Forsooth! Computers share a Bard Joke

January 2, 2004

Shakespeare’s comedies may have failed to amuse generations of schoolchildren, but it seems computers could be more open to appreciating the wit of the Bard.

Software developed by US scholars can distinguish light-hearted plays such as Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the more heavyweight histories such as Richard III through an analysis of the texts.

Jonathan Hope, reader in literary linguistics at Strathclyde University and author of Shakespeare’s Grammar , and Michael Witmore, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, used the program to read Shakespeare as part of a project to teach computers how to identify linguistic features in written works.

Dr Hope said he had hoped the analysis would reveal plays that Shakespeare produced in collaboration with other playwrights or perhaps help determine the chronology of the Bard’s work.

But to the scholars’ surprise, the software found consistent differences between the comedies and histories.

Its analysis focused on linguistic features such as the use of abstract or concrete nouns. The software found distinct patterns of these linguistic elements denoted different genres.

Dr Hope said: “Genre has not been thought of as something with a statistically significant linguistic difference.

“But, for example, all the comedies have very high frequencies of first-person references and interaction between characters while the histories have a low frequency of first-person references.”
The findings will be published online by the web journal Early Modern Literary Studies .

So does this prove that Shakespeare’s comedies were funny after all? Not quite. The software found tragedies impossible to separate from comedies or histories.

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