Four on Shakespeare

The one thing I know with absolute certainty about Wm. Shakespeare is that he writes gooder than me.  Much, much gooder.

Joking aside, reading his plays and sonnets is both a pleasure and a chore.  It's not just the 500 year old language and usage, it's the way he manipulates words and sentences.  It makes you think, and, according to an EEG study of people reading Shakespeare, it causes changes in the way the brain functions.

Take the phrase, 'he godded me’ from the tragedy of Coriolanus.  God is a noun and a proper noun depending on usage.  How do you "god" someone?  Put them on a pedestal ? Perhaps.  Did he mean it sarcastically?  It turns out that EEG studies show that readers get it even before they think about possible meanings.

In these studies, researchers report on compiling a psychological profile of Shakespeare, how the brain changes while reading his work, a study of Richard III that concludes he wasn't a sociopath as many believe, followed by a speculation by infectious disease specialists that the Bard may have had syphilis. Interesting stuff.

Here are the reports with links to the original studies in the attribution lines.
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Shakespeare's plays reveal his psychological signature

Applying psychological theory and text-analyzing software, researchers have discovered a unique psychological profile that characterizes Shakespeare's established works, and this profile strongly identifies Shakespeare as an author of the long-contested play Double Falsehood.

Shakespeare is such a towering literary figure that any new insight into the man, or his work, tends to generate a jolt of excitement in academic and non-academic communities of Shakespeare aficionados. Applying psychological theory and text-analyzing software, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have discovered a unique psychological profile that characterizes Shakespeare's established works, and this profile strongly identifies Shakespeare as an author of the long-contested play Double Falsehood.

"Research in psychology has shown that some of the core features of who a person is at their deepest level can be revealed based on how they use language. With our new study, we show that you can actually take a lot of this information and put it all together at once to understand an author like Shakespeare rather deeply," says researcher Ryan Boyd of the University of Texas at Austin.
The study, conducted in collaboration with James Pennebaker, also at UT-Austin, goes beyond examining authorship from the standpoint of word counts and linguistic regularities, providing a deeper exploration of an author's psychological profile.

"This research shows that it is indeed possible to start modeling peoples' mental worlds in much more complete ways. We don't need a time machine and a survey form to figure out what type of person Shakespeare was -- we can determine that very accurately just based on how he wrote using methods that are objective and easy to do," Boyd explains.

Double Falsehood was published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald, who claimed to have based the play on three original Shakespeare manuscripts. The manuscripts have since been lost, presumably destroyed by a library fire, and authorship of the play has been hotly contested ever since. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was the true author of Double Falsehood, while others believe that the play was actually an original work by Theobald himself that he tried to pass off as an adaptation.

Boyd and Pennebaker realized that using psychological theory to inform analysis of the playwrights' respective works may shed light on the authorship question. They examined 33 plays by Shakespeare, 12 by Theobald, and 9 by John Fletcher, a colleague (and sometime collaborator) of Shakespeare. The texts were stripped of extraneous information (such as publication information) and were processed using software that evaluated the works for specific features determined by the researchers.

For example, the researchers' software examined the playwrights' use of function words (e.g., pronouns, articles, prepositions) and words belonging to various content categories (e.g., emotions, family, sensory perception, religion). They had the software identify themes present in each of the works to generate an overarching thematic signature for each author.

Categorical writing
They also examined the works to determine how "categorical" the writing was.
  • Categorical writing tends to be heavy on nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it indicates an analytic or formal way of thinking. Research has shown that people who rate high on categorical thinking tend to be emotionally distant, applying problem-solving approaches to everyday situations. 
  • People who rate low on categorical thinking, on the other hand, tend to live in the moment and are more focused on social matters.
By aggregating dozens of psychological features of each playwright, Boyd and Pennebaker were able to create a psychological signature for each individual. They were then able to look at the psychological signature of Double Falsehood to determine who the author was most likely to be.

Looking at the plays as whole units, the results were clear: Every measure but one identified Shakespeare as the likely author of Double Falsehood. Theobald was identified as the best match only when it came to his use of content words, and even then only by one of the three statistical approaches the researchers used.

When Boyd and Pennebaker broke the play down into acts and analyzed the texts across acts, they found a more nuanced picture. For the first three acts, the analyses continued to identify Shakespeare as the likely author; for the fourth and fifth acts, the measures varied between Shakespeare and Fletcher. Again, Theobald's influence on the text appeared to be very minor.

