In the Context of Things: How One Act May Be a Limited View

The third act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is full of action, energy and great writing. It has strong character dilemmas, some death, powerful speeches and a play within a play. To most people with some interest and experience with Shakespeare’s works, this would seem like an excellent act and play to work with, but is it really enough to base writing on?

Until this point we’ve all been working with larger documents and even more diverse works, with work collections as big as the entirety of Shakespeare’s known works. I most often used the entire work of Hamlet as the basis of my searches on Wordseer, and with that I often got thorough and useful results, but when I started sizing down to searches focusing only on one act, even the incredibly diverse and action filled act that I and my group get to focus on, I’ve been getting less results than I care to admit and far fewer results than I would like.

One possibility is that this will be fixed when I can start to look at the collective tools working together where whatever small results that one tool can find will begin to raise questions for other tools to answer, and I think that this will happen, but even this approach limits the possibilities because no matter how effective a method you have for deriving information from data and no matter how intensely one scrutinizes their data, the results someone can attain are corrupt if their data is corrupt.

I say this because I think that looking at only one act might possibly corrupt the data that we recieve from doing so. For the uncaring this next part might be a bit technical so I’ll use point form to make it more clear.

  • A digital humanities tool is a survey tool that takes polls from texts to see if such and such a word fits under a certain description.

    • Imagine a text as a nation that we want to ask a question to, and all the words in that text as voting or polled individuals.

    • Every time I enter a search into Wordseer, I ask the individual words of the word population of the text nation “Hamlet” whether they apply to such and such a query. For example I would be asking them “do you describe the word “Ophelia”?” and, if they do, they show up in the results of the poll.

  • A survey tool has less accuracy with a smaller polled group.

    • So, if I don’t poll the entire nation of Hamlet, but rather, I ask the constituency “Act 3” or “Scene 1 of Act 5” I’ll get a less accurate result.
    • Within this constituency there are those that abdicate voting (a specific word is not used in that scene/act, but several synonyms appear in its stead) and those that are running for mayor are going to influence their friends and family into voting for them ( an artistic use of repetition over powers the results ) as well as many, many other small things that if the polling group were bigger would be less aparent and would skew the results less.
  • These same quirks and others like them occur all over the place in texts that make small changes which affect the interpretation of that text more as the text becomes smaller, and no one can anticipate or identify ally of those problems.

However, in the writing of this post, I have found that there are positives to polling a smaller sample size or to analyzing with a smaller text. For one, it clearly and effectively shows an opinion or result specific to that group or text, although that is clear in itself. For another, it clearly outlines the smaller, more specific quirks that I mentioned before, allowing for a clearer interpretation of literary methods.

2 thoughts on “In the Context of Things: How One Act May Be a Limited View

  1. Hi Jesse: I’d be really interested in your thoughts (here or by e-mail) about how a course like 203 could give students the chance to work with more texts by Shakespeare without requiring us to spend weeks and weeks reading plays together at the start, before we learn tools.

    Also, I think you mean “abstain” (not “abdicate”).

  2. For example: If I wanted to work with (say) 5 plays by Shakespeare, could I take a poll at the beginning of the course asking everyone which texts they’d read before; then (in Phase 2) divide them into 5 teams–1 of people who have all read Macbeth, 2 of people who have all read Twelfth Night, and so on–so that each team was doing a “Hamlet versus X” kind of study?


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