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The Psychology of Shakespeare


O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Othello, 3.3

Social psychologist and University of Kentucky Psychology Professor Richard Smith loves Shakespeare. So, it’s only fitting that the Bard was a master of Smith’s area of expertise — jealousy and envy.

“Shakespeare was wonderful at illustrating exactly what social psychology is, the study of how the everyday behavior of the individual is affected by the presence of others. ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Othello’ are perfect case studies on the impact of jealousy and envy,” Smith said.

Of course, as a professor and a researcher Smith can't rely solely on centuries-old plays. Instead, he observes students who participate in experiments as part of their Introductory Psychology class.

"It's difficult to study emotions without human participants. We are lucky to have college students willing to help out in such experiments. We can test our ideas, and they get experience learning about how psychologists study various topics."

Apart from being emotions common in literature, jealousy and envy also interested Smith because to most people they appear interchangeable. In fact, the two emotions are distinctly different. Envy stems from feelings of inferiority caused by another’s qualities, achievements or possessions. However, the feelings don’t necessarily arise in the context of a relationship since envy is related to how an individual defines themselves.

By contrast, jealousy can’t exist outside the confines of a relationship. The emotion is felt when someone fears losing a relationship to another person.

“I think one of the reasons I’ve always been so attracted to literature is that it can perfectly put emotions in context. Also, a book like Stephen Crane’s ‘The Red Badge of Courage,’ really displays how our emotions are driven by social comparison,” Smith explains.

With his love for the written word, it may seem surprising that Smith didn’t pursue a career in literature, especially considering who he credits for his path toward social psychology.

“I have Shakespeare to thank, of course,” he said.