Syntactic Violations: neurolinguistics and a night in the park

Last week, I saw a good friend of mine play the role of Peter Simple in an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Every summer, Shakespeare in the Arb puts on a show in a local nature area, where both actors and audience members move from location to location for different settings, incorporating the flora (and, on the occasion luck is particularly good, fauna) into the scenes.

Nicols Arboretum, though, isn’t far from the city. Sometimes a train rumbles by, or a helicopter passes overhead en route to the nearby hospital. Even when that isn’t an issue, nature may not cooperate: the first of the two nights I went, the wind sometimes swallowed the actors’ words.

Thanks to smart phone technology, by the end of the first windy scene, I had downloaded The Merry Wives of Windsor so as to read along when I couldn’t hear, but as the evening went on, I found myself referring to the text even when I could hear easily. Part of this is that there are subtleties in Shakespeare I wouldn’t catch just listening—and I know there are some I missed, even after seeing it a second time; part of it, though, is that I am a casual Shakespeare fan in the twenty-first century, so the Bard’s language makes me pause.

Which, as it turns out, might be part of the appeal.

In 2007, Guillaume Thierry and several others published a paper called “Event-related potential characterisation of the Shakespearean functional shift in narrative sentence structure.” It’s thick with more advanced neurology than I fully understand, (this is a much friendlier summary) but here’s the gist of it: Shakespeare’s use of “functional shifts” (i.e., language that is in some way non-standard, such as “lip something loving in my ear” in place of “whisper something loving in my ear” or the many other examples on p. 929–930) makes the brain hesitate for a moment, work just a little harder in a way that excites us.

Subjects’ brain activity in response to a nonstandard sentence shows a peak occurring noticeably later than a normal response (see the difference between images A {roughly when a normal response would occur} and C on p. 928)—the pause that comes for me when Master Page says

Let’s go in, gentlemen; but, trust me, we’ll mock
him. I do invite you to-morrow morning to my house
to breakfast: after, we’ll a-birding together; I
have a fine hawk for the bush. Shall it be so?
(III.iii.205–208)

and it sinks in just a little slower, like a new food whose flavor is unfamiliar to me. Perhaps that mini-rush from linguistic novelty makes it all the more delightful when, two lines later, the Frenchman Dr. Caius declares, “If dere be one or two, I shall make-a the turd.”

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