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Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense

What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Illustration by Katherine Guillen & Eleanor Davis

You’d be forgiven if, settling into the fall 2003 “Literature of the 16th Century” course at University of California, Berkeley, you found the unassuming 70-year-old man standing at the front of the lecture hall a bit eccentric. For one thing, the class syllabus, which was printed on the back of a rumpled flyer promoting bicycle safety, seemed to be preparing you for the fact that some readings may feel toilsome. “Don’t worry,” it read on the two weeks to be spent with a notoriously long allegorical poem; it’s “only drudgery if you’re reading it for school.” Phew! you thought, then, Wait a second ... You might have wondered what you had gotten yourself into. Then again, if you had enrolled in Stephen Booth’s class, chances are that you already knew.

By this time, Booth had been teaching Shakespeare to Berkeley undergraduates for decades and had earned the adulation of thousands of students. A cynic might say that this was because he issued virtually no assignments. But that was because he wanted the work to be a labor of love. His goal was that students engage meaningfully with the readings rather than “going thoughtlessly, dutifully through institutionally approved motions” in search of a good grade.

Even if you’d taken a Shakespeare class from someone else, you’d be likely to encounter Booth. His prizewinning 1977 edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets accompanies the 154 poems with over 400 pages of virtuosic commentary exploring the ambiguity and polysemy of Shakespeare’s verse. It’s nearly as dazzling an artifact as the sonnets themselves, an achievement so extraordinary that Booth has continued to win acclaim for decades, despite what some might see as his best efforts to distance himself from the inner circle of academia.

Although Booth is now retired, his work couldn’t be more relevant. In the study of the human mind, old disciplinary boundaries have begun to dissolve and fruitful new relationships between the sciences and humanities have sprung up in their place. When it comes to the cognitive science of language, Booth may be the most prescient literary critic who ever put pen to paper. In his fieldwork in poetic experience, he unwittingly anticipated several language-processing phenomena that cognitive scientists have only recently begun to study. Booth’s work not only provides one of the most original and penetrating looks into the nature of Shakespeare’s genius, it has profound implications for understanding the processes that shape how we think.

THE PLAY'S HIS THING: Stephen Booth at the Blackfriars Conference, 2011. The literary critic’s analysis of Shakespeare’s “substantive nonsense” could be a model for cognitive science.  Photo by Eric Roffman - QPORIT 

Until the early decades of the 20th century, Shakespeare criticism fell primarily into two areas: textual, which grapples with the numerous variants of published works in order to produce an edition as close as possible to the original, and biographical. Scholarship took a more political turn beginning in the 1960s, providing new perspectives from various strains of feminist, Marxist, structuralist, and queer theory. Booth is resolutely dismissive of most of these modes of study. What he cares about is poetics. Specifically, how poetic language operates on and in audiences of a literary work.

Close reading, the school that flourished mid-century and with which Booth’s work is most nearly affiliated, has never gone completely out of style. But Booth’s approach is even more minute—microscopic reading, according to fellow Shakespeare scholar Russ McDonald. And as the microscope opens up new worlds, so does Booth’s critical lens. What makes him radically different from his predecessors is that he doesn’t try to resolve or collapse his readings into any single interpretation. That people are so hung up on interpretation, on meaning, Booth maintains, is “no more than habit.” Instead, he revels in the uncertainty caused by the myriad currents of phonetic, semantic, and ideational patterns at play.

What does that look like? Here’s an example from Antony and Cleopatra , where one Roman describes to another the sight of Cleopatra’s ships fleeing battle:

          How appears the fight?

          On our side like the tokened pestilence
          Where death is sure. Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt—
          Whom leprosy o’ertake—i’ th’ midst o’ th’ fight,
          When vantage like a pair of twins appeared,
          Both as the same, or rather ours the elder,
          The breese upon her, like a cow in June,
          Hoists sails and flies.

Booth follows editorial convention in pointing out the two potential meanings of breese (“light wind” and “gadfly”). Meanwhile, he observes, the second, quieter effect of flies (denoting both “retreating” and “insects”) has been passed over—but not without effect. While both senses of breese or flies pertain, Booth notes that “in calling the effect a pun, we both exaggerate and underestimate its effect”—exaggerate because it’s less self-conscious than a pun, and underestimate because it achieves much more than one. An explicit pun is a momentary flash, and then it’s over. More valuable for Booth are the links that spread out from each word based on “its sound, sounds that resemble it, its sense, its potential senses, their homonyms, their cognates, their synonyms, and their antonyms.” Unexploded puns conserve their energy and preserve these links, creating rich, multilayered, imbricating patterns throughout a work.

