Did Shakespeare develop more empathy as he continued to write plays? And by reading and studying his plays, can we too learn to become more empathetic?
These are the questions that Paula Marantz Cohen explores in her new book Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy from Yale University Press, published February 9. The Drexel University professor shares selections from Shakespeare plays that she and her students have discussed in the classroom, from Othello to The Merchant of Venice, illuminating how Shakespeare thinks and writes about understanding “the Other”.
The excerpt below focuses on gender and empathy in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly As You Like It.
Many male writers have created female characters without being empathetic toward women. One could even argue that the majority of great male writers in the Anglo-American tradition have given their female characters attributes that reinforce, even amplify, misogynistic stereotypes. I would cite Spenser, Milton, Pope, Fielding, Hemingway, Nabokov, Roth, and Updike as a quick sampling.
But Shakespeare was an exception. He was preternaturally open to new facets of experience, including new ways of understanding oneself. And as an actor as well as a playwright at a time when men performed women’s roles, he must have been led to think more deeply about what it meant to inhabit the female position, not just to write about it for the purpose of forwarding an idea or furthering a plot.
To play a woman is to imagine being a woman, leading, in turn, to the creation of works that also explore what it must feel like for a woman to play a man—and beyond that, to consider if there is a difference between playing and being. This seems to me precisely what happens in the cross-dressing comedies, natural extensions of Shakespeare’s tendency to sketch a situation and then, once it is imagined, feel driven to elaborate it.
Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline all involve female characters spending an extended period of time posing as men. Two Gentlemen of Verona, among Shakespeare’s first plays, introduces cross-dressing, while Cymbeline, said by some to be a kind of parody by Shakespeare of some of his then-familiar themes, is concerned, as are all his late Romances, with the nature of mortality and the extension of life into future generations. In neither play does it seem to me that Shakespeare is interested in exploring gender in any consistent or profound way.
The Merchant of Venice is far more important in this regard. The second of Shakespeare’s three cross-dressing comedies, this play, as I have noted, explores the woman’s position as both outsider and insider—both victim and punisher—within two kinds of society: the workaday commercial world of Venice and the more exotic, romantic world of Belmont. Both are governed by patriarchal law: one by the formal law of commerce, the other by the capricious law of Portia’s late father. In both, Portia is able to navigate and achieve her ends but in each case through trickery. The play is labeled a comedy, though much of its overall tone is dark, and its ending contains decidedly tragic elements.
Twelfth Night, which follows As You Like It directly, seems to have other concerns in mind. The twin brother and sister in this play are substitutable for each other. Gender has receded as a central preoccupation in favor of an exploration of emotional excess and the lengths needed to subdue such feeling and control its repercussions. It is not that Shakespeare ceases to be interested in gender but that he now incorporates empathy for the gendered Other more naturally into his plays.
But in As You Like It, written a few years after The Merchant of Venice and around the same time as Twelfth Night, Shakespeare not only uses cross-dressing to further the plot, he uses it to interrogate the meanings and implications of gender roles. He makes us feel for both men and women who must operate within the constraints of “doublet and hose” and “petticoat.” In this respect, it is a pivotal play in Shakespeare’s evolving empathetic imagination.
As You Like It is a festive comedy, and there is little to dim its lightness and brightness. In keeping with its tone, its use of cross-dressing seems directed at different or at least more expansive ends than that of The Merchant of Venice. Whereas Merchant seems intent on playing marginal characters off against one another, As You Like It is involved with exploring gender more broadly, finding in both male and female roles aspects of vulnerability that can lead to greater acceptance and equality between the sexes. In the end, the play is philosophical about how society is organized and how men and women behave and interact with each other. It pushes beyond these themes to explore the way gender roles are themselves “constructed.” Its sense of empathy for the gendered position—and the pains and difficulties that accompany it on both sides—is at the heart of its comic warmth.
Excerpted from Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy by Paula Marantz Cohen, new this month from Yale University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Paula Marantz Cohen. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.