This is your brain on Shakespeare

Hurts so bad, but feels so good.

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I’m 21 plays into my year of reading Shakespeare. But each time I crack into a new play, the process is the same:

I run through the Persons of the Play only to instantly forget who’s the daughter of which duke and which servant is attending on which lord’s uncle’s clown. I go to launch into 1.1, but first have to bat away a swarm of footnotes about historic London and the four humors. I hack off glosses of sith, troth-plight, and yarely as if taking a machete to a dense verbal jungle. 

Before even making it to the bottom of the first page, I’ve already suffocated the text with a scrawling geometry of circles, stars, arrows, and underlinings. The margins shout huge, over-general, 11th-grade-English-class ideas that will mean nothing to me when I revisit them later: IDENTITY, VIOLENCE, APPEARANCE vs. REALITY, SEX PUN. 

I flip to the end of the play to see how much further I have to go. I sigh. I check my phone for messages. Then email. Then Twitter. Regrouping, I confront a longer passage. “What the hell is this person even saying?!” I cry. (This can be embarrassing when I’m reading at a café.) 

By the time I reach the end of the scene, my hair is ruffled. I’m winded. Somehow my quads feel sore. I reward myself by checking my phone. Then email. Then Twitter.

Then 1.2.

Then something happens.

I wouldn’t say it’s a rhythm. I still shuttle back and forth between the text and footnotes, between the play and my notebooks, between whatever scene I’m in and the list of those characters I can’t keep track of. 

I wouldn’t say it’s comprehension. Plenty of similes and allusions fly right over my head. And, for as pesky as all those footnotes and glosses can feel, I lean heavily on them to understand Shakespeare’s language and references. 

Nor would I say it’s appreciation. I mean, it’s not like I needed convincing of the Bard’s genius going into this project; my project is basically premised on it. And it’s not like I’ll be stumbling upon something terribly new and profound 400 years after Shakespeare died, upon something we utterly missed after bazillions of pages of scholarship written on him, after gazillions of performance: “Hey, world! You’ve got to check this out! You won’t believe what I’ve found!” I just won’t have cause to say that. 

OK, I am getting better at reading Shakespeare. I better be getting better at reading him: I’ve read 21 goddamned plays so far. Am I faster? Yes. Understanding more? Sure. And I am getting more out of reading Shakespeare? Seeing deeper meanings, peeling back thicker layers? Making more connections in the text, between the texts, between Shakespeare and 2016? No doubt.

It’s that the change is something I feel in my brain. Because reading Shakespeare is like making my neurons and synapses go to a CrossFit class. They’re reluctant to start. The burn hurts. They want to quit right as the heart rate gets up and sweat starts pushing through the pores. They’re even wondering if CrossFit isn’t a little bit douchey. But after a few circuits, they start to enjoy it. After a few classes, they start to see results. And pretty soon, my brain is looking forward to Shakespeare.

I love Twitter. I love listicles. I love the Internet. But tabbed browsing, checking for breaking news and notifications and updates, scrolling and clicking and linking, starting and bailing on so many articles and so many videos – it’s addictive, it’s compulsive, it’s like mindless snacking, never quite sated because I don’t feel like taking the time to go to the store and prepare a proper meal. And this noisy, desultory info-binge builds up like toxins and fat cells, further straining the ability to concentrate, to sit still. To do one thing at a time, to think one thought a time, to be OK with slowness, to listen to someone else. To not know right away. To not have immediate answers. To not be productive. 

Yes, reading Shakespeare brings new knowledge, new ideas, new images, new vocabulary. It brings a sense of accomplishment, personally, intellectually, culturally. It brings a sense of immersion into history, a sense of wonder at one man’s legacy, at one man’s literary talent and insight into humanity.  

But decoding all of those anon’s and zounds’s, breaking down elaborate syntax just to figure out what the king is going to do next in the plot, contorting the brain to understand some seven-layered cuckoldry joke – this requires a sustained and focused effort. To get through a play, I can’t just scroll and jump from tab to tab. I have to slow things down. I have to turn things off, bracket things off. I have to be disciplined.

I have to put in the time.

This sustained and focused effort brings pleasure. It brings peace. It makes my brain feel lighter, quieter, calmer, more centered in a world of so much choice, information, and possibility. 

Reading Shakespeare is hard. When I start a new play, my brain hurts. But by the time I finish, my brain feels so good. 

Author: John Kelly

I write about everyday etymology at mashedradish.com & @mashedradish. I am reading Shakespeare in 2016 at shakespeareconfidential.com & @bardconfidensh.

9 thoughts on “This is your brain on Shakespeare”

  1. Congratulations on turning 21! My attempt this year to engage the mind was overtaken by circumstances. The excuse is pathetic. Yes, I let the reluctance win too easy. But I’m actually commenting today because it’s great to see another marking up their text – ‘suffocating’ – what a descriptor! I prefer to think of mine as ‘drawing out the iridescence’ because I use coloured pencils.

    Like

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