What’s essential to Booth is that for readers and audiences—for everyone but the professional critic—these patterns usually remain below the threshold of our attention. What he calls the “physics” of the verse are available to general readers, but not obtrusive. In his 1998 book Precious Nonsense , Booth argues that the experiences that Shakespeare’s poetic language evokes with such verve and subtlety are intensifications of everyday language experiences. Shakespeare achieves this by weaving incredibly rich networks from the same kinds of “substantive nonsense and nonimporting patterns” that pop up in slang, jokes, songs, and nursery rhymes. Those dense networks of patterns, Booth posits, are “the principal source of the greatness we find in Shakespeare’s work.”

A cognitive scientist looking at Booth’s explanation of Shakespearean effects would spot many concepts from her own discipline. Those include priming—when, after hearing a word, we tend more readily to recognize words that are related to it; expectation—the influence of higher-level reasoning on word recognition; and depth of processing—how varying levels of attention affect the extent of our engagement with a statement. (Shallow processing explains our predisposition to miss the problem of whether a man should be allowed to marry his widow’s sister.)

The consonances are surprising, considering that when Booth established his method of criticism, the prevailing school of linguistics had no room for such ideas. Cognitive linguistics, a sympathetic approach that established the fundamental importance of metaphor in the structuring of human thought, didn’t start to gain ground until the 1970s and ’80s. Before that, the norm was generative linguistics, which deemed non-standard speech acts aberrations unworthy of further scrutiny. This left lots of language unexplained: just think of the things that you read, hear, or say every day that, despite not adhering to the formal and logical rules of the language, you understand perfectly.

Cognitive linguistics offered a step forward in the sense that it embraces the complexity and ungrammaticality of everyday language. In earlier days, language processing was regarded as a black box: language goes in, comprehension comes out. More recently, dynamical cognitive linguists began to use tools from physics and calculus to get inside the black box, explaining shifting ambiguous meanings in terms of interacting equations. These mathematical tools allow dynamicists to emphasize that language interpretation happens in time, a point that Booth also emphasizes. What is so important about the actual moment-to-moment nature of reading? One clean illustration from cognitive science is in the conflict between the psychological processes of priming and expectation.

That people are so hung up on interpretation, on meaning, is no more than habit. Better to revel in uncertainty.

Our brains are structured such that if you hear an animal word (cat), it becomes easier to process another animal word (dog) when it’s presented about half a second later. In the jargon, this is called priming: cat primes dog, and it happens quickly. Expectations describe a slower, more arbitrary type of connection. There is no fundamental relationship between animal words and office words. But if I put you in a psychology lab and present you with a series of animal words followed by office words (like desk), then you will learn an expectational relationship between them. Expectations take longer to kick in, about one to two seconds. So following cat with desk after only half a second won’t help you process desk, but giving cat another second to sink in before presenting desk will link cat and desk as strongly as cat and dog.

Association and expectation are different processes occurring on different timescales, and they can interact in complex ways. Most strikingly, expectations can overpower associations. If you have come to expect an office word after an animal word, then cat will still prime dog after a half-second interval. But after a two-second interval, cat suppresses dog, making it harder to process. Authors who are sensitive to these effects, and careful about the linkages that they create, may be able to use the interactions of priming and expectation to create intricate experiences of time, language, and meaning.

Certain types of sentences are especially good at demonstrating the unfolding of meaning over time. Garden-path sentences (“The child rushed through the doorway fell”) got their name because they lead their audiences into a syntactical dead end—down the garden path, so to speak. Although they’ve been remarked on for decades, they’ve been taken up more recently by dynamicists because they’re especially useful for exploring questions of moment-to-moment language experience. Michael Spivey, professor of cognitive and information sciences at the University of California, Merced, and author of The Continuity of Mind , uses garden-path sentences to describe the unfolding of sentence understanding as a contest between every possible interpretation of that sentence, one in which revealing each subsequent word disqualifies more contenders until just one remains standing. What may first appear to be a statement about a running child ends up making more sense if it’s about a child who, hurried across a threshold by his caretaker, loses his balance. Spivey’s research shows that, until we arrive at a conclusion, we are capable of holding both meanings in mind simultaneously.

