Close and Distant Reading Assignment


For this assignment, you will be performing a kind of language laboratory experiment, using digital tools as a way of gaining a better understanding of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.


I recommend that you give yourself plenty of time to work through the steps below.

1) Close Analysis of a Sonnet Choose one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets from our Norton Anthology of English Literature and take careful notes on the following details–you will turn these notes in with your final assignment:

  • Identify as many “Rhetorical Figures” (schemes and tropes) as you can using the terminology listed in your books.  Which do you think have the most significant effect on the meaning of the poem?
  • Divide this poem into sections based on 1) Rhyme Scheme 2) Unified images or rhetorical figures.  Are these divisions related?  How?  Think about how the sections change as you progress through the poem.
  • Divide the poem into sentences.  What is the tone of these sentences? (Light, serious, ironic?)  What specific words in the sentences conveys this tone?
  • Circle all of the words that you think of as “keywords,” or the most important words of a line or sentence.  Why are these words so important?  Are there different meanings of this word that might change the entire meaning of the sentence? Look up these words in the Oxford English Dictionary Online to see if there are any variants in meaning.
  • Make a list of all of the nouns and verbs Shakespeare uses.  Make a list of his adjectives.  Do you find any commonalities in these lists?  What do these words have in common with each other?  How do they differ?

2) Distant Reading of the Sonnets Using, work through the following steps to examine all of the sonnets together.

  • Open this web address, which will take you to a voyant viewer that I have prepared specifically for this exercise. I also recommend that you spend a little time playing around with voyant. Here is a list of other tools that you can use through voyant.
  • Look at the “word cloud” generated by Voyant (in the upper-left hand corner of the screen). This gives you a visual representation of word frequency (larger words=used more often in the sonnets). Do you see any words that relate to the sonnet you chose? What are they? Are these words used very commonly in the sonnets?
  • Glance through the list of words in the bottom-left hand corner of the screen—this is a list of words ranked by the number of times they are used in the sonnets. Do you recognize any patterns in these words? Do any relate to your sonnet? Are there any commonly used words that are surprising to you?
  • Find your sonnet in the “corpus” section of the text. Notice that when you float over the words it tells you the frequency with which the word is used. Now look at all of your “keywords” from the close reading analysis above—are these words that Shakespeare uses often in the sonnets? When you click on these words, you’ll see on the right that you can jump to the various places in the sonnets where the word is used. Compare how Shakespeare uses one or more of your keywords in other places. Does he use the word in the same way? Is there something different about it?
  • Using your lists of nouns, adjectives and verbs from the close reading exercise above, graph three or four of the words to get a visual picture of how they are used in the sonnets (you can do this in the upper-right hand corner of the screen by entering words into the search box). Is there a pattern to the ways these words are used?
  • Now go to the Google NGram viewer and put in two or three of the large words from the cloud (signifying it is a commonly used word in the sonnets) with the date range 1500-1700 (be sure to separate your words with commas). Try entering in some of your keywords from your sonnet. What does this show you about Shakespeare’s use of language?

3) Devise a Research Question or Experiment Based on your analysis of the sonnet in steps 1 and 2, come up with a question (or a group of related questions) that you would like to answer about Shakespeare’s sonnets using the tools available in voyant and the Google Books NGram Viewer. Discuss what kind of “experiment” you could you carry out and what might it reveal about the language Shakespeare uses in the sonnets. What kinds of questions do you think this tool can be used to answer?

4) Analysis and Reflection Based on your work in step two, write an analysis and reflection of roughly 2-3 pages that touches on the following questions (use specific examples from your close and distant readings to illustrate): 1) What is the difference between the insights you gained from your close reading and distant reading of the sonnet/s? Did you find out anything that surprised you by looking at the sonnets as a whole that you wouldn’t have discovered without a distant reading? Did the distant reading confirm what you already saw in the close reading? 2) Try to come up with an argument you can make about your particular sonnet and how it connects to the “corpus” of the sonnets as a whole using your distant reading. It is not necessary to develop this fully, but try to sketch it out in a paragraph or so with a clear thesis. 3) Give your honest appraisal of distant reading or data mining. Do you think this is a useful tool for literary analysis? Why or why not? What do you think are the strengths and limitations of this method of literary analysis?