The Favorability of Textual Analysis In English

Beginning the Journey with WordHoard

I walked into English 203 with the preconceived idea that we would be studying a literary text and analyzing it with the discoveries made by physically reading the text. Instead I was introduced to a whole new world of textual study; digital humanities. Up until the first day of class I was oblivious to the idea that literary texts could be studied using programs on my computer. Being someone who loves to find a “quick route” to any task, this new concept made me doubt all the traditional analysis I had done for other English classes in University.

I began my journey into the tech savvy world of digital humanities with a not so fancy partner by the name of WordHoard. Through our journey we had our ups and downs (the full details can be found in my second blog post); although the downs surpassed the ups in quantity, the advantages of having WordHoard as a tool ready to analyze alongside me helped balance out the negatives. WordHoard is a great starting tool for students like me who are just being introduced to the possibilities of technological analysis. While analyzing Act 3 Scene 4 in  our first phase, I couldn’t help but wonder if the “discoveries” I was making with WordHoard could have just as easily been found if I were to do a close reading of the play myself. Those small seeds of doubt gave way to the growing thoughts of whether digital analysis was even needed to better understand a text. Like all things in life, the rose colored glasses of technological research had to come off and I had to decide if I would ever take part in the digital humanities world after the conclusion of my English 203 class or if the knowledge I attained during these four months would eventually be stored away in the back of my brain.

Distracted by Appearances

We as humans have a tendency to focus on items that have appealing appearances; like children we reach out for the bright object, unconsciously attracted to its shine. That attraction towards a shiny object exists in the digital humanities as well. In Fred Gibbs‘ article Organizing Early Modern Texts he gives an anecdote about the printing press. During the early 19th century, the printing press faced competition from newer sleeker methods of printing such as engraving. In order to cut the competition, printers began to add artistic borders to the pages being print. Were these borders or ornamental designs helpful or necessary in regards to the print? Nope; instead as Gibbs said “the medium had overtaken the message”.

How is this related to Digital Humanities? After working with the various analysis tools in Phase 1 and Phase 2, we became familiar with the many different functions these tools have. While some were useful, others made you wonder what the point of the function was at all. The image above is a screen shot of a word cloud from Voyeur; the larger the word is the more it’s used in the play. While this image helps me conclude that Hamlet is the most used word in the play, I don’t make any great epiphanies by studying it. The image itself is appealing, such that I could use it as an art piece to decorate my room but it would be on the lower end of the scale of its usefulness in analyzing Hamlet. The same information could easily be stated in a window without all the art work. The screen shot below shows us that the word Hamlet was used 85 times in the whole play and goes on to show the dialogues it was used in.

During Phase One, my group and I focused on mastering WordHoard; of course this wasn’t possible in the short time span, but we tried our best to at least know how to run the program! Throughout this phase our main complaint was how WordHoard looked so plain in comparison to the fancy screen shots everyone else had for their tools. It wasn’t until we joined together with other members who had expertise in the different tools in Phase 2 that we came to realize that WordHoard, although lacking in the visual department, had an advantage over some tools when it came to analyzing the text itself.

This brings me back to the point that although the other tools look better or present their data in artistic forms, they are unnecessary for the analysis of the play. A literary text can be analyzed just a well without the multicolored word clouds or line webs. When using digital tools we can fall prey to the appearance of the data being represented but we aren’t really progressing further in our research. Instead the medium, or method in which the data is presented, over shadows the data itself. Digital analysis of texts is useful but I believe that we do not need all the “bells and whistles” which these tools come equipped with in order to better understand a text; instead these functions can sometimes serve as a distraction from what we are really looking for.

Quantitative versus Qualitative

I’ve always enjoyed reading my novels with a pen in hand ready to vandalize the prim and clean pages of the book. You get an odd sense of satisfaction by writing down a note or underlining a specific sentence especially when those scribbles help you read in between the lines of what the author has written. You feel a connection to the author because you uncovered the deeper meaning behind their words. What I missed the most this semester was the connection you have with the text by close reading. That isn’t to say that the Digital Humanities prevent you from better understanding a text or making a connection with the author because it does help you your analysis. Both the traditional method of analysis and digital analysis help you research a text but the only difference is that the traditional method of close reading allows for a qualitative analysis while the digital one is more quantitative in its results. In order to better understand this concept, I will compare the two methods of analysis.