Booth claims that garden-path phenomena and similar ambiguities in Shakespeare’s sonnets are essential to create in the reader the same unsettling mental states that they describe. His style of approaching these “substantially gratuitous journeys in the mind” aligns neatly with modern cognitive scientific approaches in that he not only tolerates but celebrates uncertainty. For Booth, the idea that readers manage continually shifting provisional interpretations—and that they don’t notice themselves doing it—is an essential component of poetic richness. The sonnets are full of these “plays on momentary confusions.” Take the following lines from Sonnet 79:

          I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
          Deserves the travail of a worthier pen

The first of these lines could be a complete sentence, using the vocabulary of debate invoked earlier in the poem to concede to the lover (or, adding another layer of uncertainty, to the speaker’s own affection). While the next line “makes it clear that thy lovely argument means ‘the theme of thy loveliness,’ ” Booth writes, “the process of reading this particular statement in this particular diction and syntax will have been such as to make the reader’s state of mind as a reader similar to the speaker’s state of mind as a lover. They have both experienced a sense that something is wrong.”

Philip Davis, professor of psychological sciences at University of Liverpool and author of two books on Shakespeare and the brain, conducts research in reading and literary thinking. In one well-publicized study, Davis used EEG and other electrophysiological techniques to look at the moment-to-moment effects on readers of functional shifts in Shakespeare’s verse.

Functional shifts occur when parts of speech are switched unexpectedly. They’re a favorite Shakespearean device, but noun-to-verb conversions are especially common: Edgar’s “He childed as I fathered” in King Lear , for example, or the hero’s lament in Antony and Cleopatra about “The hearts that spanieled me at heels.” According to Davis, the changes in EEG measurements between Shakespearean functional shifts and various control sentences demonstrate that “while the Shakespearean functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and extra emergent consciousness.” In other words, the brain noticed something odd about the use of a noun as a verb, quickly made sense of it, and was put on high alert for more unusual activity.

To understand how we can accommodate to the shifting roles of nouns and verbs in real time, we need to appreciate the brain as constantly managing and integrating a deluge of information from many sources. Traditional approaches to language treated sounds, words, phrases, sentences, and meanings as essentially separable, and choked on language that relied on the multi-level interactions that characterize Shakespeare’s verse. That our brains are continually bombarded by information from all sides, though, is a basic tenet of modern approaches to cognition. And, rather than overwhelming us with “information overload,” this complexity can help us navigate the mess of real-world language. Researchers like Spivey argue that a heavier flow of information can actually smooth the activity of neural processes, much in the way that a circle, represented by infinite points, maps a smoother circuit than a hexagon, represented by only six.

One scientist used EEG and other electrophysiological techniques to look at the effects of Shakespeare’s verse on readers.

Similarly, the integration of language over multiple mental systems—cognitive, perceptual, and sensory-motor—makes how we process it susceptible to even very subtle syntactic and semantic cues. Teenie Matlock, also at UC Merced, has demonstrated that the content of text can influence the act of reading it in surprisingly literal ways. Matlock’s experiments with fictive motion—when we use motion verbs to describe things that cannot move, like “the road runs through the desert”—found that people read fictive motion sentences more slowly when they were preceded by sentences about difficult terrain (“The valley was bumpy and uneven”) vs. easy (“The valley was flat and smooth”). This effect disappeared for sentences without fictive motion, as when the road was merely “in” the desert.

Booth seems once again to have an intuitive grasp of this relationship, not least because of the exuberant mobility with which he describes what Shakespeare does to us. It may look like we’re sitting quietly in our chairs as we read a sonnet or watch one of the plays, he writes, but we’re really making great leaps from one association to the next, performing “mental aerobatics.” Yet it’s in Booth’s understanding of how specific verses propel or impede dramatic action that the connection between language and motion becomes most clear.

According to Booth, the greatest tragedy in Macbeth occurs in the audience, in the failure of moral categories that leaves us identifying with the title character despite his repugnant actions. He points out that later scenes repeatedly offer Malcolm to the audience as a potential way out, giving us several chances to switch our moral allegiance.

So why don’t we? The answer, Booth says, is because Shakespeare doesn’t want us to. To begin with, Malcolm’s responses to the unfolding drama never seem quite appropriate. On learning that his father has been murdered, for example, he answers “O, by whom?”—“a response from which,” Booth notes, “no amount of gasping and mimed horror can remove the tone of small talk.”

By padding Malcolm’s later speeches with an abundance of “syntactical stuffing,” Shakespeare ensures that Malcolm comes off as plodding, bloviating, dramatically weak. “Malcolm’s style is grating in its lack of economy,” Booth explains; his “syntax is maddeningly contorted, and his pace tortuous…no quantity of alternative adjectives and nouns can fill up the cistern of Malcolm’s lust to dilate upon particulars.”

Here, if ever, Shakespeare lays out bumpy verbal terrain. Even if we wanted to like Malcolm, the play encourages us not to simply because the way he speaks is so impedimentary. Malcolm slows things down. We never leave Macbeth; linguistically and otherwise, things are much more exciting when he’s around.

