Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.

Quantitative analysis is, to my mind, an intriguing and under-utilized lens for examining literature. It’s not hard to see why; most literature grad students would probably rather claw their eyeballs out than try to solve a partial-differential equation. Luckily, here comes Franco Moretti to bring the data. And it turns out, the math is easy!

IDEAS: Did you use any software or algorithms to produce the diagrams that appear in your “Hamlet” article?

MORETTI: I re-read the whole play and simply marked down who was talking to whom, scene after scene. Slowly, the network took shape. Now of course that can and should be done by a computer…but I wanted to have a sense — almost a direct sense — of the network slowly taking shape.

IDEAS: What did you learn about “Hamlet” as you watched this network take shape?

MORETTI: One thing is the discovery of how central Horatio is to the play. And that is interesting in itself, because Horatio is usually not one of the characters on whom people focus. He’s a very bland character, and he usually speaks very blandly….Usually we think of central characters as important in every possible way, but this is not the case here.

IDEAS: Meaning what?

MORETTI: We have to re-think our idea of character altogether. It disproves our thinking about characters in binary terms: i.e., they’re either a protagonist or a minor character. They’re either round or flat. Now there seem to be more positions along this continuum.

I think, actually, we know this intuitively — that some stories have characters who are not “major” characters, and yet they act as a fulcrum or funnel for the action of the story. Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby might be an extreme example. Still, this word nerd thinks it’s pretty cool that someone has demonstrated the idea with data.