                Textual Analysis

In Phase 2, my group members and I revolved our research around the theme of madness (more details in my blog post). For my part of the research I searched up how the other actors in the play reacted to Hamlets “madness”. Limited by what I could search up using my tool (WordHoard doesn’t search up synonyms of words) I had to literally go through all of Act 3 and find quotes made by the different actors regarding Hamlet’s madness. This wouldn’t have been possible because the characters do not always use the word madness when they speak of Hamlet; close reading is required to understand their view points. The following are quotes I found from my Hamlet book.

  • Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness. There’s something in his soul. (Claudius, 3.1.166)
  • O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! (Ophelia 3.1.152)

As you can see madness is not the only word used to describe Hamlet’s disposition. I would never have thought of searching up the words “noble mind” or “o’erthrown” therefore I would have missed out on Ophelia’s opinion of Hamlet’s insanity. This would definitely hinder my analysis if I were to solely base my research on discoveries made through digital analysis. Even without the use of a technological tool, I can interpret through close reading that Claudius doesn’t truly believe Hamlet is mad but has a motive behind that insanity. Ophelia’s interpretation is that Hamlet is mad, but this madness is just a phase which he can move out of and eventually be restored to his normal self.

                Digital Analysis

Through the use of WordHoard I made the following discovery in Phase 1:

In the whole play, Hamlet is the one who uses the word madness the most. This can give way to the idea that Hamlet encourages the people to believe he is insane by constantly using the term himself. I can also make the conclusion that madness is a major theme in the play because the word itself is used the most in Hamlet when compared to other Shakespearean plays. Both of these inferences are based on the quantitative data presented by WordHoard. I didn’t have to do the time consuming act of reading through the whole play in order to highlight madness whenever I see it and count how many time sits used, neither did I have to read any other Shakespearean play to compare it to Hamlet.

After my comparison you can see that the textual analysis is qualitative because your interpretations are more in depth and made after you give the words more thought while digital analysis is quantitative because the interpretations made were not truly based on deep thought but rather on the data presented by the digital tool. While I prefer close textual reading even I can admit to the fact that a combination of both traditional and digital analysis is necessary to conduct efficient research in regards to literary texts. Some might believe that the use of technology to make inferences in literature is just another way to accommodate our lazy generation but this is incorrect because as I’ve show the computer cannot make interpretations or develop great epiphanies; it is still the researcher’s responsibility to uncover the message of the text. Fred Gibbs gives a perfect explanation when he says “Digital methodologies leverage the computer’s ability for mindless drudgery to help us do and see more than we would otherwise—and hopefully make discoveries that would otherwise go unnoticed.”

My Train of Thought

The introduction of digital tools to the written world has been an amazing innovation for literary researchers; I won’t deny it because everything needs an upgrade from time to time. During a time when the analysis of texts was long, repetitive and in some cases inefficient, tools such as WordHoard, WordSeer, Tapor, Monk and Voyeur have given those who choose to undertake the task of literary analysis a chance to move past the long tiring hours spent close reading several texts and focus on the actual comparisons being made. The use of digital tools helped me:

  • Compare several Shakespearean plays to Hamlet giving me insight on the various meanings of words in different contexts
  • Easily quantify data found when comparing scenes, acts or even plays
  • Interpret the data found through visuals
  • Analyze Hamlet a lot faster than I would have done through close textual reading alone

I cannot deny that the use of digital tools to dig into Shakespeare’s Hamlet made literary analysis somewhat easier but neither can I say that it helped me make a mind blowing inference that I couldn’t have made through text analysis. Digital Humanities helped me move through the analysis of a play a lot faster than I could have ever done on my own but I also feel that there are certain texts which are just not suited for the technological world. We live in a society where we desire everything to be accessible to moment we want it; we’ve become impatient and this outlook has seeped into all aspects of our life, even the way we read. This need for speed, I believe, is unfair to English literature which with its richness in complexity and meaning deserves for us to spend time thinking over what we have read. For early modern texts and Shakespearean plays, I think it is crucial for us to use our own minds to think critically of the text. Till this day I can reread The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood or Jane Austens’ Pride and Prejudice over and over again because I make a new discovery every time I move through the pages. Digital Humanities will play a role in literary analysis but it can only go so far before the researcher has to turn to traditional textual analysis.

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Ann Thompson, and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006. Print. Third Series.

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