The Bridge Over Troubled (Digital Humanities) Waters

My Evolving Perspective

Four months ago, I thought I had a sense of how one usually studies a work of Shakespeare: you read the text, read all the footnotes, occasionally pull out the highlighter or scribble some notes down here and there.  After completing English 203, it’s safe to say that I really can’t imagine going back to studying a Shakespearean text by only doing a close reading of the text.

I’ve now been exposed to this new, exciting concept of digital humanities, and in my mind things can go nowhere but up from here.  I’m not trying to be cheesy when I say this, but digital humanities genuinely gets me excited about studying a Shakespearean text.  Although we are still at the beginning stages of this form of study, I truly believe it has so much potential for the future.  I used to almost dread studying a new Shakespearean play because I would usually read the whole thing and often need a lot of external help to grasp the main concepts.  I would borrow study guides from the library, watch the films, everything.  But now with digital humanities tools and the masses of opinions and findings posted online, I can tap into a vast ocean of information that can further my learning effectively with a few clicks of the mouse.

Movement vs. Extension?

Many scholars such as Ted Underwood and Feisal Mohamed have begun to argue, however, that “digital humanities is not a movement” but a “natural extension of the work that bibliographers have always done”. You can find a list of articles and different opinions on this subject by going to Digital Humanities As A Literary Studies Movement: Editors Choice Round-Up. I agree with the statements made by Underwood and Mohamed.  Just because we now have the technological ability to obtain all sorts of data from a text, it does not mean we should completely abandon the text as a whole or forget where the text came from in the first place. We also now have the ability to share our findings online with the world. Mohamed touches more on the role of digital humanities in his blog post, “Can There Be a Digital Humanism?” and I would like to use the rest of this blog post to express my feelings in response to his opinions on this subject and also share what I think the role of digital humanities should look like based on my experiences with it in English 203.

I just wanted to add a comment here about how much the internet truly is affecting humanities. As you can see above, there are at least five different ways in which you can read or respond to Mohamed’s thoughts. These social networking outlets like blogging, Facebook, and Twitter allow so many more minds to be connected and thoughts about humanities to be shared to a wider audience through the power of the internet.

Back to the article, Mohamed speaks in agreement with Underwood in saying that digital humanities is not a movement because “it does not offer to reshape the ideas that we carry into our reading of texts and cultures; it offers instead a new and powerful set of tools available to a broad range of existing critical approaches”.

The Tools of Focus for English 203:

  1. WordHoard
  2. WordSeer
  3. TapOr
  4. Voyeur
  5. Monk

The concepts that we base our hypotheses off of when applying tools such asthese to a play such as Hamlet are not brand new concepts.  The tools do not magically reveal themes to us if we have no prior context or understanding of the play.  These plays have been studied and analyzed for many, many years, and without the help of digital humanities tools such as these.  The sudden incorporation of digital humanities tools should not determine the thoughts we have while reading these original texts, but simply help enhance our understandings and reach further in what we already know.

Our Method in Applying the Online Tools

We decided as a group during Phase 2 of the course that we would each pick a character from Hamlet and use our tools in a collaborative fashion to learn more about them.  I analyzed the Ghost’s character, which was a challenge with WordHoard alone, as I was the so-called WordHoard “expert”, but I was able to use in in combination with the other tools to help me. You can read about what I found in my post here.

For example, analyzing Hamlet by hand versus by, say, WordHoard is not impossible but the time consumption it would take to find every instance the word “mad” is used in the play is exponential compared to the 3.2 seconds it takes WordHoard to do it. It also gives me the context of every instance of the word, so I can read the direct quotes relating to Hamlet’s madness instantly such as Polonius’ quote “that he is mad, tis true” (2.2.97) and Gertrude’s infamous realization, “Alas! He’s mad!” (3.4.106). I talk more about using WordHoard’s efficient word-finding abilities for my study of Hamlet in my blog post here. We are living in a new century of efficiency and convenience, and digital humanities is only building on that, extending the processes that scholars have been using for the past century and enhancing it. It’s just like an automatic door; there’s no reason we couldn’t open the door ourselves, as people have been doing for centuries, but technology has advanced in our world today so that we don’t have to manually do as much.  This of course not necessary, but it’s the world we have grown accustomed to.

