“For the rain it raineth every day” – Shakespeare vs. cognitive bias & linguistics

this shit writes itself

Actually, your brain writes it…

The 450th anniversary of Shakespeare has the whole English speaking world jumping with excitement. Of course it does, he’s the greatest playwright that ever lived, right? How do you know? It’s not just a critical opinion, based on evidence, it’s also an assumption. Assumptions are the name we give to cognitive bias behaviours, and in when it comes to the bard, we also have a special kind of cognitive bias – called confirmation bias- where we perform faulty analytical checks on our opinion, looking for evidence to support the fact we are right, rather than challenge the assumption by assuming we might be wrong.

The truth of the matter is, Shakespeare is ‘okay’ if you like that sort of thing. Maybe his works are brilliant, if you love them. They are also a load of shite if you don’t. Confused? No, not really – depending on how you feel about the works of Shakespeare, you’ll know precisely which one of those statements is correct. But the disturbing truth is, all of those statements, to quote Wolfgang Pauli, are “not even wrong”.

It’s all a matter of cognition…

“Oh what a piece of work is man (and more importantly, his brain)”

The reason why Shakespeare is so good for explaining cognitive bias is, by virtue of the fact we all learn about his work during our school years, and have done for years, his words get coded into our thinking systems. His popularity during his lifetime, although nothing like the superstardom he enjoys now, embedded a number of key phrases and concepts into modern English. Not just words, but more importantly, concepts – metaphors like “In my mind’s eye” or “Though this be madness, there is method in it” or “…seen better days” – which are really compressed forms of linguistic code, shorthand that expresses descriptive data for events and actions into short, pithy snippets.

We use them, because “brevity is the soul of wit”. (See what I did there?)

The result is we, before we even see a play by the great man, are programmed to recognise the cognitive patterns of his language, and therefore know a lot more about what the characters are doing and saying than we would if we’d never heard a word of it before. Which explains why, when we consider the works of his contemporaries, like Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, those writers are less popular and accessible. They are less widely taught.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

Now at this point, your own confirmation bias will be driving you to disagree, or agree with these words. In both cases, that’s not a rational choice, it’s a reaction to your own feelings about Shakespeare, probably a result of how you related to his work in the context through which you first engaged with it. If you liked learning about him at school, you’ll disagree. If you didn’t, you might agree. However the point is, it doesn’t matter what you think, you’ve got 450 years of ancestors (more or less) who have, regardless of their own feelings about Shakespeare, been using his language, deploying his metaphors and shaping your linguistic understanding of the world to see your own life and events through a lens of Shakespearian dialogue.

To explain that, let’s consider the following. A rose, even if we called it a “shitbag” would indeed, smell as sweet. However, what if it was a turd? What if, that phrase was “That which we call a turd by any other name would still smell as foul”. It would take the metaphor and apply it to a different aspect of our lives, we would have developed a usage for that phrase to explain how negative events and circumstances can’t be changed by giving them a different name. We have a phrase like that, it’s “you can’t polish a turd” and if we turn that on it’s head, you might say “You can’t polish a rose” meaning, if something is already perfect, you can’t make it more perfect by adding a glossy finish.

The message is simple – we have a tendency to use metaphor and analogy to compress descriptive data down into code to make our language more efficient. It’s an evolutionary trait, our brain’s reward mechanism, the release of dopamine which makes us feel good, is stimulated when we communicate. It’s stimulated the most when we communicate personal information. In fact, we are the only species that, for the majority of our lives, communicate mostly personal information. Animals communicate, but in a depersonalised context, they say things like “danger” or “I’m hungry” or “I’m going to kill you if you touch me” but they never say “did you see that gazelle down by the watering hole, he’s such a dick”.

