Voyant and Literature Analysis

Literature analysis is one of my favorite activities in the world, so naturally I was pretty excited when I was introduced to Voyant, a software program that generates many different types of data and visualizations about a body of text(s). Of course, tools like Voyant cannot analyze a body of text for you; literature analysis requires a real person spending time with the words, reading and rereading and asking questions and thinking and rereading again. However, I really enjoyed trying out the various tools Voyant had to offer, especially the comparison tools.

In my literature classes, we often talk about the “lenses” that we use to interpret a specific text. For example, I often look at text from a feminist lens, as gender is a topic that interests me and has a large influence on many works of literature. So, I decided to use Voyant to identify places in Shakespeare’s plays that could be used to make an argument on how the topic of gender functions within these narratives.









The graphs above show a comparison of male and female terms and how often they appear in Shakespeare’s works. As anyone could have guessed, “king” and “sir” are typically much more prominent than “queen” and “lady.” However, something I found fascinating is that the only time “lady” appears in a Shakespearean text more frequently than “sir” is in Macbeth, which, upon analysis, makes sense, considering Lady Macbeth is presented as the dominant, power-hungry, courageous counterpart to her husband. This presents many interesting questions: Why did Shakespeare choose to subvert traditional gender tropes in this play? Since Lady Macbeth is written with traditionally male characteristics, is that why she is a more prominent force in the play?

Additionally, Voyant allows the user to see exactly where the phrases and terms they are looking for appear in the text, making further analysis easily accessible. For this reason, I don’t think Voyant’s visualization tools discourage from human analysis and actual reading of text. While the graphs show me interesting information, there is no way I could write a paper on gender in Shakespeare without actually reading and interpreting the works on my own, as well as reading criticisms from other humans who have studied the text. To quote N. Katherine Hayles in her book, How We Became Post Human, “When we make moves that erase the world’s multiplicity, we risk losing sight of the variegated leaves, fractal branchings, and particular bark textures that make up the forest.”

Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart as Lady and Lord Macbeth in BBC’s 2010 TV movie of Macbeth, photo courtesy The Shakespeare Blog

I don’t believe that Voyant is attempting to “erase the world’s multiplicity,” but Hayles’ forest metaphor does illustrate the importance of actual reading and human interpretation. While the graphics above show the frequency of male terms in contrast to female terms, they do not give me the context I need to make an actual argument on gender in Shakespearean works. However, it’s a good start, and the graphic might even catch someone’s attention and encourage them to explore further. Voyant is a good example of how humanities research and technology can coexist, as long as people use the tools responsibly and sparingly.





How We Became Post Human


The Shakespeare Blog