The modern world. Thanks to major transcription projects like EEBO-TCP, it is now possible for many scholars to access fully searchable electronic texts of almost every major Early Modern book. With the right software, you can count things, and with some more software, and some basic statistical techniques, you can compare the frequencies of those things in Shakespeare to the frequencies of those things in any other writer, or genre, or year.
Should you care about this?
In this talk, I'll suggest that you should care. Care in the sense that you should be pleased that we can now do this, and care the sense that you should care how and why it is done.
It is, relatively, easy to count things, and it is, relatively, easy to make impressive pictures out of the results of that counting: but what can counting tell us about Shakespeare that we didn't know already? Can it show us how he develops as a writer? How he differs from his contemporaries? Can it show us what makes him special?
What should we be counting? How can we analyse the results of that counting? What happens to the plays when we count things in them and visualise the results?
I'll try to show how simple digital techniques can confirm, and challenge, things we think we know about Shakespeare, and about complex concepts like 'genre'. I'll also try to show how digital tools may help to open up the canon, improve our editions, and challenge some of our assumptions about Shakespeare. I'll also look to the future: how long before every humanities degree has a compulsory quantitive methods element? How long before we expect our undergraduates to be able to read a scatter plot as well as a sonnet?
Jonathan Hope is Professor of Literary Linguistics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. He has published widely on Shakespeare’s language and the history of the English language. His most recent book, Shakespeare and Language: reason, eloquence and artifice in the Renaissance (2010), seeks to reconstruct the linguistic world of Shakespeare’s England and measure its distance from our own. With Michael Witmore (Folger Shakespeare Library), he is part of a major digital humanities project, funded by the Mellon Foundation, to develop tools and procedures for the linguistic analysis of texts across the period 1450-1800. Early work from this project is blogged at: winedarksea.org