Defining Hamlet as a Tragedy, or Lack of One: A Quantitative and Qualitative Endeavour(Phase Two, Blog Post Three)

*Note: Due to time constraints, this is my third blog post due for Monday, March.26, submitted early.

As the basis of my research, regarding the fifth act of Hamlet, I have fixated my efforts around one fundamental underlying question: What is the significance of act five of Hamlet, alone, and how does it define this iconic play as a tragedy? I explored this question in my previous blog posts, however, I will now, through this account, elaborate on how I have further employed my digital tool word seer to pursue a tangible answer to this question. As I continue to familiarize myself with the vast array of possibilities and enticing functions offered by the digital tool word seer, my confidence in digital humanities approaches formulating new conclusions and raising new observations regarding familiar texts is increasing
as well. For instance, now that I am able to segregate just the fifth act of Hamlet,  I am able to isolate it as its own distinct and significant entity, and thus, I am able to produce conclusions and hypotheses regarding the single act alone, as opposed to the entire text—a process not as easily accomplished with traditional text analysis and closed reading. Therefore, in my last post I explained my preliminary trials of inputting words from the fifth act of Hamlet into word seer and observing the returned usage frequency results on the heat map function—results I was highly surprised at—and will, in this post, explore how word seer and its comparative features may be implemented to suggest provocative details about the text, such as sudden escalations of the frequency of a given word at a given instance.

One of my primary considerations, regarding Hamlet, an assertion that I have implied in several of my blog posts, is that the play does not appear to confirm to the superficial niche that tragedies are often classified under, in terms of words used. In my last post, I discussed how words such as “death” “loyalty” and “fall” appear remarkably less frequently than I had initially anticipated, prior to conducting the search of act five in word seer. To exemplify, in terms of word frequencies, that the fifth act of Hamlet is relatively sparse in words that one might expect to pertain to a tragedy, I have included results from a test that I conducted using some of the words that I have previously inputted in a search of the entire play, as well as some new words such as “beast” and “wretch”. Upon viewing the results, one will quickly conclude that Hamlet is lacking in these words, leaving room for qualitative speculation as to why this might be.

The same search conducted, this time using the entire play, returns a greater frequency of the same words, yet, not to an overwhelming extent (the results are featured below). Additionally, in carrying out this test, I have satisfied the aim of my previous blog post, which was to apply word seer to compare the frequency of the same words between the fifth act of Hamlet, and the entire text.

Therefore, one is left to infer that in terms of language, Hamlet is variable from other Shakespearean tragedies. Seeing as to this quality, I am
armed with a more quantitatively geared set of evidence in my argument that the so called “revenge tragedy” isn’t much of a tragedy, after all. Of course, when I refer to the term “tragedy”, my evaluation adheres to Aristotle’s classic conception of the genre: I do acknowledge that I have largely concentrated on this definition of tragedy throughout the entire research process of this course, however, I believe that I am well justified in having done so, as Macbeth and Othello—tragically flawed heroes in possession of Hamlet’s lacking “cue for action”—pay dearly for their mistaken acts, acts of which, unless one considers Hamlet’s accidental slaying of Polonius, are largely missing from the play, and not only that, Hamlet is not the only character to pay the price in the end of play. I have highlighted these details so not as to embark on a subjective tangent about the play’s qualities, but rather, to uncover what details digital tools and word frequencies may aid in identifying. Therefore, in conducting the word frequency tests that I have(using word seer) I have searched for meaningful trends, such as repeatedly recurring words, that could potentially suggest the theme of the text, and thus, I could compare these supposed themes with my own standards of what defines a tragedy in order to assess how well Hamlet conforms to the profile of the genre.

However, despite all of these possibilities, I still have, as of yet, to uncover the significance of  act five, itself. Still, I have employed some new methods, using different features of word seer to establish whether Hamlet himself fits the profile of the tragic hero, especially in the final act of the play. In order to do this, I aimed to see how he was defined by other characters in act five, through inputting Hamlet described as “blank” in the related words feature of word seer, and received the results pictured below:

If I were to evaluate Hamlet’s overall level of compatibility with the conventional tragic hero( such as, for instance, Titus or Macbeth) I would certainly consider these results to deviate from the profile. I would have expected words more in accordance with “vengeful”, “wretched” or “rash”, or perhaps synonyms to these terms. Yet, Hamlet is referred to as “young”, which in itself, is not a sufficient tragic flaw. Therefore, on this very subjective, qualitative basis (as an interpretation of quantitative data) I will conclude that Hamlet is, at the very least, not a well-defined
tragic hero. How does this relate to my original posed question? In actuality, searches such as these have led me a somewhat different direction, however, I do find myself armed with an adequate conclusion to answer my underlying question, which has guided me through this phase of research. How is act five significant from the rest of the play, and how does it define the play as a tragedy? Using evidence from my closed reading I will advocate that the fundamental action and exhilaration of the play culminates into act five, serving to establish it as significant on its own, while I will argue that act five defines the play as a tragedy only through its outcome, and not its other plot elements, or word frequencies. Therefore, once again, I have found that my conclusion formulating process has largely compiled both quantitative and qualitative features, and both data and interpretation, using both my personal perspective regarding my experience with the text, and the numerical patterns achieved through my digital tool to render both generalizations and specific statements about the significance of act five of Hamlet as its own unit.


2 thoughts on “Defining Hamlet as a Tragedy, or Lack of One: A Quantitative and Qualitative Endeavour(Phase Two, Blog Post Three)

  1. What do you mean exactly by saying, “I still have, as of yet, to uncover the significance of act five, itself”? Do you mean in terms of whether it is defined as more of a tragedy compared to the other acts? I focused specifically on Hamlet as well for my act (act 1) and personally, from the results I found with the digital tools, Hamlet’s main flaw is his possible madness and his desire to become a “warrior” (like his father) when he is actually an intellectual who constantly reasons with himself before taking action. I think it’s really interesting how you said that the possible outcomes of Hamlet are what make it a tragedy as opposed to word choice. This reminds me of Monks presentation when they found out that Othello is more of a comedy because of it’s word choice.

  2. Ruby,

    When I stated that I was searching to uncover the significance of act five on its own, I was referring to distinguishing it, in terms of word frequencies(using my digital tool, word seer), from other acts in the text. In regards to my conceptions of Hamlet as lacking tragic characteristics, I base my opinions on the conventions outlined by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle in his text “Poetics.”
    I hope that this response has served to clarify your questions.


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