Now Read This: A Thought Experiment

MRILet’s say that we believe we can learn something more about what literary critics call “authorial style” or “genre” by quantitative work. We want to say what that “more” is. We assemble a community of experts, convening a panel of early modernists to identify 10 plays that they feel are comedies based on prevailing definitions (they end in marriage), and 10 they feel are tragedies (a high born hero falls hard). To test these classifications, we randomly ask others in the profession (who were not on the panel) to sort these 20 plays into comedies and tragedies and see how far they diverge from the classifications of our initial panel. That subsequent sorting matches the first one, so we start to treat these labels (comedy/tragedy) as “ground truths” generated by “domain experts.” Now assume that I take a computer program, it doesn’t matter what that program is, and ask for it to count things in these plays and come up with a “recipe” for each genre as identified by our experts. The computer is able to do so, and the recipes make sense to us. (Trivially: comedies are filled with words about love, for example, while tragedies use more words that indicate pain or suffering.) A further twist: because we have an unlimited, thought-experiment budget, we decide to put dozens of early modernists into MRI machines and measure the activity in their brains while they are reading any of these 20 plays. After studying the brain activity of these machine-bound early modernists, we realize that there is a distinctive pattern of brain activity that corresponds with what our domain experts have called “comedies” and “tragedies.” When someone reads a comedy, regions A, B and C become active, whereas when a person reads tragedies, regions C, D, E, and F become active. These patterns are reliably different and track exactly the generic differences between plays that our subjects are reading in the MRI machine.

So now we have three different ways of identifying – or rather, describing – our genre. The first is by expert report: I ask someone to read a play and she says, “This is a comedy.” If asked why, she can give a range of answers, perhaps connected to plot, perhaps to her feelings while reading the play, or even to a memory: “I learned to call this and other plays like it ‘comedies’ in graduate school.” The second is a description, not necessarily competing, in terms of linguistic patterns: “This play and others like it use the conjunction ‘if’ and ‘but’ comparatively more frequently than others in the pool, while using ‘and’ less frequently.” The last description is biological: “This play and others like it produce brain activity in the following regions and not in others.” In our perfect thought experiment, we now have three ways of “getting at genre.” They seem to be parallel descriptions, and if they are functionally equivalent, any one of them might just be treated as a “picture” of the other two. What is a brain scan of an early modernist reading comedy? It is a picture of the speech act: “The play I’m reading right now is a comedy.”

Now the question. The first three acts of a heretofore unknown early modern play are discovered in a Folger manuscript, and we want to say what kind of play it is. We have our choice of either:

• asking an early modernist to read it and make his or her declaration

• running a computer program over it and rating it on our comedy/tragedy classifiers

• having an early modernist read it in an MRI machine and characterizing the play on the basis of brain activity.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you can only pick one of these approaches. Which one would you pick, and why? If this is a good thought experiment, the “why” part should be challenging.

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Mapping the ‘Whole’ of Early Modern Drama

We’re currently working with two versions of our drama corpus: the earlier version contains 704 texts, while the later one has 554, the main distinction being that the later corpus has a four-way genre split – tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, and history – while the earlier corpus also includes non-dramatic texts like dialogues, entertainments, interludes, and masques. Recently we’ve been doing PCA experiments with the 704 corpus to see what general patterns emerge, and to see how the non-dramatic genres pattern in the data. The following are a few of the PCA visualisations generated from this corpus, which provide a general overview of the data. We produced the diagrams here using JMP. The spreadsheets of the 704 and 554 corpora are included below as excel files – please note we are still working on the metadata.

704 corpus

554 corpus


Overview (click to enlarge images):

overall PCA space copy

This is the complete data set visualised in PCA space. All 704 plays are included, but LATs with frequent zero values have been excluded.



