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Book review: Of human kindness: What Shakespeare teaches us about empathy

David Jeffrey is a retired GP and palliative care doctor

Paula Cohen, a professor of English, develops a fresh approach to Shakespeare, exploring his empathy for “the other”. In this small volume she argues that in reading his plays we gain empathic insights into race, gender and old age. Some medical undergraduates, lacking life experience, may encounter difficulties in connecting with certain groups of patients, for instance those with mental health problems, the dying or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Utilising Shakespeare’s unique imagination student’s may be encouraged to develop their natural empathy, since he invented complex characters who can elicit our empathy despite being outside our own life experience.

Shakespeare… invented complex characters who can elicit our empathy despite being outside our own life experience.

Empathy is an experience which can be taught. Cohen provides evidence for Shakespeare’s ability to evoke empathy evolving in the process of writing his plays. Empathy involves feeling for others and in this process, we are forced to discover aspects of ourselves that are otherwise hidden.
Cohen has an easy writing style which reveals her empathy for her students. Medical teachers will find this book a source of inspiration in encouraging students to engage in empathic relationships with patients and colleagues.

Featured book: Paula Marantz Cohen, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, Yale University Press, New Haven. London, 2021, 159 pages, Price £20.

Featured image by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

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