Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Shakespeared Brain

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Very interesting article by Phillip Davis in the Literary Review. It begins:

In Shakespeare what is apparently a small matter is actually often a big deal made seemingly small only because it is happening at pace. The moment of a decision in Macbeth, of a death in Lear: they are no sooner there than gone, with hardly time for the thing to sink in. Says poor Phebe in As You Like It, at the sight of what she takes to be an angry but beautiful young man: ‘Faster than his tongue/Did make offence his eye did heal it up.’ ‘Faster’: that’s why such things strike with disproportionate emotional violence – they are big matters contained within a small space, more than one thing happening fast at a single instant. The conceptualisation comes along afterwards, like the old nurse reporting to an impatient young Juliet: slow, belated and heavy.

I believe that the conceptual language with which we talk about Shakespeare is not very good, because it is far too much after the event. In fact I also believe that, in general, our thinking about what goes on so invisibly, so microscopically in the mind, is cumbersome and restrictive. The enemy is paraphrase, the loss of original experience within a second-hand normalising language. Whereas Shakespeare at the moment of formulation offers the great creative example of what the human mind can do.

This is why one day I knocked on the door of two brain scientists: first Neil Roberts at the University of Liverpool, then Guillaume Thierry at Bangor. I told them about the work of E A Abbott.

Abbott (1838-1926) was one of the great Victorian schoolmasters, who wrote, at the age of thirty, A Shakespearian Grammar. He described it as an attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Victorian English so that his students could understand that the difficulty of Shakespeare lay not so much in the individual words, which could always be looked up in a glossary, as in the syntactic shaping of his thought. In Elizabethan grammar, he said, ‘it was common to place words in the order in which they came uppermost in the mind’ – and then fit the syntax around that mental excitement. Elizabethan authors, he continued, never objected to any ellipsis – any grammatical shortcut – ‘provided the deficiency could be easily supplied from the context’.

I told my brain scientists that one small but powerful example of this quick Elizabethan shorthand is what is now called functional shift or word-class conversion – which George Puttenham, writing in 1589, named ‘enallage or the figure of exchange’. It happens when one part of speech is suddenly transformed into another with a different function but hardly any change of form. It sounds dull but in performance is almost electrically exciting in its sudden simple reach for a word. For example: an adjective is made a verb when in The Winter’s Tale heavy thoughts are said to ‘thick my blood’. A pronoun is made into a noun when Olivia in Twelfth Night is called ‘the cruellest she alive’. Prospero turns adverb to noun when he speaks so wonderfully of ‘the dark backward’ of past time; Edgar turns noun to verb when he makes the link with Lear: ‘He childed as I fathered.’ As Abbott says, in Elizabethan English ‘You can “happy” your friend, “malice” or “foot” your enemy, or “fall” axe on his head.’ Richard II is not merely deposed (that’s Latinate paraphrase): he is unkinged.

This mental instrument of fresh linguistic coinage, which Shakespeare used above all, holds in small within itself three great principles. …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2008 at 9:11 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Education

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