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Text Analysis I

As an Early Modernist, text analysis has come up quite frequently in my studies. Ted Underwood discusses in “A Geneaology of Distant Reading” that distant reading is not some recent creation fueled by computers. Scholars have been counting rhyme endings, specific images, and manually modelling topics for decades before Franco Moretti (who also made use of Shakespeare’s works in his study of distant reading). I think what is most interesting about Underwood’s essay is the contention he highlights between the digital humanities and distant reading–they’re not the same thing, but they are for some reason often conflated. Additionally, Underwood points to the issue of distant reading often being aligned with a more social sciences approach to text, whereas the digital humanties are constantly pushing back against the assumption the the increase of technology in scholarly work does not inherently mean that threads of humanistic inquiry are moving toward the sciences.

In this essay, Underwood acknowledges that authorship analysis is perhaps the main area in which computres have deeply impacted the landscape of distant reading. Probably the most obvious and significant example of the developments of textual analysis in Shakespeare studies is the New Oxford Shakespeare, which participates in a new and updated computational analysis of authorship in the canon. In addition to modern spelling and critical reference editions of the complete works, the editors included an Authorship Companion. As Underwood states in the other essay of his we read this week, “Seven ways humanists are using computers to understand text,” “Part of the reason statsitcal models are becoming more useful in the humanities is that new methods make it possible to use hundreds of thousands of variables,” which seems to be what the editors of the New Oxford Shakespeare are attempting to do in finding every possible instance of a new hand being introduced into each play.

The 2016 New Oxford Shakespeare seems to realize the fears of many early modern scholars, as the plays and poems have been run through a computer and become a series of graphical models with accompanying essays on methods rather than focusing on critical readings of the language of the text. Admittedly, it goes much further beyond the example Froehlich mentioned in regarding the misunderstandings of textual analysis–“Shakespeare’s plays are about kings and queens”–but there is the risk of seeing all of the tables and graphs and fearing that the humanistic element has been removed from the plays. The Oxford University Press describes the collective edition as “an entirely new consideration of all of Shakespeare’s works, edited from first principles from the base-texts themselves, and drawing on the latest textual and theatrical scholarship.” This “entirely new consideration” might begin to explain why 18 works in the table of contents of the Modern Critical Edition include additional authors—twelve in total, not counting various credits to Anonymous—whose names are sometimes accompanied by a question mark or merely credited as an adapter of or contributor to the text.

The Authorship Companion attempts to expand on an extensive history of authorship studies in Shakespeare scholarship, but claims that this edition can be set apart from the rest due to the advancements in technology allowing a more thorough examination of writing patterns. In the introduction, editor Gabriel Egan describes the intrigue of attempting to edit works with questionable authority: “Shakespeare’s case raises particular difficulties: there are no manuscripts of any of his undisputed works in his own undisputed handwriting, and no completely reliable early definition of his canon” (v). The editors have divided this book into two sections: in the first, they share essays describing their methodology of their process for determining authorship while the second includes a variety of case studies detailing their justification for crediting certain authors to specific works. Additionally, a section of datasets accompanies the traditional works cited and index at the end, as the editors hope that it will “enable and inspire future research” (Egan vi).

The New Oxford Shakespeare and its Authorship Companion is one of the more recent (and prominent) examples of a massive text analysis process that made an important impact on interrogating the way we consider authorship and canon in early modern literature. I’m curious if, in my exploration of text analysis for this class, I will be able to use their datasets to participate in some of the “future research” imagined by the editors.

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