Empathy, Defined

I am often fascinated by my children’s interest in the stories of Shakespeare.  I can typically answer all of their questions off the top of my head, since they are really just variations on the classic “Why” game (i.e. “Why did the bad men put Miranda and her Daddy on the ship” and so on).  But sometimes one comes out of left field that is truly a surprise. “Daddy,” my 5yr old recently asked, “If Miranda and her Daddy and Caliban and Ariel were the only people on the island, and Miranda and Ariel did not like to play with Caliban because he was mean to them, then does that mean Caliban did not have anybody to play with when he was growing up?” Ok, so, wait.  Even though he is the acknowledged bad guy sea monster who is mean to everybody and wants to take over the island, my daughter is concerned that he not be lonely.  I think that makes me kind of proud. “I don’t really know,” I tell her.  I try very hard not to lie to my kids.  If you stall, sometimes they answer their own question. “Maybe he played with the animals?” she asked.  That’s certainly a common theme in the kinds of movies she’s seen. Seeing my opportunity, I embellish.  “You know, I think that’s exactly what he did.  I bet he played with all of the animals that Miranda and Ariel didn’t like to play with, like the snakes and the spiders and scorpions and the other scary creatures.  Because he wouldn’t be scared of them, they would be each other’s friends.” “Yes,” she concurred, “I think that’s how it happened.”

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2 thoughts on “Empathy, Defined

  1. That’s more or less how Robert Browning saw it:

    Himself peeped late, eyed Prosper at his books
    Careless and lofty, lord now of the isle:
    Vexed, ‘stitched a book of broad leaves, arrow-shaped,
    Wrote thereon, he knows what, prodigious words;
    Has peeled a wand and called it by a name;
    Weareth at whiles for an enchanter’s robe
    The eyed skin of a supple oncelot;
    And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,
    A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,
    Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,
    And saith she is Miranda and my wife:
    ‘Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane
    He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;
    Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,
    Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,
    And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge
    In a hole o’ the rock and calls him Caliban;
    A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.
    ‘Plays thus at being Prosper in a way,
    Taketh his mirth with make-believes: so He.

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