If we highlight the genres, it looks like this:

all genres copy

Comedies = red

Dialogues = green

Entertainments = blue

Histories = orange

Interludes = blue-green

Masques = dark purple

Non-dramatics = mustard

Tragicomedies = dark turquoise

Tragedies = pink-purple


If we tease this out even more – hiding, but not excluding, the non-dramatic genres – there is a clear diagonal divide between tragedies (red) and comedies (blue):

[Michael Witmore, Jonathan Hope, and Michael Gleicher, forthcoming, ‘Digital Approaches to the Language of Shakespearean Tragedy’, in Michael Neill and David Schalkwyk, eds, The Oxford Handbook of ShakespeareanTragedy (Oxford)]

TR CO split copy

With tragicomedies (green) and histories (purple) falling in the middle:

TR CO TC HI split copy

It seems that tragedies and comedies are characterised by sets of opposing LATs. The LATs associated with comedy are those capturing highly oral language behaviour, while those associated with tragedy capture negative language and psychological states. Tragicomedies and histories – although we have yet to investigate them in detail – seem to occupy an intermediate space. If we unhide the non-dramatic genres, we can see how they pattern in comparison.

In spite of their name, dialogues are not comprised of rapid exchanges (e.g. Oral Cues, Direct Address, First Person etc., the LATs which make up the comedic side of the PCA space) but instead have lengthy monologues, which might explain why they fall mostly on the side of the tragedies:

DI copy

Entertainments do not seem to be linguistically similar to each other:

EN copy

Interludes, on the other hand, seem to occupy a more tightly defined linguistic space:

IN copy

Masques are pulled towards the left of the PCA space:

MA copy



Docuscope was designed to identify genre, rather than authorship, so perhaps we should not be surprised that authorship comes through less clearly than genre in these initial trials. We should also bear in mind that there are only 9 genres in the corpus, compared to approximately 200 authors.

This, for example, shows only the tragedies – all other genres are hidden – and each author is represented by a different colour:

TR authorship copy

We get a clearer picture when considering a smaller group in relation to the whole – for example, one author compared to all the others. Take Seneca, for example – demonstrated by the purple squares:

TR Seneca copy

From this we can deduce that Seneca’s tragedies are linguistically similar, as they are grouped tightly together.



The same applies for looking at date of writing across the corpus, with approximately 100 dates to consider.

This can be visualised on a continuous scale, e.g. the lighter the dot, the earlier the play; the darker the dot, the later the play. While this has a nice ‘heat map’ effect, it is difficult to interpret:

date continuous scale copy

If we narrow this down to three groups of dates – early (red), central (yellow), and late (maroon) – it becomes a little easier to read. As with the Seneca example, the fewer factors there are to consider, the clearer the visualisations become:

early central late split copy

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‘the size of it all carries us along’ – a new kind of literary history?



references and links for a presentation by Jonathan Hope

pdf of slides Hope Helsinki 2014


‘the size of it all carries us along’

This Heat, ‘A New Kind of Water’, from Deceit (1981, Rough Trade)


part 1

Early Modern Print: Text Mining Early Printed English

(Anupam Basu et al.: Humanities Digital Workshop, Washington University, St Louis)



William Garrard, The Art of War 1591

Robert Barret, Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres 1598


part 2

Visualising English Print: 1450-1800

(Mike Gleicher Wisconsin-Madison U, Michael Witmore Folger Shakespeare Library, Jonathan Hope Strathclyde U)





forthcoming papers on the material presented in this section of the talk:

Anupam Basu, Jonathan Hope, and Michael Witmore, ‘Networks and Communities in the Early Modern Theatre’, in Roger Sell and Anthony Johnson (eds), Community-making in Early Stuart Theatres: Stage and Audience (Ashgate)

Michael Witmore, Jonathan Hope, and Michael Gleicher, ‘Digital Approaches to the Language of Shakespearean Tragedy’, in Michael Neill and David Schalkwyk (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy (Blackwell)



Ted Underwood, 2013, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies(Stanford UP)


Goldstone, Andrew, and Ted Underwood, 2014, ‘The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us’, New Literary History


Ted Underwood, 2014, ‘Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago’, Representations <>.


