Gentle Reader Matt Hulan sent me a link to The Shakespeared Brain, an article for The Literary Review by Philip Davis, in which he describes the research he and his colleagues are doing on how the brain reacts to Shakespeare’s language. In particular, he is focused on (essentially) scanning people’s brains whilst they chew on functional shifts in words, that is, words being used as parts of speech we don’t expect. Verbing, as every stoolboy knows, weirds language, and nounification is the strangosity of languageness, but does it actually fry our brains? Mr. Davis did some experiments, bless his curly head, and found that in fact, there is something different and unusual going on in our brains when we read something that has sense but is grammatically left-field-from-coming.
This was, unsurprisingly, serendipitous. I had just been listening to Shakespeare. As I was driving back and forth to Western CT and Pyggie rehearsals, I found that the recordings of Arkangel Shakespeare were an excellent diversion, making the time fly without interfering unduly with my driving skills, never much to begin with. These are full audio productions with marvelous casts, mostly RSC folk, with unabridged text. I began with The Winter’s Tale, because it had been on my mind ever since reading The Staging of Romance in Late Shakespeare, and discovered that the cast was lead by the magnificent Eileen Atkins and also included Ceiran Hinds, Sinead Cusack, Alex Jennings (of whom I had not heard, but who was wonderful) and a cameo by John Gielgud. I have also listened to an only moderately good Love’s Labours Lost (despite Alex Jennings as a quite good Berowne), a very funny Comedy of Errors (with David Tennant, who some Gentle Readers may know from his Hamlet which is currently at the RSC; he is doing Berowne later this year as well) and a Henry IV, Part One with Richard Griffiths as a funny but not a revelatory Falstaff.
Now, the thing that I found myself ruminating about as I was listening was the way that Shakespeare so often uses words that have more than one meaning. I don’t just mean metaphor, the replacement of a thing with some other thing to see the replaced thing better by its displacement. Not just puns, either, although of course Shakespeare is very fond of puns. I mean wit, the saying of two things simultaneously. In H4i, f’r’ex, an exchange depicting thieves as acolytes of the moon:
Falstaff: Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty: let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.
Hal: Thou sayest well, and it holds well too; for the fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon. As, for proof, now: a purse of gold most resolutely snatched on Monday night and most dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning; got with swearing ‘Lay by’ and spent with crying ‘Bring in;’ now in as low an ebb as the foot of the ladder and by and by in as high a flow as the ridge of the gallows.
Here there are puns metaphors and similies and straightforward wordplay together with the double meaning I’m talking about. Hal picks up Falstaff’s use of the word govern, but of course as the heir apparent, when he talks about governing, it holds a second meaning, particularly when going on to talk of hanging. And in small talk, too: the money is dissolutely spent, but there is also the image of Falstaff, spent and sleeping (as earlier Hal describes him “sleeping on benches after noon”) and the image of the empty and slack purse reinforces the image of the hanged thief. And of course what is laid by is not what is brought in, and neither of them are boats.
It’s not that it’s a particularly wonderful passage, although of course I like it, but it’s an example of that particular style of writing that I think of as Shakespearean, far more than the verbing and nounification that Mr. Davis is scanning, and which takes a listener a certain amount of pleasurable work to unknot. And this kind of writing often requires (or at least makes use of) repetition of a word several times in different contexts, and often in different parts of speech. Government and governed, but also the sea and the moon and spent as well.
In the writing and reading of our century, when we are pressed to omit needless words and to avoid repetition, a style like Shakespeare’s may require us to use our brains in a very different way. I don’t think that Mr. Davis, who I admit knows much more about Shakespeare than I do, has hit upon the way of it. The functional shift is something that most of us only find in Shakespeare (it was a feature of the dialogue in Friends), but the double-meaning and the repetition with shifted emphasis are something that we have stamped out of our modern style, other than in puns and jokes.
Which is fine. Stylistic trends, like people, are different one to another, and that’s presumably what makes comparative literature interesting and fun. And what makes people think that Shakespeare’s language is difficult and inaccessible. It’s not the thees and thous and dosts and cansts. It’s the style. The long sentences, sure, that often pay more attention to what is important than to where a person might actually place a subject and a verb, and that are happy to repeat an idea in a different way, or in three different ways, to heap emphasis on it. We’ve been stylistically strunked out of Shakespeare.
Except that, once you get a taste for it, it’s there for you. Even whilst driving through western Connecticut.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,