In the days after my father’s funeral ten years ago, I returned to teaching just in time for Hamlet. Re-reading this protagonist then, more than ever before, I understood how he felt, grieving the loss of his father just as I was mine. I “got” Hamlet, or rather Shakespeare “got” my grief.
Social scientists are now finding what many Shakespeareans have long felt intuitively, that readers of great literature, poetry, and metaphoric language learn empathy as they feel “emotionally transported,” “lose themselves,” and “inhabit other perspectives.” Empathy, or its lack, likely plays a role in the fact that illiteracy and/or limited time spent reading correlate with higher levels of depression and, among convicted felons, higher rates of recidivism.
Yet, public funding for the arts in America has plummeted, some education reformers are advocating teaching less literature, and the National Endowment for the Arts found in its 2007 report “To Read or Not to Read” that less than half of Americans are reading literature at all, and its 2012 report confirmed that just 47% of Americans read fiction.
In this context, Shakespeare still has much to teach us, since he is the best teacher of what we need most to understand about human experience. For all the claims over four centuries that his influence would soon wane because his language is too challenging, Shakespeare may always be understood so long as people have the capacity, or desire, to feel, to lose themselves, to understand, and to be understood.