Consider your conversations, about TV, commuting, work… pretty much everything is expressing your personal opinion, which is actually not just talking about an event, it’s talking about how you relate to that event, which is (logically speaking) talking about yourself. But, a huge amount of that personal data is compressed into short, coded language snippets. For example:

I used to work with a guy who, regardless of what was agreed around the board room table, would go off and do his own thing. This caused a lot of problems for the company, and when we came to discuss it at the next meeting he would usually kick off by being annoyed, and demeaning to know who was responsible for doing the things the rest of us (the management) all knew were his fault. He’d do this, usually blaming his own junior team members for the screw-up, to avoid the blame.

Now I could have confronted him about it, describing the events in detail, describing how the rest of us suspected it was his fault and he was blaming his junior staff to cover his own arse… but I didn’t, I used a snippet of code (misquoted from Shakespeare) “Methinks the Lady doth protest too much”.

Everyone knew what I meant, because linguistically, this is a universal way of compressing data. And Shakespeare was good at that.

“An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told”

The reason why we do this is because everything we say, if we described every aspect of it in factual detail, would take a lot longer. We live in a world of complex concepts, we abbreviate the concepts into linguistic code so that we can maintain a simple flow of meaning. It’s the difference between a novel and an encyclopaedia. If every book explained every little thing it used in the story to the reader, it would be a massive tome like an encyclopaedia, making the story itself harder to follow. We all extract a simple narrative from the masses of data we are referring to in the thing we’re talking about. Consider this “how was your day?”. The answer is never a chronological account of every passing moment, detailing the colour of the furniture, the air temperature, the foodstuffs we ingested, the precise conversations we had etc. No. We say “Good” or “bad” and present a very simple, short edit of the elapsed time period we know to be “our day”. A day is actually 24hrs, but we skip out the bits where we were asleep, the bits where we saw the person asking the question before we parted, nor do we reply by saying in the evening “I can’t answer that because the day isn’t over yet”.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”

So let’s recap. 450 years later, we’ve woven the metaphors of Shakespearian plays into our language, which serves a basic need to compress data into manageable chunks to facilitate talking about ourselves, which is an evolutionary imperative that affects our neurological well being. So does that mean Shakespeare was any good?

The answer, is a question. Let’s look into the future and consider, 450 years from now, what music will people remember from our era? The Beatles, probably. Maybe Michael Jackson. What about techno? Disco? Nirvana? Madonna? Pink Floyd? It would be unrealistic to consider the future society in 2554 will be familiar with Family Guy, or Dexter, or Downton Abbey. Will NWA or Snoop Dogg’s music be performed by their equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Or indeed, that any of it will be received in the context that we experienced it.

So that means it’s logical to assume that we don’t have a realistic view of Shakespeare’s work. Some academics have likened it to Eastenders. What a dreadful prospect, to think the Sir Ian McKellen of 2554 will be standing, to rousing applause of the great and the good, at the world’s finest ‘serious’ theatre saying “‘Ere, Phil, where’s me bleedin’ car keys, gotta take Shelly down the doctors for her smear test” or whatever. Will books be written about that? Will our kids learn about it in schools? Will be pay to see it, and deem it of intellectual value above more popular, contemporary forms of entertainment, as so many people do when comparing Romeo and Juliet with Wreck It Raplh?

It’s a sobering thought. Because of our brains, the way we communicate, the way chemicals are produced in our heads, because of the way our parents and grandparents, and theirs too, were taught about historical literature, that could be precisely what we do. Of course, there is one saving grace, the modernity of modern dialogue and writing is such that, we either don’t use colourful metaphors because we want to use slang and vernacular forms instead… or we use ones that came from 450 years ago anyway.

“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”

That means, Shakespeare isn’t intrinsically great art, but your brain is a truly remarkable thing. But, it can trick you. It will make you (because of it’s ability to encode and decode data into compressed chunks, combined with the ability of your unconscious thought process to create biased thinking systems that affect your rational decisions) think that someone who doesn’t like Shakespeare is either wrong, or right in their opinion.

They are neither, however, given the biological requirements of your brain, it’s always worth tempering your reaction to Shakespeare with these words of the bard himself… “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, rounded with a little sleep”