Sunday, May 29, 2011

The region of death in Hamlet

Franco Moretti, however, often doesn’t read the books he studies. Instead, he analyzes them as data. Working with a small group of graduate students, the Stanford University English professor has fed thousands of digitized texts into databases and then mined the accumulated information for new answers to new questions. How far, on average, do characters in 19th-century English novels walk over the course of a book? How frequently are new genres of popular fiction invented? How many words does the average novel’s protagonist speak? By posing these and other questions, Moretti has become the unofficial leader of a new, more quantitative kind of literary study. ...

Most recently Moretti has turned his attention to what might be the most familiar text in English literature: “Hamlet.” Using the play as a kind of test case, Moretti diagrammed and quantified the plot, charting the relationships among characters as a network based strictly on whether they speak to one another at any point in the play. He published the results in an article, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” in the March/April 2011 issue of the New Left Review.

Seen through Moretti’s network diagrams, “Hamlet” often seems brand new. One notices, for example, that of all the characters who speak to both Hamlet and Claudius, only two manage to survive the play (Moretti calls this part of the network the “region of death”). Or one notices that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the most famous pair of minor characters in all of Shakespeare, never speak to each other. ...

MORETTI: One thing is the discovery of how central Horatio is to the play. And that is interesting in itself, because Horatio is usually not one of the characters on whom people focus. He’s a very bland character, and he usually speaks very blandly....Usually we think of central characters as important in every possible way, but this is not the case here.
--Richard Beck, Boston Globe, on quantitative literary analysis

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