Constructing the comparative corpus

Constructing a corpus of other Early Modern English plays for comparison with those by William Shakespeare.
– Dr Jane Demmen

Although Shakespeare’s plays have a uniquely high profile in English literature and language, he was in fact one of a number of successful and popular playwrights of his day (others including, for example, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson). A distinctive feature of our Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language project is that we’re not looking at Shakespeare’s language in isolation, but comparing it to language in wider use at the time, notably that in some of the works by Shakespeare’s peers in the playwriting world of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Considering the language in Shakespeare’s plays relative to that in others produced around the same time gives us a more rounded view, and helps us to see to what extent Shakespeare and his contemporaries constructed the language of drama in similar (or different) ways.

The question of whether Shakespeare’s language is “special” compared to that of his peers is not a new one, but one which continues to fire enthusiasm for research. We know from existing linguistic studies using computational techniques that Shakespeare’s vocabulary was similar in size to that of his playwriting peers (not substantially larger). So the exceptionality of his language must lie elsewhere (if it exists, and Shakespeare’s continuing popularity is not simply due to happenstance: perhaps the result of a greater familiarity with his plays amongst audiences who have encountered them on school syllabuses, and then later taken up opportunities to see them performed). We must therefore look further than vocabulary in order to capture it.

It’s not just the words we choose, but what we do with them that makes language memorable (or not). Language varies in other ways apart from the lexical (vocabulary) level, including grammar and syntax, semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning (that is, the meaning and effect of language over and above the semantic content of the words used). Figurative language (including metaphors and similes) is another important language aspect, particularly in dramatic dialogue. There is a considerable body of existing research on Shakespeare’s plays which takes in these different areas of language, some of which is detailed in the bibliography on our website here.

We won’t be able to cover all these aspects in detail our Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language, but it’s our hope and aim to add to what is known about the language of Shakespeare’s plays by making some comparisons with other plays of his era. To achieve this we constructed a comparative set (or corpus) of plays which shared some common ground with the Shakespeare canon. As far as possible, we included playwrights who, like Shakespeare, were popular, and works which were successful (either at the time they were first produced, and/or in later revival). We also focused closely on dating and genre to narrow down our choice of plays to include.

We limited the comparative plays to ones which were first produced approximately between the 1580s to 1630s, to avoid going too far outside the period in which Shakespeare’s plays were originated (although dating of plays in this period can be difficult, and is not an exact science). By doing this, we minimise the possibility that language differences in plays by Shakespeare and others could be due simply to wider changes in language use over time. We also included a range of earlier and later plays, to reflect the dating of Shakespeare’s plays pre- and post-1600.

Shakespeare’s plays are, broadly speaking, grouped into three genres or types: comedies, tragedies and histories. They don’t all fit neatly into these categories, of course, and other groupings can be used, but we know from existing research that language varies between these three major play types (for example, that dialogue in comedy plays is closer to natural speech of the period than dialogue in history and tragedy plays). So, to make sure that language differences we find between Shakespeare’s plays and plays by his peers are not due simply to an imbalance in the proportions of dialogue from one genre or another in the comparative set, we included approximately comparable amounts of comedy, tragedy and history plays by other playwrights to the amounts of comedy, tragedy and history plays by Shakespeare (using word count as the measurement). These all had to fit our target date span, and have been arguably popular/successful, leaving us with a fairly small pool of plays from which to choose. We included 46 plays in all, to create a set of plays of similar size to our Shakespeare corpus, some of which are:

Francis Beaumont: The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613)
George Chapman: The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598); An Humerous Dayes Myrth (1599)
Thomas Heywood: The Fair Maid of the West Part I (1599); How a Man May Chuse (1602)
Ben Jonson: Volpone (1616); Bartholomew Fayre (1631)
John Lyly: Alexander and Campaspe (1584); Gallathea (1592)

Thomas Dekker: Sir Thomas Wyatt (1607)
Robert Greene: The Scottish History of James the Fourth (1598)
Christopher Marlowe: Tamburlaine Part I (1590), Edward II (1594)
George Peele: The Famous Chronicle of Edward I (1593); The Battle of Alcazar (1594)

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy (1592)
Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta (1633); Dr Faustus (1604)
John Webster: The White Devil (1612); The Duchess of Malfi (1623)

We sourced the plays in digital format for our comparative corpus from Early English Books Online.

Farmer and Lesser’s online Database of Early English Playbooks is a great resource of details of historical English plays – useful for research and interesting to browse.


About Mathew Gillings

PhD Linguistics student at Lancaster University.
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