Hamlet and the Region of DeathShare
What Franco Moretti found by turning Shakespeare into data.
For as long as anyone can remember, the basic task of literary scholarship has been close reading. Sit down with a book, pencil in hand, read, pay attention — and then tell the world what you noticed.
Franco Moretti, however, often doesn’t read the books he studies. Instead, he analyzes them as data. Working with a small group of graduate students, the Stanford University English professor has fed thousands of digitized texts into databases and then mined the accumulated information for new answers to new questions. How far, on average, do characters in 19th-century English novels walk over the course of a book? How frequently are new genres of popular fiction invented? How many words does the average novel’s protagonist speak? By posing these and other questions, Moretti has become the unofficial leader of a new, more quantitative kind of literary study.
To many readers — and to some of Moretti’s fellow academics — the very notion of quantitative literary studies can seem like an offense to that which made literature worth studying in the first place: its meaning and beauty. For Moretti, however, moving literary scholarship beyond reading is the key to producing new knowledge about old texts — even ones we’ve been studying for centuries.
Most recently Moretti has turned his attention to what might be the most familiar text in English literature: “Hamlet.” Using the play as a kind of test case, Moretti diagrammed and quantified the plot, charting the relationships among characters as a network based strictly on whether they speak to one another at any point in the play. He published the results in an article, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” in the March/April 2011 issue of the New Left Review.
Seen through Moretti’s network diagrams, “Hamlet” often seems brand new. One notices, for example, that of all the characters who speak to both Hamlet and Claudius, only two manage to survive the play (Moretti calls this part of the network the “region of death”). Or one notices that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the most famous pair of minor characters in all of Shakespeare, never speak to each other.
Although network analysis is still finding its legs, Moretti’s larger ambition for it is clear: It represents a way out of the reader’s limited perspective, or at least an acknowledgement that those limits exist. Moretti spoke to ideas from his home near Stanford.