Applying the Digital Humanities “Bridge” to the Study of Hamlet

No matter how much data a tool can deliver, it is the human mind that makes the connections and helps create a bridge between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the tool.  With Hamlet, one has to understand the story before plugging in words or drawing out data from the tools to get results that are of quality interest.

This was something my group learned first hand while analyzing the play and I believe it is a perfect example of why digital humanities is more of a natural extension than a movement.  We had all read Hamlet prior to working with the online tools, so we had some ideas about what we wanted to use the tools for. My group member who was studying Horatio found something with her tool, WordSeer, that she had never noticed while simply reading the text.  It showed her Horatio was related to the word “overlooked”.

She took this as a sign that Horatio must have been overlooked in the play, which would in any other context would be a rational assumption.  I had had a lot of success in finding informative details about Hamlet by simply searching certain words and seeing how many times they occurred and where they occurred in the play with WordHoard.  I helped her use WordHoard to search the word “friend” spoken by Hamlet and see how many times he referred to Horatio as a friend, continuing with the idea of Horatio being overlooked.

She gathered the numbers and information she needed, which you can read about in her post here, and used it to prove her hypothesis in our final presentation.  The problem that arose, however, was that we trusted WordSeer as a tool to tell us too much.  The hypothesis she had became discredited when the WordSeer developer, Aditi, and Dr. Ullyot pointed out that the context of the word “overlooked” was not in the way that she had assumed when obtaining her results.

The tools gave her a false impression about the word “overlooked”, and the only way she could have known for sure what the true meaning and context was was to go back to the original text and read it for herself.  I decided to use WordHoard to see exactly what the context of the word “overlooked” was in the play and found the quote to be Horatio reading a letter to himself from Hamlet, it reading “Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this, give these fellows some means to the king” (4.6.11).  In my Norton Shakespeare Anthology, there is a footnote on the word “overlooked” and it says it is another word for “read”.  It’s amazing to me that by simply taking things back to the actual book, such confusion could have been easily avoided.

She finishes off a reply to Aditi and Dr. Ullyot after our presentation with a quote that couldn’t be more true: “I suppose this is the first lesson of the Digital Humanities: ALWAYS be sure you are using reliable sources before getting excited!“ I can’t think of a better first hand example displaying the issue Mohamed raises in his blog post than this.

Concluding Thoughts

We directly experienced the importance of the bridge between the human mind and the digital, quantitative aspect of the tools.  We cannot simply trust the computer to tell us what to think.  It can gives us information that allows us to further understand what we already know, but it cannot operate the other way around.  It is a little bit scary to see what the tools are capable of and what problems they could cause in the future.  Writing is an art form, it needs to be understood and interpreted with proper context, and without that one can get a completely false impression about what the text what saying.  This is why we must use this new concept of digital humanities as a stepping-stone, and way to enhance our analysis, rather than abandoning the very text it was originally based on.  To once again quote Mohamed in his blog post, “digital humanities projects often say that they are innovating the way we investigate texts and cultures, though that innovation arises from a set of technological tools rather than an intellectual position” and to that he adds that “the kind of humanism that seems to me to be most valuable at present is that which fully disarticulates innovation and progress; which makes visible the limits of the ideology surrounding technology.” Computers can do incredible things, but they cannot be compared to the human mind.

Again, I do not want to come across as cheesy when discussing my new-found interest in the digital humanities world, but I genuinely believe I learned a lot this semester in English 203.  I was exposed to a whole new aspect of studying literature that I previously had no clue existed, and I am leaving this course hoping to continue my use of digital humanities as an aid my future literary studies.  As my group learned first hand, I am aware that one cannot solely depend on these new digital humanities tools to get you through a course about Shakespeare, or any other text for that matter, but I am 100% certain that collaborating my base knowledge of the original text with these online tools helped me understand way more about Hamlet than I ever would have by only doing a close-reading of the text.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Shakespeare Essential Plays and Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2009. Print.

time to wrap this thing up!

