director. The language in performance also goes by quickly, and even if spoken by the best actors, a great deal of what exists in the text is necessarily lost. This problem extends to the classroom. Even with the words in front of them, professors can be as single-minded as directors in their interpretation of the plays, and students are often rushed when they read—hence their too-frequent resort to summaries and “translations” of Shakespeare’s language. This problem is compounded when secondary material such as theory and criticism is added to the requirements for the course. But these are obstacles worth combating. Close reading is the best way to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s genius. I wrote this book to elucidate and justify that method.

There are many insights to be derived from Shakespeare. But the one that I hope to relay here has to do with his ability to learn and teach empathy. Empathy is not simply a matter of imagining what “I” would feel in another’s position. It is imagining what someone else feels who is not me—someone with a background, situation, and body different from my own. This is the challenge that reading Shakespeare addresses in a way not available as profoundly or efficiently through any other means. The depth and range with which he was able to imagine Otherness in his characters, and the degree to which that imagining remains valid, are, I maintain, unparalleled. His plays present the case for the Other without idealizing victimhood or forgetting the degree to which we all participate in the tragedy of the human condition: that we are all sentenced to death and ought to be humbled and compassionate in this awareness.

An ever-broadening empathy is what Shakespeare developed through the process of writing his plays, and it is what we can develop if we carry his insights into the creative work of our lives.

Richard III
Unrealized Potential

Shakespeare began his playwrighting career with eight history plays written between 1589 and 1599. These plays, which have collectively been called the Henriad (since three kings named Henry figure in them), focus on a continuous stretch of British history, though they are viewed as two groups of four plays, or tetralogies, because they were written in two discrete periods.

The Henriad taken as a whole depicts a time span that preceded the ascendance to the throne of Shakespeare’s then-monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. The plays explore the drama of Elizabeth’s ancestry, culminating in what has been termed the Tudor Myth: the idea that Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII, by uniting the previously warring houses of Lancaster and York, ushered in an unparalleled era of prosperity and peace.

Shakespeare knew the value of dramatizing this flattering narrative. He was an astute promoter and businessman as well as a playwright, poet, and actor. He was always aware of the audience range for his plays, from the lower-class “groundlings” who paid a nominal sum to stand during productions to the gentry and nobility who occupied the expensive seats. Ultimately, he knew how to ingratiate himself with his monarch—first Elizabeth and later her successor, James I—which raised his profile and helped make him rich.

The first tetralogy (“first” because it was written first, though chronologically they come second) consists of Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, and Richard III. The last of these ends with the defeat of the villainous King Richard by the Earl of Richmond, soon to be Henry VII, the Tudor king who was Elizabeth’s grandfather.

Richard III might have been the end of Shakespeare’s British history plays. But the first tetralogy was written soon after the English navy defeated the Spanish Armada, a time when national pride made the dramatization of British history enormously popular, and there was a clamor for more plays in the same genre. But Richard III had taken its action very near to the contemporary moment, and continuing forward would mean dealing with people and situations close to home. The risk of a misstep or misreading of the political climate was too great, so Shakespeare went back and wrote a prequel, the second tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V.

Of the four plays in the first tetralogy, only Richard III is performed and taught today with any regularity, while all four of the plays in the second tetralogy—especially Henry IV, Part I and Henry V—are frequently performed and taught. This, I think, is because Shakespeare became a better playwright as he continued writing, an improvement that consisted not only in the way he structured his plots and arranged his characters but also in the way those characters speak to us as real, rounded human beings. Indeed, these two elements go together: more elaborate structures ensure deeper, more interesting and authentic characters.

All the plays in the Henriad have their plots taken from other sources, mostly from Robert Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York (commonly known as Hall’s Chronicle) and Rafael Holinshed’s Chronicle of the History of England. Shakespeare makes no effort to disguise his borrowings. Sometimes, he adds fictional characters, and sometimes he alters the ages and characteristics of historical figures to amplify the drama. Overall, however, he remains faithful to the history as his sources present it. His innovation lies in the words he puts into the mouths of his characters and in what he emphasizes and subordinates. His essential fidelity to the record as he knew it is why non-historians so often use these plays as our shorthand source for British monarchical history.

Shakespeare began several of his comedies early in his career, but the plays in the first tetralogy are generally believed to be his first completed works. Of these, the one that I believe marks the ground on which his empathetic imagination would develop is the fourth in the sequence: Richard III.

