If We Were Taught to Feel

As I’ve noted several times before, one of my favorite promotions of Shakespeare, and indeed of all rich and substantive art, comes from the panhandling man interviewed in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, who says:

Intelligence is hooked with language. And when we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. Know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other. But if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent as a people. . . . [Shakespeare] did more than help us, he instructed us.

I’ve always felt this to be true. I sense that I become a better person through deep exposure to things like Shakespeare. I believe that people who experience a quality production of Shakespeare (or any rich play), or who delve into meaningful works of literature, genuinely become better people for it. That’s why, even with no evidence beyond the anecdotal, I always felt that as small as the effect was, when I was doing great Shakespeare, I was helping make the world a little better.

But it never occurred to me that you could prove it.

Well hold on to your butts. Here’s Pam Belluck in the New York Times:

A striking new study found that reading literary fiction ā€“ as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction ā€“ leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The authors of the study, published by the journal Science, say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.

Holy crap, right?

One of the reasons I left theatre to go into politics was to have a bigger impact, to do more to make the world better than galumphing around in dopey costumes and speaking in iambic pentameter could.

Now? Well, maybe it’s time to pull those tights back on.

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