When it comes to discussing books, there are two main ways readers can go about it: reading closely (this is by far the most popular), or reading distantly. But with literary data visualizations, including scatterplots, you can reap the benefits of both at once–thereby enjoying literature in a new and unique way.
What Are Close and Distant Readings?
First, there is the “close” kind of reading. That’s when readers focus on specific words, phrases, sentences, and scenes. In a close reading, a narrow sliver of the text receives one’s deep attention. Imagine looking very closely at a painting, paying attention to the brushstrokes and swirl of color and shadows. You can appreciate the artist’s craft, albeit only to a limited, but deep, extent if you can’t see the work from a distance as well.
Second, there is a “distant” kind of reading. In a distant reading, readers use computational methods to see expansive macro patterns in a text. Imagine looking at the same painting as before, but this time you zoom out and attempt to see it all at once. You can see more than just brushstrokes and shadows, right? Now you can see how artist Frank Bernard Dicksee attempted to capture the shadows of Juliet’s blouse in the context of her lover, the balcony, and the sky. What’s most important to understand is that close and distant ways of viewing art–visual or literary–are not in any way mutually exclusive. In fact, using both approaches can arguably produce the greatest enjoyment.
Most of what readers do in classrooms and book clubs are versions of close readings. Distant readings occur occasionally in universities, often in digital humanities programs. But that’s beginning to change.
Reading Literature Up Close and From Afar
Victorian paintings are one thing. But how can readers explore literary arts both closely and distantly at the same time?
Visualizing literary data is one way to do so. Here on Plotting Plots, I try to help readers create simple data visualizations for word frequencies. Line charts offer a distant glance at the patterns of word frequencies in a text. But other ways exist too. Take scatterplots. Scatterplots offer readers insight as well, based less on how words appear in a text over time and more fixated on how words relate to each other or correlate. Let’s use Romeo and Juliet to explore an example.
Zooming Out with a Scatterplot
Shakespeare’s tragedy revolves around the titular characters. That means every single word in the text relates, to some extent, to the words romeo and juliet. To calculate the strength or weakness of that relationship, we can use correlation coefficients. Correlation coefficients provide a way to mathematically examine patterns in word usage. A single formula can be used to compare two sets of data and tell you whether those data relate to each other a lot (indicated with a 1), a little (indicated with a -1), or meh (indicated with a 0).
For this exploration, then, I calculated how the frequency of usage for every word in the play (per scene) correlated to the frequency of usage for romeo and juliet–that is, when the characters’ full names are uttered, not their names in the scripts indicating their line. The result was two correlation coefficient scores (one for romeo, another for juliet) for all 3,365 words in Shakespeare’s play. I then visualized the data on an interactive scatterplot chart. You can rollover any point on the chart and see the correlation coefficient for the word.
Let’s start with an extreme. There are only two points on the chart that receive correlation coefficients of 1 (you can see them plotted directly on the X and the Y axes). Not surprisingly, those words are romeo and juliet. That makes sense: the word romeo has a very strong correlation with the word romeo. The same holds for juliet. But there are other words that surprise. Words in the upper right part of the chart have stronger correlations, whereas words in the lower left part of the chart have weaker correlations.
Let’s look at the word lightning, for instance. Lightning is strongly correlated with both romeo (0.52) and juliet (0.74). Notice that the correlation is notably higher for Juliet than it is for Romeo, though. How is the word used differently, and with what significance? Let’s zoom in to see.
Zooming In to the Play
In the famous balcony scene, Juliet uses the word lightning to describe Romeo’s impulsiveness. She says to him:
… Although I joy in thee,Juliet in Act 2.2
I have no joy of this contract to-night.
It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’ Sweet, good night!
Romeo’s actions, “too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden”, put Juliet on the defense. Lightning merits caution because of its extremity: not just rash but “too” rash, not just unadvised but “too” unadvised, not just sudden but “too” sudden. Lighting is natural, but that is not to say it is inherently benevolent. For Juliet, lightning is also positioned opposite rationality or consciousness. The danger it poses is, in part, that lightning does not even give an observer time to acknowledge its presence before it is gone.
Lightning appears again in the play’s final scene, when Romeo enters the tomb and finds Juliet unconscious. Romeo thinks she is dead. He panics and utters:
… How oft when men are at the point of deathRomeo in Act 5.3
Have they been merry! which their keepers call
A lightning before death. O, how may I
Call this a lightning? O my love! my wife!
Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
Here, lightning refers to a kind of euphoria some people are said to experience in their final moments. It is a merriment that strikes them with the speed and brightness of a lightning bolt. Whereas Juliet’s use of lightning seemed to befit the moment, Romeo is adamant that lightning is the wrong word for his feelings. He is bereft of the flashing joy that others have witnessed so close to death.
A Final “Lightning” Insight
But there is more to this moment, isn’t there? In short, Juliet’s warning of the dangers of lightning-like behavior is precisely what leads to the play’s tragic ending.
Ironically, though Romeo bemoans the absence of lightning when confronted with the seeming death of his wife, it is nevertheless his own lightning-like nature that undoes him. Romeo’s emotions and actions emulate lightning throughout the play. His disposition is one of too-ness, very often “too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden…” This combination of having a propensity for extremes, and for acting rashly in response to his extreme feelings, is what ultimately causes Romeo to end his own life prematurely. There is seldom a viewer or reader of the play who doesn’t silently implore Romeo to just wait another few seconds before he takes his own life. If Romeo could just slow down for a moment, if he could just act a little less like lightning, he might in fact have lived and had everything he wanted.
Ultimately, it makes sense to me that lightning correlates more strongly with Juliet, actually: she understands its meaning and cautiously–consciously–attempts to temper its power. In contrast, Romeo personifies lightning in so many ways, seemingly incapable of slowing down long enough to see its tragic control over him.
As Juliet foreshadowed in Act 2, Romeo’s actions throughout the play continued to follow the zigzagging path of an impassioned lightning bolt. And it leaves them both dead.
To see how other words in Romeo and Juliet interplay for yourself, head over to the Romeo and Juliet page and plot away! And if you need some help, read this walkthrough of how using quantitative data can deepen one’s reading of literature.