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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: March ::
Stylometrics
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0729  Friday, 19 March 2004

[1]     From:   Michael Egan <
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        Date:   Thursday, 18 Mar 2004 04:25:46 -1000
        Subj:   SHK 15.0677 Stylometrics

[2]     From:   Wayne Shore <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Mar 2004 09:31:22 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.0677 Stylometrics


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Egan <
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Date:           Thursday, 18 Mar 2004 04:25:46 -1000
Subject: Stylometrics
Comment:        SHK 15.0677 Stylometrics

Ward Elliott's testy and defensive response is a revelation. Most of us
really had no idea stylometricians were so loose in their criteria, nor
that so remarkable a concept as 'counting wobble' is acknowledged but
somehow dismissed as insignificant. You don't find these important
qualifications among the prefatory remarks of the best-known modern
stylometers, e.g. Vickers and Jackson. Can it really be that the
numerical results on which they base so much are actually so variable?
Elliott may consider it a minor matter but the fact that (i) one
researcher may count thus on one occasion, yet get quite different
results another day and (ii) that two equally good practitioners may
count the same document and come up with contradictory results and (iii)
that this is true also of two computer programs, calls the
self-confident conclusions of some famous recent books and articles
radically into question. To pursue Elliott's astronomical analogy (which
in his version is not remotely relevant), it's as though we're given
wildly varying estimates of the distances of Mars and Venus from the
sun, but assured that it doesn't matter just as long as we agree that
the planets are out there somewhere. Which is nearer to the earth
however is of some importance to those actually making the trip.

I'm glad that Elliott is pleased with the number-crunching software
developed by his graduate student(s), but his endorsement (especially in
light of the above) is frankly insufficient to assure my confidence in
its results. Any decent science has to have independently repeatable
outcomes, and it now appears that this is inherently not so in the
application of statistical methods to attribution questions. The
statistical tests applied may be sound but the data fed in are woefully
subjective, variable and insecure. I now also wonder whether different
tests would produce different conclusions, raising a whole further set
of important questions. Every recent attribution study contains numbers
obtained from varying sources and put together by different people on
different days using who knows what criteria. They also use different
tests, and frequently different tests for different counts. If what
Elliott says is true, 'Shakespeare, Co-Author,' and 'Defining
Shakespeare,' to go no further, are not worth the paper they're printed
on. I hope the authors will assure readers that somehow this isn't so--I
like both books and tend to cite them as authoritative.

Another difficulty, especially when it comes to the drama, is that even
mediocre writers obviously and necessarily vary their expression
according to character and circumstance. In Shakespeare's case it's a
critical commonplace that he provides unique dictions not only for his
major figures but often for his minor ones too- 'his rhythms are
individual and accommodated to the needs of the  moment; his ideas
outstrip his syntax.' (A.C. Partridge: Orthography in Shakespeare and
Elizabethan Drama, 1964, p. 147).We need only recall the speech
differences between (say) Dogberry, Othello and Adriana to exemplify
this. Shakespeare's styles also alter as his characters undergo stress
and change-Lear, Timon and Coriolanus are cases in point.

Also of course we have to wonder to what extent Shakespeare, who is
unrivaled in almost every department of the game-vocabulary, variety,
imagination, poetic effect, intensity and clarity of thought, ability to
define and represent personality, verbal originality, mastery of several
literary genres, etc.-is amenable to the same kind of measuring that may
tell us something meaningful about, shall we say, Middleton or Greene or
Wilkins. I see absolutely no reason to grant this assumption and every
reason to debate it.

I need finally to say a few things responding to Elliott's ad hominem
remarks. His minatory tone hardly conduces to objective and/or collegial
discussion, and I think the exchange is the poorer for it. In fact I
made no slighting comments about Hart and certainly am not concerned to
'put him down,' nor anyone else, least of all Prof. Elliott  who has
been kind and helpful in the past. However, I think
results-discrepancies and unanswered issues of data-definition are
appropriate matters to raise--I noted only that my survey (based on
digitized copies of the plays regularized to Riverside, 1997, manually
and electronically counted on the same day by the same person, myself,
using the same methods and criteria) generated different numbers from
Hart.  It seems as though Elliott's own work promises to do the same for
Hart's well-known and oft-cited results for the size of Shakespeare's
vocabulary--a big shock confirming my skepticism about the apparent
objectivity of numbers in literary-critical matters.

--Michael Egan

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Wayne Shore <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Mar 2004 09:31:22 -0600
Subject: 15.0677 Stylometrics
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.0677 Stylometrics

Ward Elliott informs us:

 >Valenza and I are now working on several vocabulary richness tests
 >which
 >say that Hart's most famous conclusion, that Shakespeare's
 >vocabulary
 >was larger than anyone else's then or since, was dead wrong.  If
 >these
 >hold up, we may one day be counted as Hart's chief critics....
 >And it certainly won't be just because we get
 >different results with different counting conventions. <

I'm not aware of any probative evidence, despite some common
misconceptions, that Shakespeare's vocabulary was substantially superior
to that of any contemporaneous author.  My own (unpublished) research
shows that when comparing Shakespeare's long poems to Milton's poetry,
for example, it's a close contest, under any scoring convention, with
Milton winning by a nose.  There is large variance in vocabulary
richness between Shakespeare's plays, with most non-Shakespearean plays
falling within Shakespeare's range.

Furthermore, even without data, the belief that Shakespeare's vocabulary
was double or triple Milton's is ridiculous, if you think through the
implications.

Wayne Shore

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