Bad reasons to read Shakespeare

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in Spiked:

ImagesBad reason number one: Shakespeare’s good for activating neural activity. That’s right, certain academics have been conducting all manner of neuroscientific experiments on Shakespeare readers – they’ve even come up with a piece of research entitled Event-Related Potential Characterisation of the Shakespearean Functional Shift in Narrative Sentence Structure. I kid you not. By observing the amount and location of neural activity in people’s brains while reading Shakespeare compared to lesser playwrights, the study found that, lo and behold, there’s more going on in the brain when people read the bard. Apparently, this is because he uses words in unusual and unexpected combinations. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist or literary expert to see that this insight is banal at best. There are easier and quicker ways, I’m sure, to boost your neural activity if that’s what you really want to do. Bad reason number two: reading great literature can make us better people, more empathetic and more compassionate. For example, psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano applied ‘theory-of-mind techniques’ to people who had been randomly assigned either popular and non-fiction books or literary classics. They ‘found’ that the latter group was better at identifying emotions in others.

…An important and worthwhile aspect of reading literature is that it demands we interpret the work. This involves considering both its objective form and the contents of our subjectivity. It involves making judgements based on our interpretations. This capacity to interpret and understand for ourselves, rather than take something as given, is something we can bring to bear on other areas of life, including attempts by academics to justify art in terms of science or moral virtue. If we permit these bad reasons to dominate the way we understand and justify reading Shakespeare, we go against his own profound humanism.

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