“This is Your Brain on Shakespeare”

Although I enjoy Shakespeare, I often find myself frustrated by his diction.  The plot sounds quite interesting, but when I try to read the text, I feel like chucking the book across the room in utter frustration at the guy.  Can’t he just say what he means to say without flowery language?  The answer is simple – he could have, but he was a poet. And poets love their alliterations, similes, and metaphors.

Shakespeare had a large vocabulary, but it still wasn’t enough to express his thoughts.  In his article “This is Your Brain on Shakespeare“, Daniel Honan writes,

“In all of his plays, sonnets and narrative poems, Shakespeare used 17,677 words. Of these, he invented approximately 1,700, or nearly 10 percent. Shakespeare did this by changing the part of speech of words, adding prefixes and suffixes, connecting words together, borrowing from a foreign language, or by simply inventing them.”

It’s no wonder that students reading Shakespeare can be frustrated – the guy invented words arbitrarily to suit his needs.  Shakespeare wasn’t crazy – no in fact he was actually a genius for inventing words.  The time it takes for the brain to invent the language and for readers to logically figure out meaning leads to a more intelligent brain, according Honan and Davis.

Honan’s article explores scientifically the effect creative language (like Shakespeare’s invented language) has on the brain.  He taps into the research of Philip Davis from the University of Liverpool’s School of English to illustrate the connection between creative language and the brain.

Honan writes:

For Davis, we need creative language “to keep the brain alive.” He points out that so much of our language today, written in bullet points or simple sentences, fall into predictability. “You can often tell what someone is going to say before they finish their sentence” he says. “This represents a gradual deadening of the brain.”

So your high school English teacher was right – learning Shakespeare will be applicable to your future.  The more Shakespeare you know, the strong your brain will be.  And a strong brain leads to more knowledge retention and perhaps, as Davis hopes, to help reduce memory loss in those with dementia.


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