University of Calgary

Research and Discovery

Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 21:49.

Research and Discovery

Still curious about Ancient DNA labs, asteroids, William Shakespeare and our writer-in-residence? Discover more here.

Four Surprises Revealed by Encoding Shakespeare


You’d think someone as studied as William Shakespeare leaves nothing more to learn. But assistant professor of English Michael Ullyot is rediscovering the Bard in new ways, thanks to the field of digital humanities — that is, humanities aided by computation. With assistance from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant, Ullyot and a Waterloo-based computer science student have developed an algorithm called the Zeugmatic that can study the Bard, plus thousands of other texts, in seconds. Here’s a sample:

1) Shakespeare’s best rhetoric is still simple enough for an algorithm to identify. Take this from Richard III: “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues/And every tongue brings in a several tale/And every tale condemns me for a villain.” As Ullyot explains, “It builds an argument: A to B, B to C, C to D. It’s beautiful, memorable, but it’s also so simple that even a computer can recognize it.”

2) We can quantify a character’s preoccupation with death (or love, or vengeance). Take Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most death-obsessed character. The Zeugmatic can look at his language and compare that to all of Shakespeare’s other characters. “You now are able to put a number on that qualitative judgment,” Ullyot says. “Digital humanities is quantifying qualitative questions, so you can start to test some of the hypotheses of received wisdom.”

3) Othello might have been a comedy. Plays about marriage and love are comedies and plays about death and revenge are tragedies, right? Not so simple. “If you look at the linguistic structures of the way that comedies operate, Othello has a lot more in common with a comedy linguistically than a tragedy,” says Ullyot. “You can see genre at the level of the sentence. This questions what genre means.”

4) The algorithm can understand other authors of Shakespeare’s time — and even of today. “We can also find the hidden geniuses of his time that we haven’t bothered to look at,” says Ullyot. “You can shake up old ideas about who’s good, who’s bad, who’s in and out of the canon.” But the Zeugmatic isn’t limited to finding patterns in Elizabethan authors. “It can be [used to examine] Obama’s speeches. It could work on Churchill’s writings, on editorial or even on cellphone terms of services.”