It’s hard to believe we are already at our last blog post for Phase 2! The fact that we’ve all had access to 5 different tools for the digital analysis of Hamlet makes me feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are so many intricacies to these tools we are using (more than any of us can really understand with the limited amount of time we’ve been able to work with them) and it’s difficult to try and reach real in-depth results when we are simply familiar with the tools, not full-out experts.

It has been extremely helpful, however, to have 4 other teammates who can quickly answer the random questions that I throw up in the air just hoping someone will have a solution to.  Because each of us has extra practice with our own tool, we have found that we can help fill in each other’s tools where they seem to be lacking.  For example, Kate will ask, “can anyone search all the lemmas of this word?” and I can eagerly tell her that yes, indeed, WordHoard IS useful for something and that YES, it can search up lemmas!

It has been pretty cool to see where some of our tools align, and where some of them overlap.  We used a GoogleDoc to write down all of the things our individual tools are able to do, so that when we come across a specific need in our research we can check out the GoogleDoc and find out if any of the other tools can help us with our problem.  We have found this to be a pretty helpful way of going about things because without these lists of functions, I would have no idea what to even ask or who to ask about anything, and then we’d be getting nowhere.

So the subject I have been using the tools to study over the past week was how the aspects of the Ghost’s character may have changed from Act 1 to the rest of the play.  Because the Ghost only speaks in 2 scenes total (I figured that out nice and quick thanks to WordHoard) I realized I would need to branch out into the other tools to get some kind of information from these few appearances.  Turns out that Richelle’s tool, WordSeer, and Ruby’s tool, Voyeur, seemed to be of most use to me in addition to my own tool, WordHoard.

To start off, I used WordHoard to see how many times Hamlet talked about/talked to the Ghost.  I got six matches total.

From there, I decided to get help using WordSeer to get some visuals going for myself.  Richelle helped me create a Heat Map for the word “ghost” to see how many times the word even came up in Hamlet.  I got the following result:

As you can see, not only does the Ghost not appear in the last third of the play, but it is not even mentioned.  I got a sense of this from my WordHoard findings, but this visual helped me grasp the effect it had on the rest of the play.  I think the Ghost’s heavy involvement in the first Act really shows what kind of role it played in the story.  The Ghost comes in initially to give Hamlet a mission, lots of conversation is had about the Ghost between Hamlet and his friends, and the Ghost pops back in to check up on Hamlet, reminding him what it was he was supposed to be doing.  After that, the Ghost basically disappears.  Hamlet becomes consumed with what he needs to do, not for the Ghost, but for himself.  The Ghost almost seems to be irrelevant to his thoughts or topic of conversation after that.

Voyeur also gave me a similar result as the Heat Map, further enforcing my inference.  The Word trends function shows that all conversation had about the Ghost completely subside near the end of the play.

As far as the content of conversation surrounding the Ghost is concerned, WordSeer gave me lists of words of nouns, adjectives, and verbs that often occurred nearby the word “ghost”.

As you can see, words such as “life” and “death” occur most often out of any.  “Dead” and “blood” also seem to appear often.  By using this function that WordSeer possesses, it allows readers to find trends through the subjects that would be near impossible to discover without the tool!

Examples such as this have really helped me see what a fresh and important spin digital humanities has on the world of literature.  Tools such as WordHoard, WordSeer, Voyeur, TapOr, and Monk really do open so many doors in terms of research possibilities., things that close reading couldn’t ever really do. I realize this is a fairly new and ever-evolving concept, but I’m excited to see what else can be discovered in years to come in the digital humanities world.

WordHoard’s Take On the Ghost

Our Plan of Action is lifting off!  Since our last meeting, our team has further developed our POA and it now feels a lot more streamlined and purposeful. I’m excited to see where it leads us!  To fill everyone in, we had originally decided to use our individual tools to analyze one main subject (you can find that in my first post), and slowly begin to collaborate with our tools to be more effective.  Today, we decided to expand on that idea.  We are now each going to use our tools to study the growth of a specific character in Act 1. From there, we will share with each other our struggles and shortcomings that our own tool caused and then use each other’s tools to help us achieve better results.  I’m so happy to have Ruby, Richelle, Kate, and Amy in my group for Act 1! Each one of them brings so much insight to our project and I completely trust all of them to help me through in the coming days when WordHoard’s limitations begin to be a bigger issue!

