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The Folger Spotlight

Shakespeare Changes Your Brain!

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Despite Shakespeare’s infrequent mentions of coffee and high fructose corn syrup, these things are in great abundance when working on Shakespeare.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Everybody in the room also knows that quote, and probably knows it more thoroughly than you do.
  10. 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!


Too bad you had to spoil an otherwise interesting post with a cheap shot at “Anonymous” and people who just so happen don’t believe in your Stratfordian mythology. You write, “I’m not making any judgments here..” Really?

Richard Agemo — November 21, 2011

When looking at old scripts, you were reminded of some of Roderigo’s lines (or words) that were cut for this production, and that got me to wondering if the Shakespeare play scripts from the early 19th century closely follow what we consider today as the correct texts. I am wondering that because Restoration playwrights (Dryden and Davenant, for instance) sometimes made (many and sometimes very strange) changes to Shakespeare’s plays in order to make them more palatable to their audiences (makes you wonder what kind of people those people were—perhaps they weren’t interested in changing their brains). I am trying to remember the trajectory of interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays after the Restoration, and though I know that that information is in my brain, it has been a dreary day which encourages and, indeed, promotes neural lethargy, so I thought I would forgo thinking and ask you if you found the scripts of the early 19th century to closely resemble your own play script. I was going to end by drawing attention to the term “nut-shelling,” but I find it has been trumped by the term “Stratfordian mythology” (isn’t it gorgeous, the way it rolls trippingly off the tongue?). Yeah, I’m with that guy—how dare you believe in the work you do? Geesh.

Judy — November 22, 2011

@Richard – I’m thrilled to hear you thought the post was interesting! I didn’t think anyone was even reading any of this! Also, I’m sorry to hear you thought I was taking a “cheap shot.” I wasn’t. As I said in the sentence I devoted to the movie in question, “I actually liked the movie.” Also, I sincerely hope you followed the link to Eric Idle’s piece in the New Yorker.

Louis Butelli — November 22, 2011

@Judy – thank you so, so much for reading, and even more for responding.

I’m totally with you on Restoration-era reduxes, and some of the surreal things, in terms of scholarship and practical application, that came from those.

I’m also with you in considering that, in the 400-odd years that people have been putting on his plays, “Shakespeare” has become beloved of many, and understood by none. Everyone has their own experience of the stories, and none of those experiences are invalid.

On 19th century notions/applications – I would suggest consideration of the Astor Place Riot of 1849.

And thank you for believing in people believing in the work that they do, when they do it. Thank heavens for the opportunity to work at all!!!

Louis Butelli — November 22, 2011

Ah, yes. Very good. Theater riot. Those were the days. In this instance, the script was probably of no concern because the riot had mostly to do with the actors. So interesting how the meaning and importance of these plays (and of the actors) changes through time, which is why we still perform them. Thanks for responding and reminding me of this.

Judy — November 22, 2011

Shakespeare is the only thing that makes me regret being a kindergarten teacher. There is so much value, for our brains and our souls, in Shakespeare. I am determined to find a way to get a little bard into my curriculum even with the wee ones.

Alysia Scofield — November 22, 2011

@Alysia – thank you so much for reading and responding.

Please, please, pleeeease don’t ever regret being a kindergarten teacher, for any reason. In my book, you’re totally a hero. Thank you for standing up for our younglings, for getting them excited to learn, and for launching them on their educational trajectories.

It’s personal for me, both because my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and because my own kindergarten teacher gave me my first “role” – Ringmaster in the Kindergarten Circus. I wasn’t very good, but that’s not the point. Point is: I remember.

Also, I think that your kids could totally handle a little Bard, and maybe a little mythology, too. I think you’re wise to make that assumption, and I really, really hope you’ll give it a whirl. Puppets can work wonders. (hahaha)

Again, many thanks for the comment, and many thanks for the work that you do.


Louis Butelli — November 23, 2011