We all know how difficult Shakespeare was to read and understand in high school. Some individuals, however, have taken the complexity of the Old English language and turned it into a beautiful science. Two main individuals stand out in the crowd of digital language analysis for me: Stephan Thiel and Michael Witmore.
Stephen Thiel uses more or a word analysis to evaluate Shakespeare. One program he has used to visualize Shakespeare is WordHoard, which does many complex analyses of Old English writing. Thiel has undertook an enormous project in 2010 as part of his B.A. thesis to rework the way that Shakespeare is presented and read. Just as a visualization should, Thiel’s interface attempted to introduce “a new form of reading drama to help understand Shakespeare’s works in new and insightful ways and to address our changed habits of consuming narrative works and knowledge through the capabilities of information visualization.”
Michael Witmore has just recently taken a position a director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in light of his work with technology and the writings of one of the world’s great scholars. Witmore dissects 1,000 words at a time of Shakespeare’s plays into a computational program, which outputs patterns of speech. At first, this may not seem like a finding worth talking about… but wait… it gets better. In the June, 2011 issue of Forbes Magazine (which I randomly picked up at the barber last week), this computational program can find more than just patterns of speech: “If you begin mapping scads of data into patterns of speech, you discover some surprising similarities among very different kinds of plays. The process also provides clues to what Shakespeare was thinking and how his astonishing imagination evolved.” Witmore suggests that the future of this type of speech processing can lead to predictors in current human behavior. Although the statement seems outlandish at the moment, Forbes Magazine reported that “scholars are teaming up with epidemiologists and social scientists to see if what you say and how you say it are determining factors in whether you’ll get a loan, contract a disease or tend to stereotype people.”
Two great examples of successful use of visualization in education and beyond. With word and speech phrase analysis, implications for future research can be discussed until we are all blue in the face. Thiel and Witmore have paved a road for literary analysis AND have been able to effectively intersect technology, visualization, and literature. What was once a mocked idea is now a successful reality for us all to learn from.