Breaking Down Plot into Data

In “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” Franco Moretti renders William Shakespeare’s Hamlet into charts and numbers – along with other novels and plays. In doing this, his goal is to turn what was originally years of work to a few minutes of investigation. Moretti, who coined the concept of “distant reading” in his article, Conjectures on World Literature, incorporates the concept into network theory by taking a more distant approach to the text instead of the traditional. When seeing the play through the lens of network theory, “Time turned into space: a character-system arising out of many character-spaces, to use Alex Woloch’s concept in the The One vs. the Many. Hamlet’s space defined as a set of characters he interacts with directly” (Moretti 3). Instead of viewing the play as a linear progression, Moretti takes away “time” from the equation and focuses on how characters interact with each other within the space. He expands his argument by applying his network theory to other works such as The Story of the Stone and Our Mutual Friend. Moretti splits his articles into many sections, focusing on different angles on how the characters are categorized and connected. In Moretti’s own words, the purpose of this article is to assert that “network theory could offer a way to quantify plot, thus providing an essential piece that was still missing from computational analyses of literature” (11).

Moretti raises an interesting perspective when incorporating data and networking into storylines. His approach certainly condenses the content into a form that is easier and faster to understand and consume. The trading of “time” – the events that transpires throughout the play – with “space” – the interactions and movements between the characters – changes Hamlet into a completely different experience. “What is done can never be undone; the plot as a system of regions; the hierarchy of centrality that exists among characters; finally…one can intervene on a model; make experiments” (5). Moretti changes a narrative into a place where it’s easier to categorize when looked at distantly.

And yet, Moretti also oversimplifies the plays and texts in a way that takes away many important elements from the content. Through his eyes, “the protagonist [Hamlet] was simply “the character that minimized the sum of the distances to all the other vertices”; in other words, the center of the network,” which is a given as he is the character that the play is named after (4). He is the character who the narrative follows until his tragic end. Moretti places too much importance to the presence of his characters. Because of his focus on lines and interactions, Moretti views “Horatio [as] a function to play, but no motivation. No aim, no emotions – no language, really, worthy of Hamlet” (7). In his criticism of Horatio’s role, he also reveals the flaws that comes with his approach. There is weight in the silence and the unspoken in literature that data would not be able to properly capture.

In relation to Moretti’s article, Eric Hoyt, Kevin Pronto, and Carrie Roy’s “Visualizing and Analyzing the Hollywood Screenplay with ScriptThreads” takes Moretti’s ideas that goes a step further by creating the ScriptThreads program. Inspired by a collaborative project that made character sheets for films like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park, the four creators tackled this ambitious project. “The challenge of conveying complex information (character appearances, relations with other characters, and absences) as it changes over time – along with our shared interests in the Digital Humanities and our more singular scholarly focuses on cinema television (Hoyt), visualization and storytelling (Roy), and computational approaches (Pronto) – spurred us to develop a tool that algorithmically analyzes and visualizes screenplay” (Hoyt, Pronto & Roy). Unlike Moretti’s simplified approach when looking at characters, their networks, and their interactions with their space, ScriptThreads takes a multiple step process in finding characters in screenplay. “From this data, four different types of visualization are available to users, each with its own utility”. The team also “tested out distant reading possibilities of ScriptThread,” identifying patterns visually and mathematically. The program is still with its flaws and limitations, which the creators clearly include and strive to improve on, but it also takes Moretti’s theories and improves on the results.

“Network Theory, Plot Analysis” introduced a completely new way of viewing plot and storytelling. While this approach and interpretation of storytelling may be a bit surface-level as someone who enjoys looking into the finer details of the narrative, this will also be a very useful tool that may help me when handling a large amount of readings for my final project.

Works Cited

Franco, Moretti. “Network Theory, Plot Analysis.” Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 2 (2011).

Hoyt, Ponto, and Roy, “Visualizing and Analyzing the Hollywood Screenplay with ScripThreads.”

1 comment

  1. I agree with you that Moretti’s approach does, in many way, oversimplify Hamlet (though I wonder how we would feel if we were looking at Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, one of Hamlet’s sources…I think we might not care that much about oversimplifying…). Ultimately, to make the network of Hamlet work as literary criticism, he has to pull in his considerable knowledge of the play, Shakespeare, and Jacobean England. In other words, without the expertise of the humanist researcher, the network would just be…inert.

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