ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE GUILLEN & ELEANOR DAVIS
What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind.
You’d be forgiven if, settling into the fall 2003 “Literature of the 16th Century” course at University of California, Berkeley, you found the unassuming 70-year-old man standing at the front of the lecture hall a bit eccentric. For one thing, the class syllabus, which was printed on the back of a rumpled flyer promoting bicycle safety, seemed to be preparing you for the fact that some readings may feel toilsome. “Don’t worry,” it read on the two weeks to be spent with a notoriously long allegorical poem; it’s “only drudgery if you’re reading it for school.” Phew!you thought, then, Wait a second… You might have wondered what you had gotten yourself into. Then again, if you had enrolled in Stephen Booth’s class, chances are that you already knew.
By this time, Booth had been teaching Shakespeare to Berkeley undergraduates for decades and had earned the adulation of thousands of students. A cynic might say that this was because he issued virtually no assignments. But that was because he wanted the work to be a labor of love. His goal was that students engage meaningfully with the readings rather than “going thoughtlessly, dutifully through institutionally approved motions” in search of a good grade.
Even if you’d taken a Shakespeare class from someone else, you’d be likely to encounter Booth. His prizewinning 1977 edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets accompanies the 154 poems with over 400 pages of virtuosic commentary exploring the ambiguity and polysemy of Shakespeare’s verse. It’s nearly as dazzling an artifact as the sonnets themselves, an achievement so extraordinary that Booth has continued to win acclaim for decades, despite what some might see as his best efforts to distance himself from the inner circle of academia.
Although Booth is now retired, his work couldn’t be more relevant. In the study of the human mind, old disciplinary boundaries have begun to dissolve and fruitful new relationships between the sciences and humanities have sprung up in their place. When it comes to the cognitive science of language, Booth may be the most prescient literary critic who ever put pen to paper. In his fieldwork in poetic experience, he unwittingly anticipated several language-processing phenomena that cognitive scientists have only recently begun to study. Booth’s work not only provides one of the most original and penetrating looks into the nature of Shakespeare’s genius, it has profound implications for understanding the processes that shape how we think.
Until the early decades of the 20th century, Shakespeare criticism fell primarily into two areas: textual, which grapples with the numerous variants of published works in order to produce an edition as close as possible to the original, and biographical. Scholarship took a more political turn beginning in the 1960s, providing new perspectives from various strains of feminist, Marxist, structuralist, and queer theory. Booth is resolutely dismissive of most of these modes of study. What he cares about is poetics. Specifically, how poetic language operates on and in audiences of a literary work.
Close reading, the school that flourished mid-century and with which Booth’s work is most nearly affiliated, has never gone completely out of style. But Booth’s approach is even more minute—microscopic reading, according to fellow Shakespeare scholar Russ McDonald. And as the microscope opens up new worlds, so does Booth’s critical lens. What makes him radically different from his predecessors is that he doesn’t try to resolve or collapse his readings into any single interpretation. That people are so hung up on interpretation, on meaning, Booth maintains, is “no more than habit.” Instead, he revels in the uncertainty caused by the myriad currents of phonetic, semantic, and ideational patterns at play…