Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us about Empathy

Yale Univ. Feb. 2021. 176p. ISBN 9780300256413. $24. LIT
Cohen (English, Drexel Univ.) chronicled her experience teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates in essays in The American Scholar and Wall Street Journal. Two pieces, on the character Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and the titular character from King Lear, provoked so much comment she decided to write this book, so other teachers could show students how and why Shakespeare remains relevant in the 21st century. Cohen notes that, in Shakespeare’s time, patriarchal attitudes dominated. But, as the author shows, as Shakespeare matured, he was able to create non-normative characters, and empathize with them. It didn’t happen immediately. His early play, Richard III, is brilliant theater, but Richard acts in a vacuum, engaging others only to use or destroy them. But the character sets the stage for Shylock, both villain and victim, and Prince Hal grows in front of our eyes onstage. By engaging with Shakespeare, Cohen argues, we gain a sense of empathy, which helps us better understand those who are being othered in the present.
VERDICT First and foremost, this book is for anyone who has ever taught Shakespeare to young students. It’s too short, but perhaps that makes it more likely to be read.
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