Alan B. Farmer (forthcoming), ‘Playbooks and the Question of Ephemerality’


Lucy Munro, 2013, Archaic Style in English Literature (CUP)

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The Novel and Moral Philosophy 3: What Does Lennox Do with Moral Philosophy Words?

The previous two posts explored how an eighteenth century novel uses words from an associated topic to fulfill, and perhaps shape, the expectations of an audience looking to immerse themselves in a life as it is lived. In this post I want to think a little more about the idea that the red words identified by Serendip’s topic model do something exclusively “novel-like” and that the blue words are exclusively “philosophical.” Both sets of words seem, rather, to aim at a common target, since each contributes something distinctive to the common project of rendering a moral perspective on lived experience. I want to caution against thinking of these topics as “signatures” of different genres; they may instead index narrative strategies that criss-cross different types of writing.

Take, for example, the passage from Lennox’s Euphemia that appears toward the bottom of the screen shot below:


After relating several details about her relationship with her aunt and uncle, Maria concludes: “BEING in this unfavourable disposition towards me, he [Sir John] was easily persuaded to press me to a marriage, in which my in|clinations were much less consulted than my interests.” This sentence illustrates some of the dynamics that Park described in her earlier post. On the one hand, Maria’s letter immerses the reader in a scene from life, rendering vivid the circumstances that led her uncle to make a fateful decision about Maria’s marriage prospects. Yet at the same time, the narrator dips frequently into the vocabulary of a more removed and somewhat static moral judgment – one that appraises “circumstance” in relation to “actions” and “interest.” The red words, novelistic in our analysis, are the words that show us how something happened: Maria’s uncle Sir John decided to force her into “marriage,” ignoring his niece’s wishes or inclinations because he was in an “unfavourable” disposition that made him more easily “persuaded” to this course of action. (We are getting contextual details – backstory – that make his decision intelligible.) These red, novelistic topic words – marriage, persuaded, unfavorable – are thus necessary for rendering the sequence of events that prompted her change of fortunes. A man was persuaded, his favor had changed, and a marriage ensued.

But the narrative sequence opens up onto a more general possibility for analysis. An abstract noun – “interest” – is offered as the nominal criterion for her uncle’s decision, but in the context of the sentence it seems to gloss the uncle’s reasoning as he might represent it to Maria (“this marriage is in your interest”), not the narrator’s feelings about that reasoning (“it was in my interest”). What we are getting, then, is the narrator’s view of how her uncle made his decision, what circumstances contributed to his thinking, even the abstract concept that he could have invoked in the absence of any residual “natural” sympathy for his niece’s inclinations. One sees, perhaps, a tension between the kinds of abstract nouns that appear in works of moral philosophy – in the screen shot above, “natural” “actions” “circumstance” “interest” – and the concrete terms of relation that render action for us in a more vivid, immediate way.

What is interesting about this passage is that it shows us how flexible the abstract vocabulary of moral philosophy can be when it is introduced into the narrative stream of a novel. In the passage above, Maria tells us that her aunt, Lady Harley, was stung by jealousy when she witnessed Sir John’s pleasure at hearing his niece read. Out of spite, the aunt insinuates that there is a contradiction between the “oppression and faintness” that Maria purportedly has complained of and her manifestly good spirits, which Sir John would otherwise take on face value. Maria then uses the abstract noun “circumstance” to characterize the fact of her good spirits, a fact which Sir John is now (culpably) discounting.

