Social Networks in Shakespeare

Privacy settings are very important when getting them wrong results in a duel to the death.

When I think of social networks, I immediately start to think of Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest of their ilk.  These tend to dominate the landscape of our thoughts on social networks simply because they’re the biggest.  But social networks actually pervade our entire life.  A few days, I started thinking about social networks as they pertain to our entertainment.

Movie Galaxies, a site that’s looking at social networks within film started me thinking on this. The basic idea that they had is to look at the script of a film and process the interactions between different characters as links in a social network.  So far they’ve found that statistics describing the structure of this network vary across different genres and the narrative styles.

I wanted to play with these ideas, so started fooling around with social networks in Shakespeare.  I found out that you can actually tell a good bit about the nature of each narrative, or the genres of narratives, by only looking at the social networks in the plays.

How should we define social networks in plays?  Extracting the relationships between the various characters by analyzing the text would potentially give us the most robust picture of the social network.  This opens up a natural language processing can of worms, so I’ll set it aside for the time being (definitely something I’m working on though).  As a first approximation, let’s define a relationship between two characters as being in a scene together.  We further define the importance of the relationship as the number of scenes.

We plot this below for “Romeo and Juliet,” filtering by the importance of relationships.  From left to right, we see all relationships defined by being in one or more scenes together, two or more, and so on up to five scenes.  The size of the circles representing the characters is determined by the number of lines they have in the play.

By looking at the network of four or more scenes we see the structure of the play as between the five main actors.  We also capture the bits of the two families with Mercutio and Benvolio on Romeo’s side and Paris on the side of Capulet.  We miss some important interactions by the measure of plot.  In this network we see Friar Lawerence interacting with Romeo, but not with Juliet.  This is where scene membership alone results in us missing critical details of interaction.

We can contrast this to “The Tempest” in which the network can capture the major subplots of the play.

Paraphrased from Wikipedia:

The Tempest is set on a remote island.  Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place.  He conjures up a storm that strands King Alonso of Naples, Prince Ferdinand, his brother Antonio, and the rest of the king’s entourage on the island.  The characters are separated into three groups on the island.  The subplots of the three groups are tied together through the actions of the spirit Ariel.

We capture the main elements of the plot structure by looking at the network of  three or more relationships.  I’ve generated galleries of the social networks for every one of Shakespeare’s play.  You can explore them at this page.

I’ll be continuing to explore social networks in Shakespeare over the next few posts.  If you have ideas about particular analyses to do, I’d love to hear them.  Next week, I’ll address social network differences between Shakespearean comedies and tragedies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>