“For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion…
For a good poet’s made, as well as born”.1
In literary studies, we often critique an author’s writing – its stylistic traits, its influences, and its natural universality. When these qualities intertwine intricately, we tend to note it as exceptional. Why? Because it encapsulates the writer’s talent in writing nature and feelings with craft.
William Shakespeare has been noted as such a talent, at the expense of his contemporaries and rivals like Ben Jonson. Since Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765), Shakespeare has been known as “the poet of nature”, whose writing held “up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”2. Whereas, Jonson depended on his skill to succeed as a “lyric poet of genius” or the poet of art. He relied on his classical education to make grammatical choices or to imitate (classical) influences3. Based on this we tend to esteem the poet of nature over the poet of art.
But, what if Jonson’s comments on Shakespeare’s craft in his elegy “To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Master William Shakespeare, and What he Hath Left Us” (that Shakespeare was a poet of both nature and art) offer more to our understanding of Shakespeare’s writing? What if Jonson and Shakespeare both crafted work similarly, with conscientious practices – including the incorporation of stylistic traits, like rhetorical figures? Could we still argue that it was Shakespeare’s standout talent that has acclaimed him as the poet of nature? And argue that Jonson was the poet of art based on his self-consciousness over linguistic usage? Perhaps there are significant stylistic choices that offer how Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s works are comparatively equal in skill and talent.
I propose that digital humanities can address, if not answer, these questions. This is because digital humanities allows for a computational investigation and analysis of works through a collaboration of expert “communities” (allowing for contribution and absorption of any new “knowledge and meaning-making”)4. I argue that these questions require more than a close reading of the texts. They require collaboration and unlimited initial biases over what is canonical. And an “analysis, synthesis and presentation of information in electronic form” of these playwrights simplifies the process of comparison and allows for augmented criticism5. If we can determine similarities in form and structure, content and creativity, etc., arguably then we can understand what makes Shakespeare comparatively (numerically) equal in craft to Jonson. With our interests in rhetorical figures, the ACL offers a good beginning to analysing craft. Surely art for these playwrights included the use of rhetorical figures – bringing them into use in English. We can create outputs to determine the creative use of rhetorical figures, which Shakespeare and Jonson would have used in their texts.
To create these outputs, we need to focus on comparable qualities of Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s work. Firstly, there are hundreds of rhetorical figures and searching for them all at once is overwhelming. So, our analysis will begin with the comparison of the numerical frequency of gradatio between authors. Gradatio is a figure that requires a redoubling of a repetitive structure, which makes it a beautiful and more complex figure that requires fluidity and attention (example). The author who deploys such a figure of repetition is exercising a great deal of craft. The frequency of such a figure (and the many more to try) gives one avenue to compare skillful playwrights. Secondly, we will have to focus on a set of comparable works. Our analysis of this figure usage will begin with the entirety of the two corpuses of drama by Jonson and Shakespeare. Yes, every play and every masque. Drama simplifies an arena for computational comparison for the playwrights. Shakespeare and Jonson are known for their plays and their imprint on English literature. Thus, approaching drama first leans to the above questions before poetry.
In comparing Shakespeare and Jonson (and eventually other contemporaries, figures, and genres) there should be interesting results, that can lead to comparable rhetorical practices, craftsmanship, or clear differences by a well-born poet. Now, we just need to start creating outputs to process artful-language.
Follow the Artful-Language Processing (ALP) project by following us on twitter, where I will post regular updates.
1: Jonson, Ben. “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web.
2-3: Zimmerman, Susan, and Garrett A. Sullivan. Shakespeare Studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ, 2009. Google Books. Google. Web.
4: Burdick, Anne. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012.
5: Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE ADE Bulletin (2010): 55-61. Web.