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Hidden Meanings : Datamining Early English Print
December 8, 2011 4:47 AM   Subscribe

Datamining Shakespeare --- Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy: when the hero makes a terrible mistake of judgment, his once promising world is led into ruin. Computer analysis of the play, however, suggests that the play is a comedy or, at least, that it does the same things with words that comedies usually do. On October 26, 2011, Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore discussed his recent work in Shakespeare studies which combines computer analysis of texts, linguistics, and traditional literary history. Taking the case of Shakespeare's genres as a starting point, Witmore shows how subtle human judgments about the kinds of plays Shakespeare wrote — were they comedies, histories or tragedies? — are connected to frequent, widely distributed features in the playwright's syntax, vocabulary, and diction. (approx. 30 minute lecture.)

tl,dw executive summary:
After introducing us to a computer program that digests passages of text and categorizes and analyses the words in the passages, we learn that the tragic play Othello was written as if it were a comedy, which makes it all the more devastating. "Othello is a truly awful play. It is perverse in the way that it takes the kinds of things you do when you are writing comedy, and sets you up emotionally to expect one thing, and then turns on you."

Bigger picture overview:
"What does linguistic variation -- the use or omission of words or phrases in texts -- tell us about history, culture and interpretation?"
posted by crunchland (29 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting, but I'm still inclined to think that when your program tells you Othello is a comedy you've discovered something about your program, rather than something about Othello.
posted by Segundus at 5:03 AM on December 8, 2011 [14 favorites]


About ten years ago, I vaguely recall having to write an essay which focused on why Romeo and Juliet would have been a Shakespearean comedy except for all the people dying, and why Midsummer's Night Dream would have been a tragedy except for all the people not dying. So, isn't 'people dying' the main determinant of comedy and tragedy? I'm honestly not an expert at this, but that's what I'd been taught.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:30 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


About ten years ago, I vaguely recall having to write an essay which focused on why Romeo and Juliet would have been a Shakespearean comedy except for all the people dying, and why Midsummer's Night Dream would have been a tragedy except for all the people not dying.

The traditional definition I was taught was that tragedies end with a funeral and comedies end with a wedding. I also liked the explanation I heard someone give for why they thought Romeo and Juliet was actually a comedy, namely that the romantic lives of 16 year olds are always so absurd as to be hilarious.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:39 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Comedy and tragedy both have pretty strict definitions going back to good old Aristotle.
posted by mek at 5:55 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The talk was fascinating before it froze up and then wouldn't reload. Could y'all please not click the link for 20 minutes or so? :) But from what I heard, this:

when your program tells you Othello is a comedy you've discovered something about your program, rather than something about Othello.

is not accurate, despite the favorites it's getting. As crunchland notes in the post, what Witmore is saying is that Othello is not only a tragedy, but is made even *more* of a tragedy by including many of the techniques Shakespeare uses in his comedies, techniques made more obvious through a computer analysis. Makes a lot of sense to me, although I'll have to wait until after work to listen the the rest, so I guess I can't be sure yet, but that's what he seems to be saying.
posted by mediareport at 5:59 AM on December 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


That's University of Wisconsin English Professor Michael Witmore to you! We have a thriving group in the "digital humanities" here. See also: engineer-turned-literature-scholar Robin Valenza, and Bill Sethares, an electrical engineering professor who studies deep structure in music, including the relation between timbre and tonality.
posted by escabeche at 6:04 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Comedy and tragedy both have pretty strict definitions

isn't 'people dying' the main determinant of comedy and tragedy?

You folks are being far too rigid in the way you're thinking about the difference between tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare, who blurred the lines so often and so well - there's a huge literature, for instance, debating the formal characteristics, if any, of Shakespearian "tragicomedy." And anyone who can't see the horror and darkness in a romantic comedy like Much Ado About Nothing isn't reading very closely.
posted by mediareport at 6:09 AM on December 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


but that's what he seems to be saying. --- Yes. That is what he's saying.
posted by crunchland at 6:20 AM on December 8, 2011


As crunchland notes in the post, what Witmore is saying is that Othello is not only a tragedy, but is made even *more* of a tragedy by including many of the techniques Shakespeare uses in his comedies, techniques made more obvious through a computer analysis. Makes a lot of sense to me, although I'll have to wait until after work to listen the the rest, so I guess I can't be sure yet, but that's what he seems to be saying.

I don't need a computer to make a non-falsifiable statement about irony in a play. I have an arts degree for that already.
posted by mobunited at 6:30 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you listen to the talk, he's not saying we "need" the computer. He's saying (again, from what I could hear before the link died) that it's neat the computer is so quick to confirm what many scholars have been arguing for centuries.
posted by mediareport at 6:38 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, ok, that's partly what he's saying.
posted by mediareport at 6:45 AM on December 8, 2011


Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy: when the hero makes a terrible mistake of judgment, his once promising world is led into ruin. Computer analysis of the play, however, suggests that the play is a comedy

Weirdly, I just did a comic strip about commonalities Othello has with CHiPs and The Benny Hill Show.
posted by COBRA! at 7:02 AM on December 8, 2011


This is in the same ballpark as the work I'm doing, although mine depends more on syntactic variation instead of semantic and focuses on authorship attribution instead of genre classification.