The shift in register becomes necessary because Sir John has abandoned his natural sympathy for Maria and is instead bringing a quasi-judicial process of weighing her actions (thinking “circumstantially”). It’s the intermixture of these fragments of moral reasoning with images of life as it unfolds – a didactic mix of abstract nouns and personal actions – that are allowing Lennox to stage distinct layers of sympathy and indifference, serving them all up for the reader’s observation. The shift to moral evaluation is even more decisive in the following passage from letter V, in which Maria tells Euphemia how Sir James came to doubt her aunt’s deprecations and once again view his niece in a favorable light:

SnipImage12Maria is moving into the realm of generalization (“I have often observed…”), and this shift requires the writer to “investigate” the ways in which Sir James was led to “compare” Maria’s behavior with a secondhand “picture” that has been drawn of her “disposition” by her aunt. These blue words might be seen as pivots in a process of moral judgment – the same process that the novel’s reader had to employ in evaluating Sir James’ earlier souring on his niece. Because this process itself is now the subject of narration, it is not surprising that the vocabulary needs to be more structured and abstract.

In using Serendip to explore how Euphemia behaves linguistically qua novel, then, we must start with the idea that novels mix the vocabularies of these two topics in order to layer points of view and to involve the reader, experientially, in a world where actions have moral significance. Moral philosophy words (blue) are important because they mark occasions where that state of experiential immersion has been temporarily deflected onto some explicitly moralizing, explicitly generalizing consciousness, a consciousness which may or may not be that of the narrator. Regardless of its origin, the capacity of that consciousness to withdraw temporarily from the particulars of the narrative and to render judgment on a kind of act seems a crucial aspect of the novel’s program, which Julie Park described in her previous post in terms of the novel’s epistolarity and emphasis on sensibility.

We can say, moreover, that this procedure of mixing words from these two topics also occurs in formal works of moral philosophy. Consider the passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments below:


In this passage, Smith is describing the way in which a man – any man whatever – will alter his treatment of his friends if suddenly elevated in social status. Such a man becomes insolent and petulant, which is why Smith believes that one should slow one’s social rise whenever possible. “He is happiest,” Smith writes, “who advances more gradually to greatness, whom the public destines to every step of his preferment long before he arrives at it…” Smith is encouraging his audience to pass judgment on a drama whose characters are never rendered concrete, characters whose actions illustrate a concept. The closest Smith gets to a novelistic treatment of the life world occurs just after he has presented his maxim above. Instead of calculating and re-calculating one’s standing among friends, Smith writes, one should find “satisfaction in all the little occurrences of common life, in the company with which we spent the evening last night.” Smith modulates into the red here, drawing words from the life world as if he himself is reporting on events in his own life just the night before, events which ground and so justify the moral pleasure he takes in them precisely because they are not bloodless and calculating. Smith has, for a sentence or two, become an epistolary novelist, and it is this sudden (and relatively rare) excursion into the every day – the world of “last night” – that allows him to show the difference between happiness and its opposite.

As an excursion, this passage has to be brief. There is “a lot of blue” in moral philosophy because, as philosophy, it needs to be systematic – indifferent, in other words, to the most particular details of the life world. But the subject of this philosophy is certainly the stuff of novels: dramas of sympathy, judgments of circumstances and the precise analysis of the qualities and intentions suffusing different acts (including the quality of failing to be concrete in one’s observations). If the burden of system building were relaxed, Smith too might write volubly about the “satisfactions” one finds “in the little occurrences of common life.”

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The Novel and Moral Philosophy 2: Telling and Feeling, Aunts and Letters

Before I begin commenting on what I see in Serendip’s findings, I think it is worth providing some general information about the work from which the screen shot below is taken. The author, Charlotte Lennox (1730-1804), is most known for her novel The Female Quixote (1752), a picaresque about a romance addict who perpetually confuses the plots of the novels she reads as reality itself. Euphemia (1790), the last novel Lennox (1730-1804) published before she died, unfolds its narrative through the 12-year correspondence between two friends, Maria Harley and Euphemia Neville. The young women are separated by Euphemia’s move to colonial America with her husband, a British lieutenant. As a domestic novel, Euphemia devotes part of its narrative to depicting the unhappiness of this marriage. The novel is also remarkable for its depiction of American colony life in the province of New York during the middle of the eighteenth century from a British female perspective. In this novel and in her earlier Harriot Stuart (1750), Lennox drew on her own experience of growing up in colonial Albany. True to epistolary format, individual letters from the correspondents organize the novel, rather than chapters. The screenshot I am commenting on comes from Letter II.


