The Promise in “Shakespeare by the Numbers”

The works of Shakespeare have been performed, studied, and marveled over for long enough that you might think it impossible for scholars to find anything new to say about them.  “Shakespeare by the Numbers:  On the Linguistic Texture of the Late Plays” however, is proof that, at worst, modern software applications give scholars new ways to validate old ideas, and at best, give scholars entirely new ways to generate meaning from well-known sources.

In this article, Michael Witmore and Jonathan Hope describe how the textual analysis software “Docuscope” was used to test the theory long-held by Shakespeare scholars that the Bard’s late plays are in some way stylistically different from his earlier tragedies, comedies and histories-constituting a coherent genre unto themselves.   To quote Witmore and Hope, this type of analysis “calls attention to a heretofore invisible set of dramaturgical strategies at work in the late plays, strategies that mobilize language so consistently and on such a pervasive verbal level that their effects have gone unnoticed by more traditional genre criticism.”[1]

Docuscope works by first categorizing word sequences in the text of Shakespeare’s plays into distinct groupings that begin with three broad clusters, narrow to families, and finally to distinct and specific “Language Action Types”.  Docuscope then compares the relative frequency of these word-pattern usages to their frequencies in other genres, providing insight into the specific language choices Shakespeare made that differentiate genres.  Using this tool, Witmore and Hope are able to perceive patterns of evidence that are nearly impossible to notice without assistance.

Docuscope helped Witmore and Hope discover that the late plays do indeed share distinct language choices that also differentiate them from earlier tragedies, comedies and histories.  More meaningfully, the features that Docuscope highlighted provide insight into what thematic choices Shakespeare focused on in the late plays; as a group “they make way for inner life and revelation through memory and recognition …they subordinate the declaration of actions present and past to the stillness of judgment.”[2]

Never fear, if Shakespeare or scholarly articles aren’t your bag, the radio show/podcast RadioLab featured a similar type of inquiry in May, 2010.  In the short titled: “Vanishing Words” Dr. Ian Lancashire describes his computer-based textual analysis of Agatha Christie’s works.  In a startling conclusion, Lancashire provides evidence that Christie was suffering from Alzheimer’s later in life, as her 73rd book displays a loss of a fifth of her vocabulary, along with other clues.  This story runs from 2:11-8:28, but the episode goes on to discuss the possibility of recognizing these diagnostic clues much earlier in life; it’s extremely interesting, I highly recommend it, anyway…

Here’s the punchline:  “Vanishing Words” and “Shakespeare by the Numbers” share a promise of possibility for scholars.  Text-analysis software, when programmed to answer historical questions, can uncover hidden meaning in long-studied sources that goes beyond the comprehension ability of a single mind.  As Witmore and Hope put it: “Docuscope may prove instructive to future scholars who want to understand the usefulness of ‘counting things’ in humanistic inquiry- quantity being perhaps one of the last concepts in the humanities which has not come in for rigorous theorization.”[3]

Furthermore, this type of software can augment the capabilities of scholars in an age that will shortly sorely need it, as the same technological capabilities that make it possible to search a corpus for meaning are also allowing for the creation of ever-widening corpuses in a digital age.


[1] P. 136

[2] P. 151

[3] P. 151

4 Replies to “The Promise in “Shakespeare by the Numbers””

  1. I have to admit, this article went a bit over my head with the technical explanations of their methodologies. Great job Caitlin at summarizing their work in layman’s terms. I agree that Docuscope, and text-analysis software in general, can be an important tool in bringing out new interpretations of an age old debate. However, I do also believe that too much emphasis on these technological methods overlooks the importance of a scholar using his or her own intuition and knowledge to interpret genres and Shakespeare’s plays. How a scholar reads and feels a play can place this play into a genre that differs from the output produced by a text-analysis tool. Just because text-analysis technology is more technical and scientific does not mean we should overlook the interpretations done by scholars who have studied these plays and genres for years.

    1. Meghan, That’s a good point, and I think its especially relevant when considering works that were created long before the author could have even conceived of this technology. How far can technology get inside a mind that didn’t know it could exist?

  2. Great post CaitlnM. I thought your radiolab example was spot on. As Meghan suggested, I also think you did a nice job of working through a somewhat difficult text to see the bigger picture. This is infact very topical, as today Stanley Fish blogged about a similar Shakespeare by the Numbers style piece. (Do a search for Shakespeare in that and you will find the link.)

    Meghan makes a good point on the value of existing interpretation too. Personally, I like to think of this as part of what social scientists often call triangulation. That is, the idea that we come to better understand, clarify, refine and validate our interpretations of phenomena through finding different ways of seeing our sources and incorporating additional relevant sources.

  3. I have to echo the sentiment of the previous comments that the numbers of this article went straight over my head. I am a visual learner, so I couldn’t help but make a direct connection to word clouds and other generators which take rhetoric to a new level of the technological age. Great post and such an interesting topic, Shakespeare was a champion of words. Shakespeare invented almost 100 words, which people understood without ever having heard them before and are part of normal vocabulary today. His method of crafting words is something that deserves a scientific and technological analysis of today.

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