Hello from your pal Louis, aka Roderigo in Folger Theatre’s production of Othello.
I recently came across an article that has haunted me and stayed with me for the past several days, so I thought I would pass along some snippets of the article, and some of my own thoughts. Consider yourself warned; things are about to get nerdy.
The article, by Philip Davis of University of Liverpool, and published in UK literary journal The Reader, is entitled “The Shakespeared Brain: A Theatre of Simultaneous Possibilities.” You can find the full article here.
Essentially, Davis, while acknowledging the fundamental value of reading and language in our lives, nevertheless became nettled by people using phrases like “that book changed my life.” Was this true? Was this even possible?
Moreover, if there was something to it, Davis had a further hunch that Shakespeare, with his formal lines, jumps between verse and prose, syntactical manipulations, and propensity to use nouns as verbs—i.e. “to mouth” instead of “to speak,” etc.—as he says, “somehow had a dramatic effect at deep levels in my mind.”
He decided to find out.
With the help of colleagues, both academic and scientific, he designed a simple experiment in which subjects responded to phrases that employed Shakespearean devices while wired to an EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures brain activity in real time.
Again, I’m nut-shelling fairly aggressively here, and I urge you to read the actual article for more information, but…
In essence, his hunch was correct. When subjects processed language employing Shakespearean devices and, it follows, Shakespeare himself, indeed, “it had a distinct and unique effect on the brain.”
Davis lays out the effect very elegantly in his article. What happens, to be inelegant, is that the parts of the brain that scan language for syntactic and grammatical understanding go into a state of “high alert” when faced with language used by, say, Othello:
“To lip a wanton in a secure couch and to suppose her chaste!”
As follows, according to Davis, “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.”
Even more fascinatingly, he goes on to speculate, “that Shakespeare’s syntax, [his] 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.”
And finally, triumphantly, “Shakespeare’s art [then] would be 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.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is no longer a far-fetched thing to say that Shakespeare Changes Your Brain! Hooray!!
In the meantime, and far less scientifically, here are just a few of the many ways in which Shakespeare has changed my own brain.
Thanks to working on Shakespeare I now know:
- It is possible for a room full of rational and intelligent actors, scholars, and experts to become sweaty and unhinged, for several hours, over the correct pronunciation of the word “err.”
- A big, tough, bruiser of a fellow, who has been involved in bar brawls and punch-ups, can say to you with grave, almost hurt sincerity, “wait, wait, wait! Is that Folio or Quarto?”
- It is not unacceptable, at work, to suddenly stop working, to sigh, to sit down and say, “I don’t think there’s any way I can keep doing this if I can’t have that half line back.”
- Highly manicured men dressed in knee-high leather boots, blouses, doublets, capes, gloves, and ribbons will sometimes receive sports scores from their iPads and yell them at you.
- Poised, articulate, and gorgeous women are sometimes men but, even when they’re not, gender disparity does not prevent any of them from brandishing copies of US Magazine or the L.L. Bean Catalog.
- Despite Shakespeare’s infrequent mentions of coffee and high fructose corn syrup, these things are in great abundance when working on Shakespeare.
- It is possible to convince a large group of well-heeled strangers that you yourself are a Duchess or an Earl or a King or a Queen, when you are, in fact, merely the least-paid person in the room.
- You can sweep off stage as grandly as you like, but if you don’t make friends with the people in black clothes and headsets, you will not ever make it back out on stage in your next costume on time.
- Everybody in the room also knows that quote, and probably knows it more thoroughly than you do.
- It is still possible, despite everyone’s passionate belief in Shakespeare, and diligence and OCD when it comes to working on his plays, to dismiss the entire enterprise with a single movie, such as Anonymous. I’m not making any judgments here, and I actually liked the movie, so I’ll leave it to Monty Python’s Eric Idle to sum up. His take on authorship is here.
I don’t know about you, but my brain is fried. Thanks, Shakespeare!