"Honestly, I was surprised to see such a strong signal for Shakespeare showing through in the results," says Boyd. "Going into the research without any real background knowledge, I had just kind of assumed that it was going to be a pretty cut and dry case of a fake Shakespeare play, which would have been really interesting in and of itself."

By using measures that tapped into the author's psychological profile, Boyd and Pennebaker were able to see that the author of Double Falsehood was likely sociable and fairly well educated -- findings that don't jibe with accounts of Theobald as well educated but also rigid and abrasive.

Together, these findings clearly show that exploring the psychological dimensions of a literary work can offer even deeper insight in the process of textual analysis.

"I've always held huge admiration for scholars who grapple with literature -- there is a great deal of detective work that goes into figuring out who the authors really are 'deep down,' their motivations, their lives, and how these factors are embedded within their work," says Boyd. "We demonstrate with our current work that an incredible amount of this information can be extracted automatically from language."

Story Source:  Materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. R. L. Boyd, J. W. Pennebaker. Did Shakespeare Write Double Falsehood? Identifying Individuals by Creating Psychological Signatures With Text AnalysisPsychological Science, 2015

Reading Shakespeare Has
Dramatic Effect On Human Brain

Research at the University of Liverpool has found that Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, adding further drama to the bard's plays and poetry

Research at the University of Liverpool has found that Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, adding further drama to the bard's plays and poetry.

Shakespeare uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift that involves, for example using a noun to serve as a verb.  Researchers found that this technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it understands the function of the word within a sentence.  This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Liverpool
This is your brain on Shakespeare: the effect of 
functional shift on the brain.

Professor Philip Davis, from the University’s School of English, said: “The brain reacts to reading a phrase such as ‘he godded me’ from the tragedy of Coriolanus, in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited.  By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity - a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

Experts believe that this heightened brain activity may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such a dramatic impact on their readers.

Professor Neil Roberts, from the University’s Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre, (MARIARC), explains: “The effect on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened. 

Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited.  The brain signature is relatively uneventful when we understand the meaning of a word but when the word changes the grammar of the whole sentence, brain readings suddenly peak.  The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.”

Professor Roberts and Professor Davis together with Dr Guillaune Thierry, from the University of Wales, Bangor, monitored 20 participants using an electroencephalogram (EEG) as they read selected lines from Shakespeare’s plays.

In this initial test electrodes were placed on the subject’s scalp to measure brain responses.

Professor Roberts said: “EEG gives graph-like measurements and when the brain reads a sentence that does not make semantic sense it registers what we call a N400 effect – a negative wave modulation.  When the brain reads a grammatically incorrect sentence it registers a P600 effect – an effect which continues to last after the word that triggered it was first read.”

Researchers also found that when participants read the word producing the functional shift there was no N400 effect indicating that the meaning was accepted but a P600 effect was observed which indicates a positive re-evaluation of the word.  The team is now using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMI) to test which areas of the brain are most affected and the kind of impact it could have in maintaining healthy brain activity.

Professor Davis added: “This interdisciplinary work is good for brain science because it offers permanent scripts of the human mind working moment-to-moment.  It is good for literature as it illustrates primary human thinking. Through the two disciplines, we may discover new insights into the very motions of the mind.”

Story Source: Materials provided by University of Liverpool. Note: "Reading Shakespeare Has Dramatic Effect On Human Brain." ScienceDaily, 19 December 2006.

Was King Richard III a control freak?

University of Leicester psychologists believe Richard III was not a psychopath -- but he may have had control freak tendencies.

Professor Mark Lansdale, Head of the University's School of Psychology, and forensic psychologist Dr Julian Boon have put together a psychological analysis of Richard III based on the consensus among historians relating to Richard's experiences and actions.

They found that, while there was no evidence for Shakespeare's depiction of Richard III as a psychopath, he may have had "intolerance to uncertainty syndrome" -- which may have manifested in control freak tendencies.

Their analysis aims to humanize Richard -- to flesh out the bones and get to the character of the man who became one of the most controversial kings in English history.

Firstly, they examined one of the most persistent and critical depictions of Richard's personality -- the suggestion that he was a murdering psychopath. This reputation -- portrayed most famously in Shakespeare's play -- does not seem to have any basis in the facts we have about his life.

He showed little signs of the traits psychologists would use to identify psychopaths today -- including narcissism, deviousness, callousness, recklessness and lack of empathy in close relationships.

