Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense

Just as comedians generally don’t laugh at their own jokes, Shakespeare doesn’t call too much attention to his own linguistic cleverness, which is one reason his work rewards close scrutiny. It’s not that he was being deliberately obscure or flowery — though some of his obsequious characters definitely exhibit such speech patterns. One line of inquiry into Shakespeare’s language explores how the brain processes sequences of images.

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.

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