Shakespeare! The horse goes all the way down

Was fortunate to hear new Folger Library chief Michael Witmore give a great talk Wednesday night, “Data-Mining Shakespeare.” Among other research, he’s collaborated with fellow profs in using the text-analysis tool Docuscope for illuminating word-by-word scans of the Bard’s plays.

What did the scans turn up? Insights into genre. Software was able to group the plays relatively into comedies, tragedies and histories, all by looking at words and phrases. Not the expected ones either, mind you, not just “I love you,” “I die,” “Hey, you get to be the king now.” On the far end of the comedy scale was The Merry Wives of Windsor because it scored highly for use of the first person and interior thought. This word choice made sense for a plot about two people trying to get together.

With the histories, you see more descriptive writing and comparatively less of the comedy qualities. With the tragedies, they fall somewhat in the middle but with exceptions. Witmore cited Othello as dastardly that way. Othello‘s word choices score almost as high as The Merry Wives for comedy qualities. But the effect is Shakespeare leading you into a trap, lulling you into a peaceful spirit at the most basic — practically innate — language levels, even as plot suggests otherwise, then shanking you.

Witmore ended with a metaphor of Eadweard Muybridge’s early series of photos of a horse gallop. One of the first times film captured motion, Muybridge proved there was a point in the gallop where the horse had no hooves touching the ground. Before the shots, we couldn’t see that moment, too distracted by the horse’s greater movement, the obvious dramatic attraction of the legs and the head, and even if we tried, too slow with our own motion-capture to keep up. But a repeated moment of flying through the air did occur, part of the horse’s great propulsion.

The same happened with Shakespeare. While the acting and plot stole our attention, as soliloquies held our emotions, the playwright worked the language all the way down, every word taking us toward his ends.

On a different measure, Witmore did well at explaining how technology and traditional text analysis can complement each other, alternating in unlocking new avenues for examination. A bunch of us from NPR Digital Media went: two coders, two librarians, myself from product dev. After the talk, we each appeared to have a good deal of mulling going on. I also enjoyed seeing Witmore at full speed. He struck me as interesting yet somewhat nervous when I saw him interview Robert Pinsky at the Folger last month. But Wednesday night he was a natural lecturer and promising for the city’s culture in how he mixed arts, tech and emotion.

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