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Philip Davis

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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. Namely: the creative freedom and fluidity of the language at the time; the economy of energy it offered for suddenly compressed formulations; and the closeness of functional shift to metaphor - that characteristic mental conversion that Shakespeare so loved - in the dynamic shifting of senses.

Functional shift was small and tight enough for experimentation. Up until now the main cognitive research done on the confusion of verbs and nouns has been to do with mistakes made by those who are brain-damaged. But hardly anybody appears to have investigated the neural processing of a 'positive error', such as functional shift in normal healthy people. We decided to try to see what happens when the brain comes upon these sudden new formulations in Shakespeare. We would use three pieces of kit. First, EEG (electroencephalogram) tests, with electrodes placed on different parts of the scalp to measure brain-events taking place in time; later, MEG (magnetoencephalography), an imaging technique using a helmet-like brain-scanner which measures effects in terms of location in the brain as well as their timing; and finally fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which uses those tunnel-like brain-scanners that focus even more specifically on brain-activation by location. Together with my English Language colleague, Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz, I set up forty of the following four-sentence stimuli based upon Shakespeare, where 'A' is the control sentence or basic norm, making both grammatical and semantic sense; 'B' the Shakespearian functional shift (in this case adapted from Coriolanus 5.3); 'C' a functional shift in syntax but one that doesn't make sense in context; and 'D' a formulation that has no grammatical shift but still doesn't make sense semantically. People undergoing the experiment simply had to press a button if the sentence roughly made sense to them.

(A) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, deified me indeed.

(B) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, godded me indeed.

(C) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, charcoaled me indeed.

(D) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, poured me indeed.

EEG works as follows in its graph-like measurements. When the brain senses a semantic violation, it automatically registers what is called an N400 effect, a negative wave modulation 400 milliseconds after the onset of the critical word that disrupts the meaning of a sentence. The N400 amplitude is small when little semantic integration effort is needed (eg to integrate the word 'eat' in the sentence, 'The pizza was too hot to eat'), but large when the critical word is unexpected and therefore difficult to integrate (eg 'The pizza was too hot to sing'). But when the brain senses a syntactic violation there is a P600 effect, a parietal modulation peaking approximately 600 milliseconds after the onset of the word that upsets syntactic integrity. Thus when a word violates the grammatical structure of a sentence (eg 'The pizza was too hot to mouth'), a positive wave is systematically observed. The results were:

(A) With the simple control sentence ('he deified me'), no N400 or P600 effects because it is correct both semantically and syntactically.

(B) With the Shakespearian 'godded me', high P600 (because it feels like a grammatical anomaly) but no N400 (the brain will tolerate it, almost straightaway, as making sense despite the grammatical difficulty). This is in marked contrast with C below.

(C) With 'charcoaled me', both N400 and P600 were high, because it violates both grammar and meaning - and is gibberish.

(D) With 'poured me', no P600 (it makes grammatical sense) but high N400 (it makes no semantic sense).

So what?

First, it means that functional shift is what the scientists call a robust phenomenon: that is to say, it has a distinct and unique effect on the brain. Instinctively Shakespeare was right to use it as one of his dramatic mental tools.

Secondly, the P600 surge means that the brain was thereby primed to look out for more difficulty, to work at a higher level, whilst still accepting that, fundamentally, sense was being made. In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and extra emergent consciousness, and giving more power and sheer life to the sentence as a whole.

In this way Shakespeare is stretching us, making us more alive, at a level of neural excitement never fully exorcised by later conceptualisation; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings begin to 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.

The experiments are slow and ongoing: we want to find where in the brain all this takes place and with what connectivity if one part of the brain speaks to another. For example, some neuroscientists believe that there is one area of the brain that processes nouns and a different area of the brain that processes verbs. Too often people suppose that brain experimentation is reductive, mechanically localising 'love', for example, to a specific part of the brain. But look at this case: supposing that nouns and verb are indeed separately localised, what happens when the brain is momentarily stunned by a functional shift that it cannot immediately identify as noun or verb? Then the brain is pressured into working at a higher adaptive level of conscious evolution, paradoxically undetermined by the localised laws and structures it nonetheless still works from.

It is early days. But I am getting a greater sense of how and why Shakespeare really does something to our inner reality, making me feel more alive in more unpredictable mental ways when I read or see his work. I am also getting a sense of an underlying shape to experience, as though the syntax in front of my eyes were keying into mental pathways behind them, and shifting and reconfiguring them dramatically in the theatre of the brain.

Philip Davis's 'Sudden Shakespeare' appeared in 1996, 'Shakespeare Thinking' in 2007. He is also editor of 'The Reader' magazine.