Reading Incoherence: How Shakespeare Speaks Back to Cognitive Science

  • Nicholas R. Helms
Part of the Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance book series (CSLP)


Helms argues that Shakespeare’s plays enable a balance of inference and imagination that lets readers contemplate states of mind outside the neurotypical realm of experience, such as early modern madness. Contemporary cognitive science has shown difficulty conceptualizing non-normative modes of thought, particularly those the field classifies as “empathy deficit disorders,” such as autism, psychopathy, and sociopathy. While theories of mindreading can break down in the face of such modes of thought, Shakespeare deliberately pursues such difficult cases of mindreading. Fletcher and Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen depicts the mad as opaque to society, inaccessible to inference or imagination alone. Incoherence operates similarly in King Lear, a play where Shakespeare omits explicit motivations for his characters’ actions, crafting easily misread minds that catalyze his play’s conflicts and moral dilemmas.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicholas R. Helms
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA

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