Presentation at London Forum for Authorship Studies/Digital Text and Scholarship Seminar

Jonathan Hope and I presented here in London on a trip arranged by Brian Vickers and Willard McCarty. It was a lovely occasion held in Senate House, attended by some we knew and others we got to know. We began by rolling out paper copies — six feet long scrolls! — of the very large diagram that you saw in the last post. One of the things we have begun to discuss is the ways in which different forces seem to be expressed on various twigs of this dendrogram illustrating relationships among 318 early modern plays. On some twigs, everything that is being grouped together has a common author. On others, the situation is not so clear. Why, for example, aren’t there large groupings of texts written at the same time? (There are some smaller clusters of these.) The principle at work here, when texts are matched in terms of their distance scores on all of Docuscope’s available features (LATs), is that every type of difference present in the population being studies will be expressed in the result. The difficulty is disentangling which type of difference — generational, authorial, generic, company, etc. — is at work in a give grouping.

One thing we spent some time discussing yesterday was three clusters in which Jonson’s plays appear. Here they are below:

All of Jonson’s masques are clustered at the bottom of the diagram (except Cynthia’s Revels, which is clustered in the middle). These are possibly the most distinct items in the entire corpus we are currently working with. Notice how far right the cluster extends before joining with the rest of the diagram: this indicates its dissimilarity with other clusters. But notice too that, within this cluster (as Jonathan pointed out yesterday), there is also a lot of variation. Not only are Jonson’s masques very different from the rest of Renaissance drama (including several interludes), but they are quite different from one another. It’s like a galaxy that is far away from all of the others, but whose stars are themselves quite spread out.

So, what about the other two clusters? We decided to profile all three and came up with some interesting findings. First, the masques. After performing PCA and then rating the clusters on the different components, we found several that were quite good at isolating the items on particular twigs. (This is not a scientific procedure, but it is our first attempt.) With the masques, we found that the language is high in StandardsPositive, StandardsNegative, and ReportingStates. Here’s an exemplary passage, with both StandardsPositive and StandardsNegative in green, and Reporting States in purple:

Masques describe what you are seeing or have just seen in a comparatively static fashion, hence the reporting states. As Brian Vickers pointed out in the question period, the genre of encomium deals with praise and blame, which are the words that are being picked up in the positive and negative standards.

Compare this, now, to the profile of some of Jonson’s other comedies: Poetaster, Volpone, and the other items in the top group. These items are characterized by OralElement (yellow), Question (blue), Intensity (orange), and Person Property (purple):

Here we see a pattern we also saw in Shakespearean comedy: a lot of items associated with one to one interaction. The OralElement here marks the bustle of persons whose social function is marked (PersonProperty) and who are mixing in a state where contact must be established or maintained. Some of the satirical force of the scene is bundled into the intensity strings, which show the emphatic nature of certain social performances that are mannered and so open to mockery. We noticed these intensity strings in Middleton as well, which makes us suspect that a combination of PersonProperty strings and intensity might be a feature of City Comedy. Something to check out in the future.

What makes this top cluster different from the second? Different author? No. Different genre? Not really, at least, not according to the ones we recognize critically. And note too that there are multiple authors on this middle cluster: Chapman, Jonson and Fletcher. Perhaps we should be thinking in terms of modes instead of genres: is there a different mode of storytelling, dramaturgy, or conducting comic business here? When we use PCA to characterize this cluster and compare the results with those that characters the one at top, we find similarity and difference. What’s similar is the OralElement (yellow), Question (blue), and PersonProperty strings (purple):

But we now see strings associated with TimeShift (scarlet), which indicate that a person is marking the difference between two temporal frames (then/now, now/future), and here seems to be associated with figuring out what someone might do or bring about in the present or near future. Here they are anticipatory, looking at what is to come from the standpoint of the present. (In Shakespeare’s late plays, by contrast, we found that action from the past is frequently narrated from the standpoint of the present.) The other thing that is different in this cluster is something that we would never see, because it is not there. The plays in this cluster lack something:

These purple strings, which are classed as ReportingStates. They are tokens that occur frequently in this text — look at how many of them are in this play, which is from the second cluster — but as a whole the plays in this group lack these strings with respect to the larger population of early modern drama (whereas the top group did not). This kind of relative difference between generally quite frequent items is one that you could probably only grasp with the aid of statistics. We hypothesize that these strings are allowing the actors to report action that has taken place offstage in the past, keeping attention focused on the present which is hurtling forward in time. Should this be its own subgenre of Jonson that includes Fletcher and Chapman? Would it be worth naming a grouping like this? Another question for further study.

We received some terrific comments and questions. To our comment that the first Principal Component for this population does seem to track a broad and evolving temporal shift (plays score lower on the component as time goes on), Richard Proudfoot asked if there was more variation in the very early plays in our collection. This is indeed the case, and he followed with the point that we have an uncertain grip on this earlier population because little of it survives. Other explanations for wider variation in the pre-1590 items: English as a language is more fluid prior to 1600, as Jonathan pointed out. It may also be the case that the genre system itself has not stabilized because the professional theater is still gaining its footing in London.

Erica Fudge asked another interesting question: some of the comic strings associated with interaction and comedy (we showed our Shakespeare comedy results) reminded her of the writing in Montaigne. What, she asked, is the relationship between skepticism and comedy, and would we be interested in tracing the presence of something like a skeptical inclination across prose writing and drama. This is a very good question. I would hope that we could study, with these techniques, something like the “sentence level intellectual culture” of the period, one that extends across genres like drama and the essay. Like most of our presentations, we left with more questions and ideas about future experiments. This work seems to us to be provisional in a way that other humanities research is not. You get an idea, talk about it with others, try it, and then decide to try something else. Academic papers at humanities conferences, on the other hand, usually present findings with an air of categorical certainty. And yet, we know that when human beings are involved, all findings are provisional. Odd.

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