Although Othello is accused of using witchcraft to woo Desdemona, it is actually a story that causes her to fall in love with him. At the invitation of Desdemona’s father, Othello recounts his life “from year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes” of his days: his enslavement among his enemies, his travels through foreign lands, his daring escapes. The story leaves Desdemona in tears. As Othello sums up: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed. / And I loved her that she did pity them. / This is the only witchcraft I have used.’’
As Shakespeare well knew, there is a kind of magic in the power of storytelling. As a concept, storytelling has gained popularity in recent years for its efficacy in branding, but its roots in persuasion and identity-making stretch back at least as far as the Anglo-Saxon scop, or poet, who would regale villagers by firelight with tales of warriors and kings. The word comes from the same root as our modern word “shape,” and it is an apt etymology; for the Anglo-Saxons, storytelling literally shaped a group of people into a collectivity. Stories unite people through archiving a communal history, calling listeners to compassionate identification and ordering events into a culturally legible set of values and ways of being in the world.
English is a field of storytelling, and the actions of storytelling—listening and empathizing—are the central offerings the field makes to a University and world in a state of disrepair. Truly engaging the stories of others cultivates a faithful presence that encourages justice and compassion.
Listening to a story involves several cognitive and emotional responses, but the most important, as Othello points out, is witness. Defending himself to the Senate for having married Desdemona without her father’s consent, Othello turns to Desdemona to corroborate his account: “Here comes the lady; let her witness it.” The word “witness” is itself an autoantonym; it is its own opposite. The word can signify both testifying as well as hearing testimony. It reaches into legal and religious realms, implying evidence and truth held in the space between a speaker and a hearer. Bearing witness—holding another’s story as truth—is perhaps THE crucial action bonding any group of people. It is a deep form of justice to the other, honored in such rituals as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa, which were dedicated to witness as a first-order necessity for communal healing.
Bearing witness happens in the spaces where we most have the opportunity to listen: in our classrooms, our hallways, our homes, our streets. The invitation to witness doesn’t come naturally, and I don’t do it enough. But I think it matters now more than ever. Earlier this year my colleague realized in class that none of her students had done the readings for the day. She invited them to share with her what was keeping them from their work. Many talked about how the pandemic and political tensions of the past few years had accelerated mental health issues, financial insecurity, and family dysfunction. My colleague heard story after story of suffering: self-harm, abuse, poverty, illness, grief. “We have no idea,” she said to me later. But of course we have some idea. Anyone paying attention to the growing mental health crisis on campus has seen the articles in venues such as the the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Put simply, our students are hurting, and it is our responsibility as members of the University community to bear witness to their pain, to open space that allows them to speak their truths, to share our own truth with them, and explore pathways of hope together.
Another crucial aspect of listening to stories includes compassion. In a much-vaunted study in 2013 in the journal Science, researchers found that reading literary texts enhanced subjects’ understanding of Theory of Mind. Associated with markers of empathy, Theory of Mind, or the ability to imagine what others are thinking, is a primary skill needed to navigate complex social situations. Research since then links empathy with feeling “transported” by a narrative.
Whatever the mechanism, storytelling invites just actions by encouraging compassionate identification. Much as Desdemona found herself in tears on hearing Othello’s story, reading about the fictional suffering of another sparks transformative emotions within us that inspire us to create change in our world. This is how literature has played a central role in major social justice movements: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin famously galvanized abolitionists; Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle inspired humanitarian regulations of the meat packing industry. Martha Nussbaum is one of many who have argued that reading literature cultivates a more just democracy, that the ability to imagine the life of another better equips citizens with the capacity to act and legislate more equitably and compassionately.
I have been thinking about how I might use my platform in the University to elevate the stories of people who are too frequently silenced. What texts I teach, what I write about, who I write with are all questions at the front of my mind right now. I have colleagues who work with people without housing or women recovering from abuse, teaching them how to write their memoirs. I sometimes teach a class in prison, where I struggle with my students to overcome the barriers that prevent them from telling their stories to an audience beyond the classroom. Within the academic mainstream, this kind of work is not yet seen as valuable enough to “count” for tenure and promotion, and there is much territory to navigate for “public scholarship” to develop the standards and best practices needed to gain full recognition in the University as vital to shaping our culture for the better. I am hoping that we in the academy continue to develop robust ways of supporting this kind of work.
On a more personal level, storytelling runs deep in my thinking about what it means to follow the example of Christ, whose stories of suffering and love call me to this work. I want to awaken students to the ways that stories do things in our world, shaping people and cultures by holding truths and illuminating hidden lives. But also, and more simply, I want to draw my students and the people around me into a community of storytelling, to help them engage in the healing and sacred acts of bearing witness, cultivating compassion, and acting with justice.
About the author:
Jayme M. Yeo is Associate Professor of English at Belmont University. She teaches and writes about poetry, Shakespeare, and prison education, and she is currently working on the history of Shakespeare in the regional American South. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Whiting Foundation and her work appears in journals and anthologies including Shakespeare Bulletin, Shakespeare and the Pedagogies of Justice, and The College English Association Forum. When not reading or thinking about Shakespeare, she enjoys hiking the mountains of Middle Tennessee with her husband and son.
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