Social Networks in Early Modern English Comedies

Jakob Ladegaard & Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan

Aarhus University

Social network analysis is used in sociological and sociolinguistic research to study patterns of verbal interaction between members of a community. This method has rarely been applied to literary texts at scale, but in this talk I present a work in progress that attempts to use computationally assisted social network analysis on a corpus of around 20 dramatic texts; so-called prodigal son comedies written in English between 1590 and 1640. Literary criticism of these plays often focuses on the relationship between prodigal sons and their father figures but pay relatively little attention to the social networks they are part of. However, we believe these networks are important not only for the dramatic plots, but also for what the plays might tell us about social and economic questions of the time. We therefore wanted to study the plays' social networks. This can be done in terms of the plays' overall network metrics, which might reveal structural changes in this dramatic subgenre over time, but mainly we were interested in comparing characters with specific traits across plays. This was done by constructing networks with characters as nodes and their verbal exchanges as links. We extracted overall network metrics for all plays as well as count measures (line and word counts) and metric measures (degree and centrality measures) for all characters in all the texts. We then ranked the characters in each play according to their scores on these measures. This allowed us to compare the roles of different types of characters across plays, in particular the prodigal sons, their father figures and the minor characters who in some cases mediate their relation. The talk will present some preliminary results of these comparisons and end out with a discussion of the possibility of combining this social network approach with other, more stylistically oriented corpus based approaches to these texts.

The work presented here was done in collaboration with Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan, Aarhus University.


Jakob Ladegaard is Associate Professor in Comparative Literature, Aarhus University. His research is primarily concerned with the relations between modern literature, politics and economy. He is the PI of the research project: 'Unearned Wealth - A Literary History of Inheritance, 1600-2015', 2017-2021. The project uses digital methods to study English and French literary representations of inheritance. Recent publications include Context in Literary and Cultural Studies (ed. with J.G. Nielsen), UCL Press, 2019.

Week 3 2019/2020

Thursday 24th October 2019

Charles Carter A18