So now, on to my responsibilities in the group.  I am studying the change in character of the Ghost throughout the play by using WordHoard.  I am now going to spend the next few paragraphs sharing with you a bit of what WordHoard has taught me about the development of the Ghost’s character and some things I wish I could have found!

First, I needed to see how many times the Ghost even speaks in the play.  I ran a search through WordHoard of just the speaker “Ghost”, without specifying any lemmas or any extra requirements.  I got this result:

So WordHoard automatically tells me that the Ghost speaks in two scenes in the entire play: Act 1, Scene 5 and Act 3, Scene 4.  Evidently, the Ghost speaks a great deal more in its first appearance than its second.  I could already infer from this simple finding that the Ghost’s character was very instrumental in its first appearance seeing as it spoke 641 words in this scene.  We all know that Act 1, Scene 5 is where the Ghost and Hamlet have their first meeting.  I wondered what it was that caused the Ghost to speak so much at the beginning and begin to be less vocal later on.

Because WordHoard only allows me to search all of the words spoken by the ghost, I had to manually go through the text and locate how many “speeches” the Ghost has.  I found there to be three, one of them being very large.  WordHoard can’t exactly tell you how many lines a character speaks either, it just locates the words spoken for you and then you have to go and look at it for yourself to obtain anything further.  Later on in Act 3, Scene 4 the Ghost basically has one line.  This is a very big contrast to the powerful demeanor the Ghost relayed earlier on in the play.

I often just find myself at a loss of what to search when it comes to lemmas with WordHoard.  I scan the text and look for words that seem to pop out or seem to be an underlying trend and then search those, but the fact that I can’t use related words almost defeats the purpose of that.  I think by pairing up with tools such as Voyeur could really help me expand my horizons when learning about the development the Ghost has made as a character, because at the moment there isn’t a whole lot to go on.

I thought I’d  search how many times the Ghost refers to the word “mother” in both scenes, yielding only two results:

The word was said once in each scene.  This evidently does not tell me very much about the Ghost’s character.  What I am taking away from this little experience is definitely the fact that WordHoard is not an effective stand alone tool.  I Could definitely make use of things such as word clouds and heat maps to see the trends in the Ghost’s words and then draw further conclusions from there.  So once we do bring all of our tools together, I believe I will grasp a better understanding of the Ghost!

New phase, new group, new perspective!

I’m feeling really positive about Phase 2.  I’m not sure if it’s just the excitement of actually being able to reap the rewards that the other tools offer or what, but I am feeling a lot less limited with our opportunities this time around and I’m ready to get down to business!

The main thing that was on my mind before our first group meeting was the act itself.  We have been assigned Act 1.  Everyone knows the standard outline for Plot Development.  You’ve got your exposition, initial incident, rising action, climax, etc. In my mind, it’s super difficult to analyze the first act because it’s kind of like the appetizer to the meat and potatoes of the play.  All the good stuff happens in the middle, so it would seem, and the first act is more about establishing the characters, the back-story, and the setting than giving us anything really juicy to actually analyze  (and now I’ve made myself hungry by talking about Shakespeare, great).

Sorry, I had to.

It was much to my relief that my fellow groups members had also been feeling skeptical about having Act 1 as our text to analyze, you can read Richelle’s post about it (written before we had our first team meeting) here.  As soon as we started discussing the situation as a group, we collectively came up with a solid game-plan by which we would tackle Phase 2. We like to call it our POA (plan of action). I know, we are pretty cool. There’s no need to be jealous of our POA.  I’m sure you have a great one too!