The play’s importance lies not in its strength but in its limitation. It offers the outline of what subsequent plays would fill in. This is key to Shakespeare’s method: he begins with a sketch or partial treatment of a character in one play and then, because the seed has been planted in his imagination, takes this farther in a later one. Following this method, we can say that Richard III offers us, as it did Shakespeare, a kind of negative example of our first encounter with the Other—in this case, a person with a disability. It is an object lesson in how we often respond stereotypically to someone with characteristics outside our experience and immediate understanding.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, people with disabilities were largely kept out of sight in institutions or in their homes. Accommodations for the disabled only began to appear in public spaces in the 1980s, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not passed until 1990. Only in the past fifteen years has the field of Disability Studies gained traction in the university curriculum. It is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare began his writing career with a character like Richard III, whose disability is merely a prop associated with his villainy, not a locus of concern and empathy. What is surprising is that after the creation of this character, Shakespeare went on to depict marginality from a far more humane and empathetic perspective. If we consider what Shakespeare didn’t do with Richard III, we can appreciate what he did do with Richard II in the second tetralogy and, even more impressively, with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, written at around the same time.

But let us return to Shakespeare’s representation in Richard III, where the groundwork was laid. As the play begins, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (whom I will refer to from now on, as Shakespeare does in his character cues, as “Gloucester”), is technically far removed from the throne. His brother Edward IV is king, and both Edward’s young sons and Gloucester’s older brother Clarence stand ahead in the succession according to the laws of primogeniture that determined who would inherit position and land in England during this period—and indeed, well beyond, into the twentieth century.

Most people for whom something is so out of reach would concentrate their energy and ambition elsewhere. But Gloucester’s distance from power seems to be an incentive: the very fact that he is outside the running makes him all the more determined to get what is ostensibly closed to him.

Gloucester is introduced to us at the outset as the victim of a physical disability. Shakespeare derived this fact from one of his sources. Sir Thomas More’s Life of Richard III is fairly specific in its description: “Richard, the third son [of Richard Duke of York] . . . [was] little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crookbacked, his left shoulder much higher than his right . . .”

Yet Shakespeare does not describe Gloucester from the outside, the way his source does, but from the inside, as the character sees himself. This self-description occurs in the opening soliloquy, which begins by first placing us in time. Gloucester explains that the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York (known popularly as the War of the Roses) has finally concluded, putting his brother Edward of York on the throne:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York. (1.1.1–2)

But where others welcome the advent of peace and the chance to concentrate on love instead of war, Gloucester announces that he feels differently. To account for this, he alludes directly and emphatically—but without precise detail—to the deformed state of his body:

But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,
I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them,
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity (1.1.14–27).

He then explains what he will do as the logical byproduct of his deformity:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (1.1.28–31)

This is an extraordinary speech, both in its bitter eloquence (the four repeated “I’s” seem like a cri de coeur of pain in the first fourteen lines—the length, notably, of a sonnet, though this is in no strict sense a sonnet) and in the way that it briskly concludes, as if villainy is the only possible course available under the circumstances.

Gloucester’s soliloquy functions as a two-part mechanism: it opens him to us through its reference to a deformity that should arouse our pity (“dogs bark at me as I halt by them”); it then closes him off in its concluding resolution (“And therefore, . . . / I am determined to prove a villain”). Shakespeare is giving us the blueprint for a character who could arouse our empathy but whom the play will not develop in empathetic terms. Instead, Gloucester becomes an uncomplicated monster. There is never again a moment when we feel for him.

What drives this character? Ostensibly, a maniacal will to power. After all, he methodically and cunningly eliminates all the barriers that block his way to the throne. But the removal of everyone around him comes to seem gratuitous and, eventually, counterproductive. It is not a will to power that drives Gloucester but a will to discord and disruption (“to prove [myself] a villain”)—what in Shakespeare’s lexicon and that of the Elizabethan worldview more generally is associated with the demonic.

Gloucester’s crippled body becomes the outward expression of a fundamentally evil nature—as though he were plucked from a medieval morality play where outward form mirrors moral nature. This is an idea adapted, three hundred years later, by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, though there the assumption is that an evil appearance imprints itself over time on the body if one lives an evil life. Unlike Dorian Gray, Gloucester was born with the deformity that denotes his evil.