When looking at the screen shot of Euphemia labeled TEXT: K062108.001 above, I saw what Witmore saw: words identifying social titles such as “Sir” and “Lady,” as well as family relations such as “aunt,” score highest as novel words. Yet there are slight distinctions between the familial words themselves. While “aunt” is shaded most deeply as a novel word, “uncle” is a shade lighter, and “daughter” is a shade lighter still.

The obvious conclusion to draw from these slight distinctions of shading is that the word “aunt” appears more frequently in novels than the word “uncle,” and the word “uncle” features more in novels than the word “daughter.” This is not to say, though, that eighteenth-century novels are more about aunts and uncles than about daughters. In fact a number of them are about or feature female characters that are at the stage in their lives where they are transitioning from being daughters to wives, and the novels themselves have the didactic purpose of educating female readers. In this regard, I think it’s important to recognize that topic word frequency might tell a different story from the frequency of a topic itself. The distribution of words in a topic matters.

Other high scoring novel words are “told” and “dear.” Both words in themselves are interesting to me as they are highly suggestive of the eighteenth-century novel’s history. “Dear,” for instance, is doubly significant in that history. It is a word that can be used to convey affectionate regard for someone when referring to or addressing them, or to address someone at the beginning of a letter. Both senses of the words are used on this page. Why does Serendip mark the word “dear” so intensely red in both cases?



The word “dear,” in its guise of addressing or referring to someone with affection, registers the age of sensibility in which the novel genre developed. (It does so without being an invention of the epistolary novel.)  Sensibility celebrated the ready expression of sympathy and feeling for other humans as a mark of high moral standing as well as social prestige. It promoted a language pattern that displays one’s emotional disposition towards another, such as attaching the word “dear” as a term of endearment to someone’s name. In its function of representing social relations between characters in day-to-day contexts, the eighteenth-century novel would inevitably capture such language patterns. As a popular medium of entertainment, the novel promulgated the patterns further. One might argue that the rise of the novel was in itself a major factor in sensibility’s growth and development as a pervasive cultural movement.

On the other hand, the word “dear” as a form of address used to begin a letter is also a high scorer as a novel word. Like the other usage of the word, it is invariably attached to a proper name, or the role of an identified person, such as “friend.”  The first canonical novel to spur the cultural movement of sensibility was an epistolary novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. So influential was this novel on the development of the novel genre, literary historians of the early 20th century identified it as the “first novel” written in English. This passage from Richardson’s Pamela (volume III, letter II) displays the same pattern observed in Euphemia:


A high number of eighteenth-century novels were written as epistolary narratives. Fiction that presented a series of letters written from the point of view of a character created a sense of intimacy and immediate involvement with narrative events in recognizably day-to-day contexts. Such experiences were not available in earlier forms of literature. This is one of the reasons why epistolary narrative was such a novel (new-seeming) and popular genre for eighteenth-century readers, and why it was conducive to the flourishing of sensibility in eighteenth-century culture.

A key moment in the novel takes place when one of the main characters, Mr. B., undergoes a conversion from villainous sexual aggressor to loving suitor of the heroine because he was so “moved” by the letters to her parents in which she details her ordeals: “O my dear girl!  you have touched me sensibly with your mournful tale, and your reflections upon it.”  Likewise, eighteenth-century readers were “sensibly touched” by Pamela’s letters—the very letters that make up the novel—to the extent that they could not get enough of the style of fiction in which they appeared. Eighteenth-century fiction writers imitated Pamela’s epistolary format as well as theme of “virtue in distress” for several more decades of the remaining century. It is no surprise, then, that in the epistolary novel Euphemia (1790) by Charlotte Lennox (a novelist Richardson whom admired and supported), Serendip is picking up on “dear,” used as a form of address in beginning a letter, and as a more general novel topic word that appears over and over again.

