Project Title: “’The Play’s the Thing:’ Using AI To Understand Shakespeare’s Drama”

Team members: Lucian Ghita (English); Carl Ehrett (Watt Center); Hudson Smith (Watt Center); Student Team Member: Dillon Ranwala (Engineering)

Phase 1 (Spring-Summer 2020)

During the first phase of the project, we used AI tools, such as Watson Natural Language Understanding, to analyze emotions and sentiments of characters/plots in eighteen plays published both in individual quarto editions during Shakespeare’s lifetime and in the Folio Complete Works of 1623. Our primary focus was on Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet (1599-1601), which we analyzed in all its three extant versions (Quarto 1, Quarto 2, and Folio). During this summer, we have extended our analysis to the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s texts in order to test and train Watson to recognize and fine-tune its interpretation of emotion and sentiment in Shakespeare’s dialect.

Phase 2 (Fall 2020/Spring 2021)

During the second phase of the project, we are using AI tools to analyze the ways in which Shakespeare’s work imagine, dramtize and reflect on “outsiders” and their relationship to the early modern world. The treatment and management of outsiders were two of the main vectors of ancient and Elizabethan tragedy. In fact, dramatic genres themselves sometimes were established precisely in terms of the social norms and practices for dealing with people perceived as belonging to non-mainstream groups. Images of racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, cultural, and religious difference haunt the works of Shakespeare as well. One of the fascinating themes in Shakespeare’s works is examining the means by which insiders and outsiders were distinguished. Indeed, this range of rationales for outsiderhood is among the most convincing evidence that Shakespeare’s concern was with the mechanisms of exclusion themselves. 

Scholarly Significance

The question of the relation between the early quarto versions of these plays and the 1623 Folio texts (which is usually the form in which most people encounter his plays) is one of the most hotly debated issues in Shakespeare studies today.  Given that there are sometimes big differences between the quarto and the folio texts of these eighteen plays, the crucial question is what to make of these differences. The main objective of this project is to use Watson tools and services in order to provide a new perspective on this issue and shed a different light and understanding of Shakespeare’s language, images, character development, textual protocols. Last but not least, this analysis will help shift the critical attention from plot development (tragic action) to emotion. Mapping Shakespeare’s drama emotionally and sentiment-wise will provide, pedagogically, aesthetically, and intellectually, a new perspective on the mechanics of his plays, not simply in terms of “holding a mirror” to reality (Aristotelian mimesis), but also in terms of a more complex affective experience involving visual and emotional engagement with the text/imagery. Finding meaningful and effective ways integrate these methods and results into class pedagogy will be one of our main goals for the upcoming year.