And yet, for all that he is a kind of emblem of immorality, his opening soliloquy is so powerful that it cannot be entirely erased from our consciousness. Gloucester makes clear in those opening lines that he feels “cheated” as a result of his physical condition. His deformity has denied him his full humanity:

I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up. (1.1.18–21)

These lines are so expressive that they hint beyond their literal meaning to the idea that a physical handicap can be an unjust target of discrimination and result in humiliation and ostracism. Perhaps, as my students like to suggest, Gloucester’s mother, who hates him justifiably enough in the present, hated him from birth because he did not look like other children. Perhaps the fact that dogs bark at him as he halts by them suggests that men have ridiculed him as well—turning him against them in the way, as we shall see, the Jew in The Merchant of Venice is turned against the Christians who abuse him.

But this idea is not developed in the rest of the play. The existential bitterness of the opening soliloquy is never returned to. Even when the ghosts of those whom Gloucester has murdered visit him before his final battle (and who include the young princes whose deaths he ordered without qualm), they have no moral effect. They arouse fear but not guilt.

Gloucester can be seen as the conceptual precursor of Shylock, a destructive character who is nonetheless represented empathetically, as I shall discuss. But it is not until Shakespeare’s last play that we see Gloucester’s physical heir in the character of Caliban in The Tempest. Described as a “misshapen knave” and a “monster,” Caliban is more literally Other in appearance than Gloucester but not as uninflectedly evil: he has a genuine sense of wonder in the natural world and speaks some of the most beautiful lines in the play—testament to how far Shakespeare has evolved in his empathy for difference.


Many people love  Richard III. They love the energy with which the protagonist pursues his villainous ends. They love the gruesome piling up of bodies and the ingenuity and chutzpah with which Gloucester carries out his stratagems: courting Lady Anne while she is following the corpse of the husband he himself killed, methodically eliminating both his enemies and his allies out of malice or whim, frantically battling on when his cause is lost. There’s something thrilling in the character’s mad bravado and unwillingness to cede the day:

              I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.
. . .
A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! (5.4.9–10, 13)

The poetry in Richard III is also wonderful, though it has, to my mind, a superfluity of rhyme in keeping with the simplistic nature of the characterizations (there will be less and less rhyme as Shakespeare matures as a playwright). Gloucester is a role perfectly suited to the scenery-chewing Al Pacino, who has played it in many venues. Pacino even made a documentary about the play, Looking for Richard, that does an excellent job sketching in the history and relaying the evil vitality of the character.

I am not saying that Richard III isn’t a good play; I am saying that it isn’t a great one in the way that Shakespeare’s plays will become great. It does not feed us emotionally and make us better for having seen or read it. One of my students suggested that the play’s popularity may actually derive from this fact. Because it does not make us think or feel too much, it frees us to revel in its protagonist’s demonic energy and the mayhem he leaves in his wake.

Gloucester’s disability both isolates him and becomes the emblem of his isolation. Because he never exists in a relationship, he never appears to be fully human. This distinguishes him from subsequent Shakespeare characters.

The nineteenth-century poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to Iago in Othello as a “motiveless malignity.” But Iago is not motiveless, as I shall discuss below. His anger at Othello (“I hate the Moor”) gives his villainy its focus, but it also engenders a degree of identification and even empathy in us if we read closely and without preconception. Other villains are similarly deepened by having antagonists and consorts against or with whom they can be developed: Cassius has Brutus; Macbeth has Lady Macbeth; Edmund has Edward and, in some sense, Goneril and Regan; Hamlet has Ophelia, his mother, and most of all his divided self. This abrasion of the self with something outside or within it is missing in Gloucester. In this, he resembles Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, cut off from everything but his own embittered consciousness. Dostoyevsky’s character is a commentary on social alienation, but Gloucester is about nothing but devious and bloodless plotting. He is a popcorn villain, a vehicle for the representation of evil as sheer entertainment. I am reminded of the James Bond villains—fun to watch but with no psychological complexity worth considering. In Richard III, Shakespeare has not yet created a character who, though radically Other, can elicit our empathy. He will do this in his next history play, Richard II.

About the Author

Paula Marantz Cohen is the Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, as well as host of the television interview show The Civil Discourse.

Publication Rights

Excerpted from Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy by Paula Marantz Cohen, published by Yale University Press. Copyright c 2021 by Paula Marantz Cohen.

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