Shakespeare Out of Place?

When Jonathan Hope and I did our initial Docuscope study of over 300 Renaissance plays, we found Shakespeare’s plays clustering together for the most part. One explanation for this clustering was that it was caused by something distinctive in Shakespeare’s writing, and that this authorial signature becomes visible in the same way genre does—at the level of the sentence. Indeed, in our first approach to this larger dataset (one we’d assembled from the Globe Shakespeare and Martin Mueller’s semi-algorithmically modernized TCP plays), we thought that authorship was overriding genre as source of patterned variance.

But everything which goes into the dataset also comes out. And in this case, it was editorial difference that was helping to isolate Shakespeare’s plays. When we did a further study of the clusters containing works by Shakespeare, we noticed that their elevated levels of two different LATs that dealt with punctuation – TimeDate and LanguageReference – was an artifact of hand modernization.

Several contracted items from the Globe/Moby Shakespeare edition, tagged as Language Reference Strings by Docuscope

The variability in early modern orthography is well known, and we also know that there were many ways of punctuating early modern texts. (In the case of Shakespeare’s plays, we assume that most of the punctuation originated with the compositors who set up the text in the printhouse rather than Shakespeare himself.) But when the Globe editors modernized their sources in the nineteenth century, they consistently applied certain rules of punctuation that skew Docuscope’s counts when these texts (as a group) were compared with the more varied punctuation to be found in the TCP texts. Sequences that were dealt with consistently in the Globe texts – for example, contractions such as [’tis] or [’twas] or [o’clock] – were being handled much more variously in the original-spelling texts that Martin Mueller was modernizing. (He was only modernizing words in his procedure.)

So, the punctuation was a tip off, increasing the chances that Shakespeare’s plays would cluster together.

We now have the ability to skip or blacklist certain word strings, thanks to a newly updated version of Docuscope created by Suguru Ishizaki. At some point, we will open this can of worms–actually modifying Docuscope’s original tagging protocols–but not yet. There is still more to be learned from the results from an unmodified Docuscope: when we don’t touch the contents of its internal dictionaries, we have the ability to compare results across periods or corpora.

In this case, we learn that Docuscope is sensitive to human editorial intervention in texts. So sensitive, in fact, that it produced an almost complete clustering of Shakespeare’s plays in the larger group of 320 that we profiled in the online draft of our “Hundredth Psalm” article.

The large cluster of Shakespeare plays that resulted from our initial comparison of Globe texts with Mueller's semi-algorithmically modernized TCP plays

Once we realized that this grouping was at least partly artifactual–a product of different editorial procedures applied to our combined corpus–we eliminated the LATs that were registering this difference (TimeDate and LangReference). Of course, by eliminating these, we lost their sorting power on the rest of the corpus, so there was a tradeoff. But we felt that it was not fair to give Docuscope this kind of advantage in sorting text when it was the result of modern editorial intervention. In the future, we might blacklist a word like [’tis] so that we can retain the rest of the category, but I don’t think this is necessary. What really needs to happen is that, in our editorial preparation of texts and corpora,  we must ensure that no set of texts is isolated from the others through special editorial preparation. The fact that “anything goes” in the current TCP collection – it is full of various compositorial and printhouse styles and conventions – is probably a good thing. And in any event, we still see authors’ works and genres clustering together even where printers are multiple. Here, now, is one of the new Shakespeare clusters once the editorial “tell” of certain types of punctuation was removed:

New clustering of Shakespeare's plays with TimeDate and LangRef eliminated from analysis

Now we see that plays by Munday, Heywood, Marlowe, Shirley, Rowley, Webster, Middleton, and Massinger are showing greater similarities with Shakespeare: the variability of their punctuation is not being used against them. Within the Shakespeare plays that do cluster together, we see some of the same similarities–Coriolanus with Cymbeline, for example. But the terms on which Shakespeare’s plays are related to each other are now more limited–we have eliminated two categories of LATs that may have been sorting Shakespeare’s plays with respect to each other. This relative loss of sorting power within Shakespeare’s works seems tolerable to us, however, because it allows for a more meaningful portrait of Shakespeare’s relationship to other dramatists of the period. What excited us about this large diagram was that it says something about 150 years of early modern drama as a whole, inasmuch as that whole could be represented by over 300 works.

Here is the entire diagram, then, constructed without the LATs that capture the nineteenth-century modernization of the Shakespearean texts. (Many thanks to Kate Fedewa for helping us create this large image.)

Revised dendrogram comparing early modern plays from the TCP collection and the Globe Shakespeare (click on image in new screen to zoom)

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    […] This Thing of Darkness Jump to Comments This post contains three smaller entries, each with their own direction of focus, hence the title.  First, I would like to respond to Prof. Witmore’s comments on my previous post.  Secondly, I would like to make a note about a program created for us by a graduate student at UW, Michael Correll.  Finally, I would like to close with an analyzed response to a post at WineDarkSea labeled Shakespeare Out of Place? […]

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