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Shakespeare & Beyond

Digital humanities and Macbeth's "creepiest" word


Andrew Zox, Cleo House, Jr., and Eric Hissom (The Weird Sisters), Macbeth, conceived and directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre in a co-production with Two River Theater Company, 2008. Carol Pratt.

As the days grow shorter and the leaves start to turn, it’s a natural time to touch on the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays that loosely relate to Halloween—the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, for example, or the Weïrd Sisters in Macbeth. What may seem less likely is that our minds will turn to “the creepiest word” in Macbeth. (What is that word? We’ll explain in a moment.)

This summer, Clive Thompson wrote a column for OneZero, a publication on Medium, “How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in ‘Macbeth.’” In it, he explains that an unassuming, short, and frequently used word in the play can be described that way—and that it was a digital humanities (DH) analysis that isolated its subtle but distinct role.

Thompson writes about technology, science, and culture, a mix of perspectives that drew him to the question of how digital humanities can reveal surprising aspects of familiar texts—and to this story, which he calls “one of my favorite examples of using data analysis to ponder literature.” As he explains it:

Actors and critics have long remarked that when you read Macbeth out loud, it feels like your voice and mouth and brain are doing something ever so slightly wrong. There’s something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people. It’s as if Shakespeare somehow wove a tiny bit of creepiness into every single line. The literary scholar George Walton Williams described the “continuous sense of menace” and “horror” that pervades even seemingly innocuous scenes.

For centuries, Shakespeare fans and theater folk have wondered about this, but could never quite explain it. Then a clever bit of data analysis in 2014 uncovered the reason.

Thompson is describing “The Language of Macbeth,” by Jonathan Hope of Strathclyde University, Glasgow, who is now a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and Folger Director Michael Witmore. In this piece, which is a chapter in the 2014 book Macbeth: The State of Play, edited by Ann Thompson, Hope and Witmore use word-frequency analysis to explore this question of the unsettled, eerie nature of the play’s text.


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