How can computers read Shakespeare? It’s a tricky one, not least because ‘reading Shakespeare’ is a bit of a tricky term: I am certain that everyone who reads a Shakespeare play or poem (let alone seeing them performed), reads them in a different way, with different associations and preferences running through their neurons. If ‘reading Shakespeare’ is such a personal, human thing, then it may well be fair to say that computers are not very well equipped to do it. That said, some recent, public domain images by Pat Lockley, entitled ‘The Science of Shakespeare’ present an interesting way to rethink the relation between computers and the act of reading Shakespeare. A computer cannot in any way read as a human does, but that does not make its contribution worthless. Instead, it makes a computer’s reading of Shakespeare something complementary, something that might challenge or confirm our own impressions of Shakespeare.
One thing that many of the images do, for example, is to flatten Shakespeare: the ‘Shakespeare Connections’ sequence shows us who speaks to whom over the course of the play but not at what times; similarly, the ‘Shakespeare Fingerprints’ sequence shows us when someone speaks, but not to whom. When a human reads a play, these two dimensions, the moment and the direction of a speech, cannot easily be filtered out, and I’m yet to find the human reader capable of mapping in his notebook such images as the ‘Science of Shakespeare’ pages provide. In this respect the computer’s view is unique, because non-human.
Let us concentrate now on ‘Shakespeare Connections’. As I mentioned, many of these computer-generated windows on the play confirm things that we already know. In The Winter’s Tale picture, it is unsurprising that Leontes, the jealous and suspicious king of Sicilia who banishes his baby daughter and comes close to killing his wife, is the character who interacts with the largest number of people.
Similarly, it is no surprise that Caius Martius, aka. Coriolanus, is at the heart of Coriolanus.
However, some plays surprise us with their diagrams. It is Falstaff, and not Prince Hal, who is at the centre of the web of King Henry IV part I, and Portia, not the merchant Antonio or Shylock the Jew, who sits at what might also be called the emotional centre of The Merchant of Venice.
One final point. These images show us neither the character who speaks most, nor the most important character in the story. The former is a job for a different program, and the latter one for a human. The ‘Shakespeare Connections’ simply show the character who speaks with whom, and who, out of all these characters, has the largest number of interlocutors. This focus makes the pictures well-suited to showing us the complexity of Shakespeare’s history plays, plays often criticised for their complex plots and excessive numbers of events.
I would like to conclude therefore with a triptych, composed of those images that represent the Henry VI trilogy. Here, the lines in red show us what a tangled web Shakespeare weaves, and how the trilogy descends from the high martial nobility of Talbot, to the bitter struggle led by York and his sons for control of the English throne, until we reach the last convulsions of the war, where Warwick (and the Lancastrian army) is betrayed and killed at the battle of Barnet.