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George Eliot vs. Shakespeare’s Empathetic Imagination

Paula Marantz Cohen—

Before I ever read Shakespeare, I read George Eliot. I was inspired to study Victorian literature by George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. I love all Eliot’s work, and I especially love Middlemarch. Yet I want to argue with the general belief that Eliot is a hugely empathetic writer. Eliot shows a certain kind of empathy for her characters, but this only goes so far. We can gauge its limitation by comparison with Shakespeare.

In part the difference is connected to the difference in genre. Eliot puts us inside her characters’ heads and tells us what to think about them by way of her famous interpellated commentary. This makes her villains seem lonelier than Shakespeare’s: they live in the cocoon of their own consciousness and the author alone has access to them. The Shakespearean soliloquy is a more public expression in being delivered to an audience. And the fact that the plays were written for performance allows us to see these characters as formed and deformed by the world they live in.

One would tend to see the manipulative and acquisitive Nicholas Bulstrode as the villain of Middlemarch, but for me, the great villain in that novel is Edward Casaubon, the pedant who Dorothea Brooke marries out of reverence for his supposed scholarship, only to discover that he is far from the great man she thought he was. He makes her suffer in their marriage, punishing her for seeing his weakness and limitation. 

Both Bulstrode and Casaubon, for all the harm they do, are ultimately pathetic characters. There is a dismissiveness to Eliot’s view of her villains that compromises her empathy for them. Shakespeare’s villains, Shylock and Edmund in particular, are more comprehensible (could I even say more noble?) because they are more clearly deformed by others and their society. We feel for the suffering that Eliot’s characters undergo but we look down upon them; they are malfunctioning creatures who mysteriously veered from the right path at some early point: “equivalent centres of self,” as Eliot puts it, “whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.”  By contrast, Shakespeare’s villains always have something comprehensible about them. In the same situation, we might have gone the same way. 

This, I think, makes Shakespeare a more expansive and compassionate genius than Eliot. I know this short argument is a great over-simplification of these two authors’ exceptionally sensitive and compassionate imaginations. But it seems right to me, nonetheless. 

Paula Marantz Cohen is the Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, as well as host of the television interview show The Civil Discourse. She lives in Philadelphia.

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