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Keywords and characters: Romeo and Juliet

Watch Jonathan Culpeper elaborate further on the use of keywords to reveal the linguistic construction of characters, specifically, Romeo and Juliet.
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In this talk, we look further at the use of keywords to reveal the linguistic construction of particular characters, specifically Romeo and Juliet. Let’s ask ourselves a few questions to guide our investigation of Romeo and Juliet. What language characterises Romeo? What language characterises Juliet? And what are their individual linguistic styles, or idiolects? This slide shows the rank-ordered keywords for Romeo and Juliet. The numbers in brackets show the raw frequency for each keyword So what words stand out for Romeo? Perhaps words like “beauty,” “kiss,” and “love.” These words seem to be semantically related, so we might group them together. For Juliet, we might group “swear,” “word,” and “speak,” as they all relate to language and so we might group them.
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And we can continue to form groups. This slide shows Romeo and Juliet’s keywords organised in groups displayed in the table. The table could have included labels describing the contents of each group, but to keep the table simple, we have not done that, and instead we’ll describe the groups as we go along. In some ways, Romeo and Juliet’s language is similar. The first group, consisting of leave-taking– “farewell and “goodnight”– is a case in point. No surprise of course, as both characters have numerous comings and goings. Note that both characters also share the pronoun keywords “I,” “my,” add “thou,” suggesting perhaps that they are both involved in personal, intimate interactions.
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We can’t help but notice in this second group of names that for Romeo, his friend’s name, Mercutio, is key, but Juliet’s isn’t. In contrast, for Juliet, “Romeo” and “husband” are keywords as is “nurse.” These are the people that Juliet interacts with and talks about. No reciprocity between the characters here, then. Romeo’s group of positive keywords– “love,” “beauty,” “fair,” “dear,” “rich”– are related, unsurprisingly, to romantic love. This grouping figures more strongly for Romeo than Juliet. Interestingly, Romeo alone has a group to do with parts of the body– “eye,” “lip,” and “kiss”– a group suggesting physical love.
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As for keywords that are verbs, Romeo’s “banish” is not dispersed across the play, but confined to the scene after his banishment is announced, and in which he articulates his angst. Juliet’s keyword verbs, “swear” and “speak,” seem related to language, and this ties in with other keywords outside this table, items like “news,” “tongue,” “word.” Perhaps all this reflecting the fact that she is not empowered to take action herself, but is dependent on the words of others. Finally, we have odds and ends that are difficult to group. Actually, upon closer inspection, it turns out that the group for Juliet– “yet,” “if,” “or,” et cetera– is particularly illuminating. We’ll look at this in a moment.
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Keyword results always need to be closely inspected for what they are doing in context. Let’s look now at some of Romeo’s. “A right good mark man, and she’s fair I love. As a rich Jewel in an Ethiope’s ear, Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear. Farewell, farewell, one kiss and I’ll descend. And lips, O you The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss.” This language is very much the language of a lover, the archetypal Renaissance lover. Now let’s look at some of Juliet’s keywords in context. “I would not for the world they saw thee here. I will take thy word, yet if thou swearst, thou mayst prove false. Is thy news good or bad?
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answer to that– Let me be satisfied, is it good or bad? If he be slain say Aye, or if not, no.” These keywords seem to reflect the anxiety Juliet experiences. The fact that Romeo’s keywords suggest he’s concerned with beauty and love is a result we have predicted, though it is good to have empirical evidence for it. Juliet’s, however, are not predictable, but once shown, the evidence seems totally explicable. We can see then that by identifying keywords, grouping them, and then examining them in context can help us to build character profiles, and our conclusions are based on statistically-derived evidence. Let’s wrap up. We have seen that keywords are more informative than frequency lists.
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We learned how to look at a keyword list and group keywords. And by looking at Romeo and Juliet’s keywords, we saw that through grouping keywords and then interpreting them in context, we can create character profiles.

This video-talk, though voiced by Jonathan Culpeper, incorporates the words of Sean Murphy.

This video-talk examines how a keyword analysis can reveal how language characterises Romeo and Juliet. It captures the symptoms of their linguistic styles or idiolects.

Focusing on all the talk of an individual character (something that is easy to do in CQPweb), the computer can extract the keywords for the character and rank order them in terms of how significant the keyword is. A further step one can do manually is to group the keywords that seem to be semantically related. For Juliet, for example, one obvious group is “swear”, “word” and “speak”, all of which seem to relate to language/communication. The point of this is to expose “themes” in a characters construction.

Keywords normally do one of two things. One is that they confirm what you always suspected. For example, the fact that Romeo has a group of positive keywords relating to romantic love (“love”, “beauty”, “fair”, and so on) is hardly surprising. But now we have empirical evidence for what we suspected, and that empirical evidence is precise. The other is that they reveal what you did not suspect. For example, the fact that one group for Juliet consists of “yet”, “if”, and “or”, and so on is not something one might have guessed. However, when one scrutinises the use of these keywords, it makes total sense: these keywords capture Juliet’s constant articulation of her anxieties.

Two warnings about the keyword results for characters are in order. One is that simply looking at a list of keywords as revealed by a computer is not enough. You need to go back to the text and look at how those keywords are actually being used in context (and this is why we show you examples in this video-talk). The other is that keywords vary in terms of dispersion. For example, one of Romeo’s keywords is “banish”, but that is confined to the scene after his banishment is announced. So, this keyword reflects local circumstances. In contrast, keywords which are fairly well dispersed (e.g. Juliet and the “yet”, “if”, etc. group) tend to reflect their character.

“How to” video-talks will be coming up shortly from Andrew Hardie. For now, if you have any thoughts – perhaps things that struck you as interesting in the results – or any queries, put them in the comments now.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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