William Shakespeare

Shakespeare by the numbers

Honors College course takes a mathematical approach to the Bard

“We know what we are,” Shakespeare once wrote, “but know not what we may be.” If only the old Bard could have sat in on “Mathematics for Shakespeare,” an Honors College course at the University of South Carolina.

He would have learned how to take the full measure for measure of his own literary works, using statistical software and linear algebra to probe and pose questions about everything from his sonnets to soliloquies. The course, which debuted this past fall, attracted a mix of students from the sciences and humanities who got their first taste of a quantitative approach to literary analysis.

“The class is, I think, harder than the students expected it to be. We got into some pretty difficult concepts, but I think they have really risen to the challenge. The work they’ve produced so far has been really fantastic,” says Michael Gavin, an associate professor of English who introduced the course in fall 2019.

Students tapped into an enormous dataset composed of all of Shakespeare’s works reduced to single words and cross referenced by plays and characters.

“In this particular dataset you have about 26,000 rows for words and about 30,000 columns for all the speeches in all the plays,” Gavin says, “and each one of those is indexed to a character and every character has information about them — are they a king? Are they a queen or a servant or man or woman?

“You can do all sorts of data analysis looking at what words are most typically used in, say, the comedies versus the tragedies or how they change over time in the course of his career.”

What did students in the course think about this nontraditional approach to studying literature?

“Coming from a life sciences background, the coolest part of this class was taking concepts that I've really only been exposed to in one context — using statistics for biological research — and applying those to an entirely different arena and one I'm less familiar with,” says Abby Askins, a junior majoring in biology with a neuroscience minor.

A.J. Fabry, a computer science sophomore with a neuroscience minor, enjoyed the opportunity to put programming skills to work.

“As an avid programmer, what I’ve most enjoyed in this course is the moment I finish coding, hit ‘run,’ and a new trend in the data reveals itself,” Fabry says. “That moment is the culmination of everything we’ve studied, and it's incredibly satisfying.”

Mason Joiner, a sophomore geography and geology major, says Mathematics for Shakespeare offered a wholly new vista for studying literature.

“Since most of us have taken years of English classes that are all structured similarly, it’s a challenge to start thinking about literature in terms of data and statistics while still considering the traditional components of literary analysis, like plot and theme,” Joiner says.

Traditionalists might scoff at this quantitative approach to studying Shakespeare, a sentiment these students understand but don’t necessarily share.

“Honestly, I think we have this debate almost every class,” Askins says. “The conclusion I've come to is that this approach isn't really meant to replace the traditional literary analysis done in a formal English essay. You still need just as much creativity and intellect to formulate a research question and identify a potentially fascinating pattern in data as you do to read a play and discuss its qualitative nature and where it stands in the context of its time.”

For his part, Gavin believes the quantitative approach has equal merits to the traditional style of literary analysis.

“What I’ve tried to impart on students in this class is the beauty of data analysis itself. The idea that you can quantify thought or plot is kind of an extraordinary thing and I hope every bit as powerful in capturing everyone’s imagination as a sonnet.”

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