I was initially kind of skeptical--his PCA plot doesn't actually seem all that well-separated, for one thing--but it's interesting to see that Othello has the kind of two-characters-plotting structure seen in the comedies. I have to wonder, though, how much of that is carried over from the original source, a story from Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi. There's a fair bit of plotting there between the Othello character and Iago (who's just a nameless ensign).
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:09 AM on December 8, 2011


I remember a high school English class in which we compared Othello to Much Ado About Nothing and talked about how similar they were, plot-wise, until the ending. But it's very cool to hear that there are also language cues being played with that made the ending of Othello so shocking and powerful.
posted by cider at 7:14 AM on December 8, 2011


The original, anonymous, version of King Lear - King Leir - is, bizarrely, a comedy, and has a happy ending.

It would be interesting to see how this study placed them - if this study seemed interesting. I agree about the PCA plot, very unimpressive. To me this feels like all too typical of the failings in the intersections between informatics and humanities: a weak study badly explained by someone who didn't do it.
posted by iotic at 7:20 AM on December 8, 2011


Othello is a tragedy in broad outline, but in structure it is a melodrama, a much broader and inclusive form than the classical Greek tragedy. As such it includes a good deal of episodic material including humor. If you look at popular film melodramas from just about any era you will see a similar use of humor both as an end in itself ("comic relief") and as a way to drive the narrative: a space opera, for example (any of the Star Trek films), a or a woman's picture (Mildred Pierce) or even a war movie (Bridge on the River Kwai, among many others).

Another possible reason that Othello might show certain "comedy" traits is that Iago's feigned friendship and dissembled evil are presented using ironic language rich in double meanings, e.g., puns. A play filled with puns sounds like it should be a comedy, even if in context the puns aren't funny but sinister.
posted by La Cieca at 9:58 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't need a computer to make a non-falsifiable statement about irony in a play. I have an arts degree for that already.

But you might need one to look up the definition of "non-falsifiable", mobunited. This computer program is pretty much the definition of a test for a falsifiable statement about irony in a play.

...unless you're simply making a narrower restatement that all interpretation of plays are non-falsifiable, since we're talking about the liberal arts.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:43 AM on December 8, 2011


"Othello is a truly awful play. It is perverse in the way that it takes the kinds of things you do when you are writing comedy, and sets you up emotionally to expect one thing, and then turns on you."

OK, I finally heard that quote (about 5/8 through the player, but unfortunately I can't find a time counter). I think it's important to realize he says the first sentence ironically (IMO); he thinks it is awesome in its perversity, not awful - but it's "awful" in that it deliberately misleads the audience with false clues, which makes the tragedy at the end more dramatic in its contrast.

IMO.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:22 AM on December 8, 2011


Othello is a comedy commissioned of Shakespeare by a guy named Fred Cassio.
posted by gurple at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2011


Here's a link to a pdf of the transcript of the talk. You don't get the slides, but you can follow the argument anyway.
posted by yoink at 11:40 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The original, anonymous, version of King Lear - King Leir - is, bizarrely, a comedy, and has a happy ending.

From the mid-late C17th to the late C18th the version of Shakespeare's King Lear that was actually performed on stage was a partial re-write by Nahum Tate that ended happily in the wedding of Cordelia and Edgar.
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on December 8, 2011


Speaking of Shakespearean tragedy replayed as comedy, there's Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet.
posted by storybored at 2:24 PM on December 8, 2011


I have rarely laughed as hard as I did when I saw that play.
posted by yoink at 2:40 PM on December 8, 2011


You folks are being far too rigid in the way you're thinking about the difference between tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare, who blurred the lines so often and so well

Oh, absolutely. Shakespeare is notorious for intentionally breaking Aristotle's rules and bending genre in all sorts of ways; his ability to scrap the rules and still produce extremely entertaining plays was arguably what makes him so exceptional as a playwright. I think The Tempest is the only comedy which actually adheres to the unities, for example, though some others come close. My statement was just to mean that in the context of both the post and the program, the terms "tragedy" and "comedy" are being used in a technical way, apart from the contemporary understanding of the words, which might not be obvious to all readers. (eg. 18th century sentimental comedy, while absolutely comedy in the technical sense, is not at all funny.)
posted by mek at 3:10 PM on December 8, 2011


To be fair, most Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights didn't adhere to the Aristotelian unities--which were really more observations or guidelines than actual rules. The unities only really became a Thing with the French neoclassicists a few decades after Shakespeare's day.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:24 PM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, what the HELL is all this theatre history stuff doing in my brain?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:44 PM on December 8, 2011


Anything is a comedy if it's set to "Yakkity Sax."
posted by Smedleyman at 10:12 PM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here are two really interesting sites pushing things forward in Early Modern Drama data mining / authorship studies.
posted by iotic at 1:47 AM on December 9, 2011


Smedleyman’s right. It’s definitely a comedy.
posted by nicepersonality at 7:13 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


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