Basically our Plan of Action is this: we are going to focus on how the characters have developed throughout the play, but apply a comparison of these changes to our initial reactions to the characters in Act 1.  We are going to attempt to work our tools into a cohesive relationship in which they can all pick up each other’s slack, if you will.  By having this theme or question as an overall “umbrella” as Ruby described it, it really helps us narrow down what we will want to be searching for and determining as Phase 2 ensues.  We discussed as a team that staying strictly to Act 1 and nothing else makes it a bit impossible to analyze anything.  Concepts such as foreshadow and character motives can’t be pointed out if we do not know what happens later on in the play.  Since we obviously do know what happens later on, it’s not like we are going to just turn a blind eye and act oblivious to the rest of the play! If we take what we know about whom the characters develop into and compare it to Act 1, we can use our tools to analyze the journey from where they started and try to pinpoint the roots that lead to their fate later on in the play.

After seeing the groups in Phase 1 present all of the pros and cons of their tools, I’m really interested to see how everyone is able to make things work in Phase 2.  I wonder if all of the teams will use very similar tactics, or if the methods we all decide to use to combine our tools will be extremely varied.  I am crossing my fingers in hopes that we can find a happy medium between all of the tools so that each one finds its own role in our analysis. I think this way of approaching Act 1 by attempting to combine all of our tools will really set us up for success.  We are bound to run into some snags here and there, but hopefully putting our 5 minds together with knowledge of 5 different tools can really work to our advantage and help us analyze Hamlet to the best of our abilities.

Moving Forward With WordHoard

Blogging, in my mind, has always been an activity that is done individually.  It is a way to express one’s thoughts and opinions to the world and in turn allows people to respond.  This is why taking on blogging assignments as a team is a tricky and new experience for all of us!  I have to be thinking about how my individual blog post can contribute to the overall findings of the group. The subjects I choose to talk about in my blog posts should be interconnected with my 4 other group members’ posts in order to create some consistency in the team’s results.  In order to achieve this, my team decided to focus our analysis on one main subject.  The subject we chose to analyze in Hamlet 3.4 was the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude.  We each picked an aspect of 3.4 that could potentially tell us something new about the mother/son relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude, and are attempting to use WordHoard to help us obtain new understanding on this subject.  Heavy on the word attempt.  Once we have all analyzed our individual parts, we plan on bringing our findings back together and smoothing it out into one cohesive idea.

The aspect of Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship that I am using WordHoard to help me analyze is whether or not Gertrude really believed Hamlet was mad.  How did Gertrude react to Hamlet when he began speaking to the ghost?  Did Gertrude know the ghost was there, or did she really believe her son is crazy?

WordHoard, in all honesty, doesn’t do a whole lot in comparison to some of the other tools.  Its main function is to look up word frequency and shows you when the words and their lemmas are used.  Since my initial experience with WordHoard, I have made an intentional effort to be more careful with my word searches.  I talked a lot in my last blog post about how irritating it was that every time I wanted to change a little part of my search, I had to start over from scratch.  By being more careful and specific with my queries this time around, I’ve managed to save a bit of time while submitting information.

The relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude in 3.4 is very complex.  But because Polonius was only present for the first few lines of the scene, it made it easier to make inferences from my WordHoard searches because I knew most of the results would be from conversation between Hamlet and his mother (with the exception of the Ghost’s lines) and so I didn’t have to be as specific with my search.

My first instinct was to search for the word “mad”. This yielded one result in 3.4, a line in which Gertrude blatantly states “Alas, he’s mad.” as soon as the Ghost enters and Hamlet begins speaking to him.

This line alone makes it fairly clear that Gertrude believes her son is crazy.  WordHoard found the word, gave me the exact line from which it came and also gave me the context.  What I do wish WordHoard could do that other tools can is to search for synonyms.  By searching a word such as mad, I also could have found places that Gertrude continues to question her son’s sanity.  For example, when she tells Hamlet “upon the heat and flame of thy distemper sprinkle cool patience!”, distemper means to have an unbalanced mind.  This would be a synonym for mad.

Another thing I decided to search was the ratio of words Hamlet says compared to Gertrude.  WordHoard doesn’t require you to enter an actual word to incur results, instead you can simply ask it how many words a certain speaker says in a certain scene and it can retrieve a number for you (however it can take a long time loading).


Gertrude spoke 303 words in 3.4, and Hamlet spoke 1343 words.