It should not be surprising that the word “told” is picked up as a high scoring novel topic word as well. Telling is an activity of narration, and the novel itself is a narrative genre:


Narratives in eighteenth-century novels often involve the revelation of stories about unhappy or unfortunate events that happened in the past, events that affect the characters of the novel. This is certainly the case with Gothic novels, which derive their narrative tensions and conflicts from the inadvertent uncovering of long suppressed criminal events and actions. For instance, the epigraph for Ann Radcliffe’s non-epistolary Gothic novel, A Sicilian Romance, is a line from Hamlet spoken by Hamlet’s father: “I could a tale unfold.” In an epistolary narrative, where the fictional letter writer is reporting to the addressee what has already happened, the act of telling would be in the past tense, “told.”

“Telling,” as Stuart Sherman reminds us in Telling Time,is not only what narratives do (they tell what happens in time), but also what clocks do with time. The fact that Serendip shades “hour” a deep red conveys the time-specific quality of narrative during this period, its concern with the quotidian and the everyday above all. A sentence from the screenshot of a page from Lennox’s Euphemia certainly captures this sense of “hour”: “She complains of a pain in her breast; of shortness of breath; and declares, that when she has read to you an hour or two, she feels as if she was ready to expire with a strange oppression and faintness.” In this sentence, the quotidian context of the word “hour” is strikingly apparent in its connection to the experience of a character’s body at a specific moment in time.

The very premise of epistolary correspondence is to overcome not just spatial distance, but also temporal disconnection. The letter-writer wants to replace one’s absence from another’s life with a sense of living through the same experiences one has had by retelling those moments through the medium of the letter. By being specific about time—how long things take by the hour, for instance (“when she has read to you an hour or two”), this sense of intimacy with someone else’s everyday experiences becomes possible.

In shading darkly those words that denote familial relations and social standing (aspects of subjectivity that render oneself legible in day-to-day social settings), as well as words related to conventions of epistolary and emotional address such as “dear,” as well as words signifying temporality, such as “hour,” Serendip picks up on the novel’s reality effects. It picks up, in other words, the features of eighteenth-century novels that defined its groundbreaking method of realism.

Even as it confirms and reinforces critical commonplaces about the novel’s generic markers—especially those concerning its status as a unique mediator for realism, verisimilitude and individual personhood—Serendip also reveals generic tendencies that have not been so well-covered by literary historians. The words shaded blue—or, the words strongly related to moral philosophy—indicate this. Scholars such as Ian Watt have argued that the novel’s generic identity lies in the way it represents experience through seventeenth-century epistemologies, such as the subjectivism of René Descartes and the empiricism of John Locke. These philosophical tendencies are already apparent in the novel words—red-shaded—I have commented on above; the words all relate to the assumption that events and experiences derive from subjective standpoints, and are realizable through their placement on the time-space continuum.

However, the words shaded blue by Serendip reveal another level of philosophical realism in that they come out of a vocabulary of moral philosophy that Serendip helps us to recognize. What I notice about these words is that they are abstract nouns and impersonal words that are detached or detachable from human agents. They are also adjectives or adverbs that relate to philosophical measurements such as “natural,” “perfect,” “perfectly” and impersonal seeming actions, such as “enumerate” and “produced.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 10.16.23 PM

I also notice that some “moderate” or “light” novel words—words shaded medium or light red as opposed to dark red—do not seem as if they would be out of place in the list of philosophy words from moral philosophy texts. These include “mind,” “consequence,” “opinion,” “life,” and such abstract nominalizations as “viewing” and “disposition.”  (Indeed, given the way that the topic model works, some of these words would at times belong to that topic, but that is for Eric and Mike to explain in a future post.) This notable tendency toward abstraction in the novel might express some historically distinctive formality of social language in eighteenth-century England, or even a higher state of fusion, during this time, between works of fiction and non-fiction, or both. We should investigate these possibilities a more focused way, perhaps with some of the techniques we are getting a glimpse of here.


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