How does digitizing texts impact the way we conduct research? Michael Whitmore and Jonathan Hope believe that a literary criticism revolution is at hand, one in which scholars will discover new patterns and arrive at new conclusions.
Their 2007 article “Shakespeare by the Numbers: On the Linguistic Features of the Late Plays” (from Early Modern Tragicomedy) first notes that the idea that genre is a nebulous concept, one that has changed over time. Qualitative observations alone cannot accurately determine texts’ themes since commentators have different standards will disagree among themselves. How, then, can we create a widely acceptable means of analyzing?
Whitmore and Hope propose that we rely on a “quantitative analysis of linguistic features” (136). Programs such as Docuscope take literature that has been digitized and allow scholars to search for key words and verb tenses. With this raw data, they can more clearly decipher diction and stylistic patterns.
The article examines Shakespeare’s last seven plays, which various commentators since the 1870s had discribed as “romances” or “tragicomedies” (133). Yet the First Folio, published in 1623, did not break them into a distinct group. What elements within these plays caused later critics to see patterns that Shakespeare’s first editors evidently did not?
Whitmore and Hope broke plays into 1,000, 2,500, and 7,500 chunks (to allow for a larger sample size), ran them through Docuscope, and discovered that the later plays had unique linguistic characteristics. 1) Verb Tense: these plays more often used the past tense and referenced the past. 2) Asides: they also had more instances of characters’ speaking to the audience or referencing outside events. 3) Use of “to be”: characters more often used both forms of the verb “to be” and verb tense ending in “-ed.”
What does this raw data suggest? The authors argue that the prevalence of the past tense reveals the past’s importance to the present, the asides enhance the “dreamlike” ambiance of the the plays, and that the “to be” usage shows a preference for telling, rather than showing, the audience about events and people. Thus, Shakespeare used these linguistic features to create “focalised retrospection” (153) and the quantitative analysis reveals specific reasons why the later plays comprise a distinct group.
However, Whitmore and Hope are less aggressive with their general conclusion. They note that such analysis complements, but does not replace, traditional qualitative commentary. The door is wide open, though, for other scholars to use quantitative analysis with myriad other works.
How did you respond to their article? Do you think quantitative analysis of the type they used on Shakespeare’s plays can tell us more about texts and authors’ intentions than we already know? Or are they over-hyping its potential?