Intolerance to uncertainty syndrome
However, the academics speculate that Richard may have exhibited a common psychological syndrome know as an intolerance to uncertainty.

Professor Mark Lansdale said: "This syndrome is associated with a need to seek security following an insecure childhood, as Richard had. In varying degrees, it is associated with a number of positive aspects of personality including a strong sense of right and wrong, piety, loyalty to trusted colleagues, and a belief in legal processes -- all exhibited by Richard.

Control freakery
"On the negative side it is also associated with fatalism, a tendency to disproportionate responses when loyalty is betrayed and a general sense of 'control freakery' that can, in extreme cases, emerge as very authoritarian or possibly priggish. We believe this is an interesting perspective on Richard's character."

In addition, the pair examined how his disability -- evident in the curvature of the spine of the King's remains -- may have had an impact on his character -- and specifically on the way he interacted with people who he did not know well.

In medieval times, deformation was often taken as a visible indication of a twisted soul. As a result, it is possible that this would have made him cautious in all his interactions with others.

Professor Lansdale added: "Overall, we recognize the difficulty of drawing conclusions about people who lived 500 years ago and about whom relatively little is reliably recorded; especially when psychology is a science that is so reliant upon observation.

"However, noting that this is the problem historians work with as a matter of routine, we argue that a psychological approach provides a distinct and novel perspective: one which offers a different way of thinking about the human being behind the bones."

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Leicester. "Was King Richard III a control freak?." ScienceDaily, 4 March 2013.

Shakespeare’s Writings Indicate
He May Have Had Syphilis

"Shakespeare’s knowledge of syphilis is clinically precise."

Shakespeare’s name usually inspires thoughts of kings, fairies, lovers, wars and poetic genius--not syphilis. However, some passages in his plays and sonnets indicate that the Bard may have suffered from one or more venereal infections, according to an article in a 2005 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Although syphilis is relatively uncommon now, it was rampant five centuries ago, transmitted from country to country by sailors, soldiers and merchants. Symptoms of syphilis can include genital lesions; rashes on the torso, palms, and soles of the feet; neurological problems; and destroyed facial tissue. Shakespeare alluded to sexually transmitted disease (STD) symptoms--and treatments--in several of his plays and poems, including Troilus and Cressida, As You Like It, and Sonnets.

Mentions of the “pox,” the “malady of France,” the “infinite malady,” and the “hoar leprosy” in his writings seem to indicate that the Bard knew--perhaps from personal experience--how torturous venereal disease could be. “Shakespeare’s knowledge of syphilis is clinically precise,” said John Ross, MD, author of the study. A line in Sonnet 154, “Love’s fire heats water,” apparently refers to an STD causing burning urination.

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In Shakespeare’s time, one of the treatments for syphilis, inhalation of mercury vapor, was worse than the disease. Dr. Ross suggests that Shakespeare’s tremulous signature on his will, his social withdrawal in later years, and even his baldness might all be due to a mild degree of mercury vapor poisoning.

However, it doesn’t seem likely that Shakespeare’s death at 52 years of age was due to an STD. In fact, the alternative Elizabethan practice of using very hot baths to treat syphilitic people “would have been at least somewhat effective and perhaps highly effective,” according to Dr. Ross, of Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, because high, fever-causing temperatures can kill the organisms that cause syphilis. (There is a reference to a “seething bath” curing “strange maladies” in Sonnet 153.)

Shakespeare was also an actor, and he appeared in plays until at least 1603, said Dr. Ross. “It’s unlikely that he would have been performing if he had been suffering from the ravages of tertiary syphilis.” Nor did the Bard exhibit the mental problems toward the end of his life that would indicate severe mercury poisoning, judging from the quality of his writing, so any mercury treatment he received was probably limited.

Were Shakespeare’s remains to be examined today, evidence of infection might be obtained by examining the shinbones for the damage typical of an advanced case of syphilis or by testing for elevated levels of mercury that could indicate STD treatment. Until then, “it’s something that can’t be proven or disproven,” Dr. Ross said, but Shakespeare’s own warning on his gravestone (“Blessed be the man that spares these stones,/And cursed be he that moves my bones”) might give pause to those who would try to find out.

Story Source:   Materials provided by Infectious Diseases Society Of America. "Shakespeare’s Writings Indicate He May Have Had Syphilis." ScienceDaily, 11 January 2005.

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