“In the theatre, speed is good and slowness is bad,” Booth writes. “In the story of Macbeth as staged by Shakespeare, virtuous characters and virtuous actions move slowly; speed is characteristic of the play’s evil actions and their actors. What an audience approves in one dimension of its experience is at perfect odds with what it approves in another.” This, Booth maintains, is why we keep going to see Macbeth . And for him, the three-hour respite from the constraints of ordinary logical and moral systems is “an effectively miraculous experience.”

Cognitive scientists have examined many of the elements that Booth discusses—wordplay, poetics, figurative language—but they haven’t yet managed to integrate them fully into their theories of language. In some crucial areas, the scientists have yet to catch up with Booth.

In general, cognitive scientists tend to treat consciousness as a torch for illuminating language: pay closer attention, have a richer experience. Davis writes about the effects of Shakespeare mostly in terms of neurons and brains rather than humans and minds. But when he extends the terms of the discussion to include consciousness, he invokes a framework in which more neural activation in response to art implies more conscious awareness of its effects on us, and therefore a more meaningful poetic experience. And it makes sense to imagine engagement with art as involving lots of active, self-aware deliberation, with correspondingly high levels of neural activity…doesn’t it?

Yet Booth argues strenuously against this portrayal. His case for muted wordplay and unexploited paradoxes poses a more counterintuitive relationship between consciousness and language experience. Being too self-aware, he claims, can disrupt the experience of an unfolding verse and blind us to more subdued phenomena. (In recent years, neuroscientists have found that hyper-awareness can curtail subtle, subconscious activities, like reflecting on our surroundings and ourselves.) Returning to the example of Macbeth , Booth maintains that the subtle effects created by the dialogue, and the fact that their workings remain below threshold, are crucial to the experience of the play. The “miraculous experience” is attainable for audience members “only because they are oblivious to the logical conflict in their responses and to their achievement in tolerating its irresolution.” We are provided with so much activity from so many overlapping and interacting relationships between words that we do not notice the jags and hiccups, nor our own proficiency in accommodating for them.

As a playwright and businessman, of course, Shakespeare had a serious interest in shielding his audiences from the mechanics of his verse. In addition to its concordance with the 16th-century concept of sprezzatura —lightness, ease, the ability to make even the most difficult things look effortless—a play crafted to maximize delight helped Shakespeare fill theatres in a way that a lot of visible sweating over the lines might not have. For every ingenious device that Booth describes in the verse, he brings as much attention to the effort that went into keeping it unobtrusive. His theory may explain the ineffable mind-states that poetry creates in us: poetic experience as the interaction of barely perceptible mental processes whose delicate, scintillating play is usually washed out by the spotlight of conscious attention.

What Booth so elegantly shows us is how Shakespeare can free us from ourselves. His lush, prismatic verse grants us “a small but metaphysically glorious holiday” from how we usually comprehend language, a holiday that is in turn “a brief and trivial but effectively real holiday from the inherent limitation of the human mind.” Rather than plunging into the abyss of not-knowing, we soar above it. We are not falling, but flying.

Jillian Hinchliffe is a writer living in Zürich, Switzerland. Seth Frey is a cognitive scientist. He works as a postdoc in behavioral economics at Disney Research. This article is not connected to his work there.

Additional Reading

Booth, S. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Edited with Analytic Commentary Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (1977).

Booth, S. King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (1983).

Booth, S. Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson’s Epitaphs on His Children, and Twelfth Night University of California Press, Oakland, CA (1998).

Cook, A. Shakespearean Neuroplay: Reinvigorating the Study of Dramatic Texts and Performance Through Cognitive Science Palgrave Macmillan (2010).

Davis, P. The Shakespeared Brain.  Literary Review 356 , 30-31 (2008).

Anderson, F., Cargill, S.A., & Spivey, M.J.  Gradiency and visual context in syntactic garden-paths.  Journal of Memory and Language 57 , 570-595 (2007).

Matlock, T. Fictive motion as cognitive simulation.  Memory & Cognition 32 , 1389-1400 (2004).

McDonald, R., Nace, N.D., & Williams, T.D. eds. Shakespeare Up Close: Reading Early Modern Texts Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, New York, NY (2012).

Phillips, C., Wagers, M.W., & Lau, E.F. Grammatical illusions and selective fallibility in real-time language comprehension. Experiments at the Interfaces, Syntax & Semantics 37 , 153-186 (2011).

Turner, M., & Lakoff, G. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor University of Chicago Press (1989).

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This post originally appeared on Nautilus and was published May 25, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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