Monday, November 29, 2010

How Shakespeare changes us

I have a specific intuition about Shakespeare: that the very shapes of Shakespeare's lines and sentences somehow have a dramatic effect at deep levels in my mind. For example, Macbeth at the end of his tether:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

I'll say no more than this: it simply would not be the same, would it, if Shakespeare had written it out more straightforwardly: I must not look to have the honour, love, obedience, troops of friends which should accompany old age. Nor would it be the same if he had not suddenly coined that disgusted phrase "mouth-honour" (now a cliche as "lip-service").

Shakespeare will often use one part of speech - a noun or an adjective, say - to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in "Lear" for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in "Troilus and Cressida," "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); "Othello," "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare's lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain.

In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift is semantically integrated with ease, it triggers a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole.

Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence, at the neural level, of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

Shakespeare's syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them - away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences. It could be that Shakespeare's use of language gets so far into our brains that he shifts and creates new pathways, not unlike the establishment of new biological networks using novel combinations of existing elements (genes/proteins in biology: units of phonology, semantics, syntax, and morphology in language). Then indeed we might be able to see something of the ways literature can cause affect or create change, without resorting to being assertively gushy.

Shakespeare's art is no more and no less than the supreme example of a mobile, creative and adaptive human capacity, in deep relation between brain and language. It makes new combinations, creates new networks, with changed circuitry and added levels, layers and overlaps. And all the time it works like the cry of "action" on a film-set, by sudden peaks of activity and excitement dramatically breaking through into consciousness. It makes for what William James said of mind in his "Principles of Psychology," "a theatre of simultaneous possibilities." This could be a new beginning to thinking about reading and mental changes.

- Philip Davis


  1. Wow! I think that happened to me, Philip. Shakespeare changed my neurons, flipped my switch electrically. When I took Shakespeare in college our professor said you can't really grok a Shakespeare play until you read it 7 times, so I read Romeo and Juliet 7 times in a row, while studying other plays and watching Merchant of Venice and Hamlet on Masterpiece Theatre.

    I ended up dreaming in iambic pentameter for a week straight, every night. It was so awesome. And now Willie is in my brain. On Twitter @IAM_SHAKESPEARE posts lines from the bard and I start with three words from the latest line, on occasion, and tweet a 140 character twoem, ripped from Shakespeare and my electrified brain. From yesterday (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE is on Merchant of Venice, whoo-hoo!)

    Bind, fast finding one. Tie, and you shall fly to Ropeland, where girth and strapon rule, a Thule of knotty distance close inside, oh bide.

    Ha, kinda sick, I know, but it's not my fault, my neurons have been set by the master. Here's to Twitter, "a theatre of simultaneous possibilities"!

  2. That is a marvelous post MD! and an equally wonderful comment above... enjoyed it.. am contemplating the idea of reliving a Shakespeare play over and over again myself.. =)

  3. I will share this brilliant piece with my students. Thank you!