Although it is a dangerous business to select a passage from a Shakespeare play and hold it up as a mouthpiece of the poet, there are nevertheless a few key passages that seem to express the bard's own thoughts on the creative process. In Act V, Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, Theseus, King of Athens, offers a mini-dissertation on the surprising similarities between lunatics, lovers, and poets. Of the poet's art in particular, he says: "Such tricks hath strong imagination, / That, if it would but apprehend some joy, / It comprehends some bringer of that joy."
Dictionaries, even the Oxford English Dictionary, offer little help at understanding Shakespeare's distinction between apprehend and comprehend. If we read the lines, however, in the context of Theseus's full speech, the following distinction emerges: To apprehend is to perceive some force or feeling that transcends our ordinary human faculties. To comprehend, by contrast, is to create some rational or artistic framework for making sense of, and thus "containing," the very force or feeling which seems to defy description. Thus, in the poet's case, an apprehended feeling of unbounded, free-floating joy is comprehended, through the device of poem-writing, into a single, concrete bringer of that joy.
In The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Baker Academic), Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall seem to translate (unconsciously) Theseus's distinction into the realm of theology. Too often, they argue, theology attempts to put into concrete words and images an experience that is finally too large for us to take in—and not just quantitatively (there is too much of God for us to grasp), ...1