Skip main navigation

Shakespearean dictionaries: A corpus-based approach to the word ‘good’

Watch Jonathan Culpeper elaborate on what a corpus-based Shakespeare dictionary is like, taking the word "good" as his main illustration.
0.8
This is the last of our talks in the series on Shakespeare’s dictionaries. In the last talk, we examined the word “horrid,” largely through examining a concordance. Here, we look at the word “good,” which, as we will see, requires a somewhat different approach.
21
Now, the important point about the word “good” is that it occurs 2,711 times in Shakespeare. With the word horrid, we could easily read through all of the examples, but we cannot do this with “good.” If we started reading through, by the time we got to the end, we wouldn’t remember examples at the beginning. And this word is by no means the most frequent word in Shakespeare. What can we do? Well, we can still get something through looking at a sample concordance of randomised examples as you can see here. Note, “my good cousin Buckingham.” “Good Lieutenant.” “Good nurse.” Clearly, it is regularly used as part of an address to somebody, a way of expressing a particular social relation.
68.6
Nevertheless, such a sample is not quite enough for a detailed picture. For that, you can adopt another technique. We need to look at collocations, a notion we have briefly met in earlier talks. A collocation is a lexical co-occurrence pattern, a habitual co-occurrence between a target word, a node, such as a word “good” and the words, or collocates, that tend to co-occur with it, within a particular span. For example, three words to the left, or three words to the right. To put it another way, we are talking about word associations.
109.5
It’s a bit like a word association game except that you are not relying on what springs into your mind, but simply on regularities of co-occurrence, and this is relatively easy to evidence in a precise way. Have a look at these collocates for “good” in Shakespeare. Following video talks, we’ll show you how you can retrieve these for yourselves. Here, you can see the list of collocates on the left-hand side. This is just the top 10. They are ordered in terms of the strength with which the collocate is associated with the target, or node, word. The statistical measure doing this is on the far right, the log ratio score. Note that the higher numbers are at the top.
156.7
The column to the left of this, in number of texts, gives a sense of how widely this collocation pattern is dispersed. You can see that the top collocation pattern, “good” co-occurring with “morrow,” occurs in 32 of the 38 plays in the corpus. In other words, it is widely dispersed. The next column, observed collocate frequency, is also worth noting. “Morrow” occurs quite frequently as a collocate of “good.” Moreover, if this were the live programme, you could click on that number 132 and the examples would be displayed. As I said, you’ll see this for yourselves in following video talks. Now, I guess some of you may be left cold or even nervous by these statistics, but don’t worry.
211.7
When you do this for yourself, you can largely follow the default options, and simply scrutinise the collocates that emerge. Let’s do that now. We have already seen that “morrow” is the strongest collocate of “good.” No surprise, “good morrow” was a very common greeting. When we, earlier, looked at a concordance of examples of “good,” we noted that it was often part of a term of address. That pattern is crystal clear in the collocates “good Lord,” “good uncle,” “good fellow,” “good cousin.” But there is more. We see “sooth” as a collocate and also “faith.” These occur in expressions like, “In good sooth. In good faith,” and mean truly or honestly.
255
Characters in drama are often persuading other characters, and thereby the audience, of their beliefs. Note the collocates “bad” and “news.” There is a triple pattern being revealed here. “Is thy news good or bad?” The receipt of news is a moment of tension and drama as we await to hear whether it is good or bad. Thus far, you may not be convinced that this is worth doing. However, often the most striking insights are achieved when Shakespeare’s language is put in contrast. When we were looking at “horrid,” I mentioned that the collocates in the Shakespeare EEBO-TCP corpus were very similar. This is not true for “good.” “Good” used in terms of address is hardly visible in the collocates of EEBO-TCP.
307.7
That we get this in the Shakespeare corpus is not just a reflection of Shakespeare, but a reflection of the fact that it is a play. Characters are addressing each other a lot and also constructing social relations with those terms of address. Also, recollect that I suggested in a previous talk, that the way actors’ scripts were written, with merely a characters talk and short cue lines given to each actor, may have increased the number of terms of address, as the actor would need to know in which direction to look. Another absence is the collocate “news.” In EEBO-TCP, “news” does not collocate with “good.” It does, however, collocate with bad. Normally, news reports contain bad news.
357.8
Only in drama do we get the tension of whether it is good or bad. Yet another important difference is that Shakespeare takes a rather secular view of what it is to be good. In EEBO-TCP, we see collocates like “works” as in Christian works, and “evil” which had strong connections with original sin. Shakespeare does not cast good in the same light. You may be interested in having a quick look at the entry for “good” in the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language. As you can see, the most frequently encountered meaning is listed first. “A polite address. My good Lord, friends, sir, master, lady, madam, et cetera. Typically used when meeting or parting, thanking or making suggestions.”
407.3
In some current Shakespeare dictionaries, this sense is not even listed. I won’t go through the other senses. Pause the video if you wish to do so. But they will be strikingly familiar to you because they are all based on the collocates I was showing you, though a rather longer list of them than you have seen. To conclude, I’ll say a few words about what a corpus approach to Shakespeare’s language means. It means that all words are treated equally, not just hard words. It means that meanings are based on usage in context, not etymology, not narrowly defined semantic meaning, but the linguistic context, the social relations, the context of genre. It means that meanings are driven by evidence.
453.5
It means that patterns of meaning are exposed by frequencies and statistics. It does not mean, however, that the human is cut out. You always need the human to interpret the evidence, the pattern is exposed by the statistics.

The word “horrid” occurs so infrequently in Shakespeare that it is easy to read through the examples of a concordance. What if there are too many examples to read? And even if you could read them over an extended period of time, by the time you got to the end, you would forget the examples at the beginning.

One solution is to look at a concordance consisting of randomised examples. In this way, theoretically, just reading through a few examples would reveal the major patterns. But this would probably not be enough for a detailed picture. Enter collocations! This technique may ring some bells, because we discussed it in our treatment of the word “bastard”. A collocation is a regular word or lexical co-occurrence pattern (again, think word associations).

The word “good” has far too many instances to read through the patterns, and thus is ideal for examination of collocates, which we can extract with the aid of a computer. The collocates of “good” turnout to reflect the way in which the drama is constructed.

Furthermore, in this video we compare Shakespeare’s use of “good” with that of his contemporaries (not just playwrights) in the EEBO-TCP corpus. This reveals some striking differences, including that Shakespeare seems to take a rather more secular view of what it is to be good. Finally, we reflect on what a corpus-based dictionary entry for “good” might look like.

If you have any queries about the method discussed in this video, put them in the comments, otherwise in the next step we get going on the real business of this course – we will tell you how to do put things into practice yourself!

This article is from the free online

Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education