In my own personal opinion, if I were having a conversation with someone whom I believed to be crazy, I wouldn’t be saying very much either.  This extreme ratio that WordHoard have given us could argue that in Gertrude’s eyes, Hamlet was rambling on and on, talking to “ghosts”, and just not making a whole lot of sense so she stayed fairly quiet.

I know there are several theories floating around saying that maybe Gertrude just didn’t want to see the Ghost, and maybe Hamlet wasn’t actually crazy.  But from what I can see from the few examples that WordHoard has given me, I do think Gertrude feared the sanity of her son.  WordHoard paired with some other tools could really allow this theory to be analyzed deeper, and I look forward to being able to do such things when we get to Phase 2 in the semester.

Unlocking the Mystery That Is WordHoard

From my experience with learning how to use all of these digital humanities tools in Ullyot’s workshops, I found WordHoard to be one of the most straight-forward options. It has a simple interface and no extra flashy features.  While trying to come up with some sort of clever anecdote to start this blog post off with, I decided to take myself back to the actual WordHoard website to find more information about the tool.  One thing the site mentioned was what “WordHoard” actually means.  It turns out that the tool is named after an Old English phrase for “unlocked”.  I thought this was an extremely fitting name for the tool seeing as it almost feels like an intricate maze that needs the correct key to “unlock” answers in order to use it effectively.  Knowing how to correctly submit queries is like the “key” to the treasure.   Without the right knowledge of how to operate the tool, WordHoard can seem like a mysterious abyss filled with unreachable answers.

If you have a specific idea for something you want to find, Word Hoard allows you to fill in all of the criteria and run a search through any body of Shakespeare’s work (or the work of Chaucer, Spenser, and Early Greek Epic) to find an answer. This is a great asset to the tool because you have every text in its entirety right there in front of you to use if you need, without having to import any texts of your own.  All of the textual data stored in WordHoard is deeply tagged, allowing for people to explore their queries thoroughly. But the searches unfortunately don’t always come up with good results, and sometimes you end up with no results at all. You have to play around with the criteria until you can find something close to what you were looking for, and this can be limiting for the user if they cannot figure out how to properly enter their query.   The annoying thing about fiddling around with the query is that you have to restart every single time; you can’t just edit one part of it. For example, I tried to search for the amount of times Hamlet spoke about “love” in Act 3 Scene 4.  I wanted to see the amount of times he used it as a noun versus a verb.  So I entered the first query to look like this, selected “noun” first:

But my original search window disappears as soon as I click the “Find” button to give me the results, pictured below:

So in order to go back and see how many times Hamlet spoke of love as a verb in Act 3 Scene 4, I’d have to fill out the entire query again but this time selecting “verb”.  This tends to be very inconvenient if you’re trying to find answers quickly.

The interface of WordHoard includes a lot of drop down menus, which can lead you to exactly what you are looking for in a text query.  The one issue I find with the drop down menus is that there are just too many of them.  If I didn’t click on a certain menu, then I wouldn’t be led to numerous other options branching off of that one.  This is where the “mysterious abyss” description comes into play.  There are just so many ways to submit a query on WordHoard that it is difficult to know which ones to use and how to find them amongst the other options.  See the image below for an example of the numerous options WordHoard offers.  One can continuously click the “+/-“ buttons on the left hand side of the window and bring up more and more options, all of which have their own drop down menus to select from.  This can be very overwhelming for users to grasp if they are not already knowledgeable with the tool.

As you can see in the image above, the “Find Words” function allows you to submit a query on any word in Shakespeare’s texts.  You can select everything from the lemma down to the parts of speech, spelling, major word class, which specific work, the part of a specific work, author, publication year, narration or speech, speaker, speaker gender, prose or verse, or speaker mortality.

All in all, WordHoard has a lot of potential to be a very useful and effective tool when studying something such as Hamlet.  This important thing to remember about the tool is that you need to have a really good feel for its numerous menus and options so that you can effectively find the best answers possible for the queries you submit.  Otherwise, you will be wasting time restarting your query every time you want to fix one part of your search, which could prove to be a little frustrating!  In my opinion, it’s practice makes perfect with WordHoard.  The more you use it, the better results you will receive.