A Moment of Science

Shakespeare on the Brain

"She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that? Her eye discourses; I will answer it." Did you feel anything? Learn more on this Moment of Science.

Statue of Willam Shakespeare

Photo: chattingjason (flickr)

Sometimes Shakespeare used what are called "functional shifts" in his works which actually increase brain activity

Read this line given by Romeo as he observes Juliet at her window: “She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that? Her eye discourses; I will answer it.” Did you feel anything?

Well, it’s a beautiful line, of course, but what were you supposed to feel?

Increased brain activity. See, Shakespeare often uses what linguists call a functional shift, meaning that he uses a noun as a verb. As in, “Her eye discourses.”

Discourse, normally a noun, is used as a verb. That’s interesting, but so what?

Researchers at the University of Liverpool, in England, found that hearing or reading language used in this shifted way causes a sudden jump in brain activity. It sort of makes the brain work backward to make sense of Shakespeare’s language, kind of like solving a puzzle.

Shakespeare is making us understand the word in a new way that in a sense rewires the brain.

Literary critics know that Shakespeare’s inventiveness with language is one of the things that make his writing so memorable and dramatic, but who knew that reading Shakespeare literally throws the brain for a loop?

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