I started off a cynic. After last class, I called my mom and discussed deformation with her on my way home, both of us doubting that such a thing could give us any useful insight into literature.

When I got home, we sat online together, emailing poems back and forth and removing words here and there, looking at what we saw. It wasn’t very exciting. I fell asleep underwhelmed.

The next morning, however, I awoke still thinking about the poems. It was as if I had been dreaming about their structure, possibly because I had been paying such close attention to their word choices late into the evening. It surprised me to realize that I felt closer to the works that morning, as if I really had gained some new insight that I’d never experienced before. What that insight was, I couldn’t say at the time, but I was intrigued.

As the week went on, I read more of McGann’s Radiant Textuality, and I gained a better idea of what he meant. His explanation of how Photoshop could expose artistic themes in a painter’s work made me think of the process in a new light.

I have found, for example, that when certain of the standard filter protocols in Adobe Photoshop are applied to paintings – D.G. Rossetti’s paintings,  for instance – interesting structural features get exposed to view. Using the edging protocol to make arbitrary transformations of a number of Rossetti’s pictures revealed, for example, that many of the pictures, and almost all of his famous portraits of women, are dominated by patterns of interlocking vortices and spirals. (174)

With that example, I could much more easily visualize what he was getting at, and I finally accepted that there might be something to the experiment after all.

My favorite play is Hamlet.

(By the way, if you haven’t been to see it at the Shakespeare Festival, please do. It’s very good.)

In Act IV of Hamlet, the title character gives a speech as he is leaving for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

(and, by the way, if you haven’t been to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Mad Cow, what are you waiting for?)

This speech is an important plot point in the play, in which Hamlet makes a conscious decision to stop thinking and start acting. It’s my favorite soliloquy of the play.

I decided to give that a try. What I found was fairly illuminating.

It’s the alliteration that I have always believed makes Shakespeare so satisfying to recite and hear. I chose for my deformation experiment to count the repetition of beginning letters throughout the soliloquy. Since I’m not a programmer, I did this by hand, which means I could easily have been off by a number or two here or there. The overall result, though, is the same.

My most exciting revelation was that, in a 35-line soliloquy, Shakespeare had introduced every one of his beginning letters by the 13th line. The only letter that was never repeated was Y (“yet”). That means that, from before the middle of the speech on, there are no new sounds.

The four most common repetitions are, in order of most frequent to least frequent, T, A, M, and S. Fifth place is a three-way tie between I, W, and B.

On a side note that doesn’t sway the tally either way – I counted “honour” as an O word because I was focusing on sound instead of spelling.

And so, with those seven beginning letters only, here is Hamlet’s pivotal soliloquy:

all inform against me
And spur my What is a man
If and market time
Be but to sleep and a beast more
Sure that made with such discourse
before and after
That and
To in whether it be
Bestial some scruple
thinking too the
A thought which but wisdom
And three I
Why I to say ‘This thing’s to
Sith I and will and strength and means
To as me:
Witness this army such mass and
by a and tender
Whose spirit with ambition
Makes mouths at the invisible
what is mortal and
To all that and
an to be
Is to stir without argument
But to in a straw
When at the stake stand I then
That a a mother stain’d
my and my blood
And all sleep while to my shame I see
The imminent twenty thousand men
That a and trick
to their beds a
Whereon the try the
Which is tomb and
To the slain this time
My thoughts be bloody be worth

One problem with this is that indefinite articles and conjunctions end up increasing the tally for A, and the overall meaning seems odd when it’s read this way. I struggled with this because those are, after all, sounds in the soliloquy, though they are possibly sounds the ear skips over. Taking this into consideration, I redid the deformation count for A, removing all instances of “a,” “an,” and “and.”

That removed nearly all of the As, and the letter left the top list altogether.

Of course, I decided I had to also discount uses of “the,” to be fair. When I did that, though, T remained the top scorer in the tally.

With A out of the running, the new “top 5” are:

T, M, S, (I, W, B), and F.

all inform against me
spur my What is man
If market time
Be but to sleep feed beast more
Sure that made with such discourse
before after
To fust in whether it be
Bestial some scruple
thinking too
thought which but wisdom
three I
Why I to say ‘This thing’s to
Sith I will strength means
To as me:
Witness this army such mass
by tender
Whose spirit with ambition
Makes mouths at invisible
what is mortal
To all that fortune
for to be
Is to stir without argument
But to find in straw
When at stake stand I then
That father mother stain’d
my my blood
And all sleep while to my shame I see
imminent twenty thousand men
That for fantasy trick fame
to their beds fight
Whereon try
Which is tomb
To slain from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody be worth

It’s really very interesting. Much of the main theme of Hamlet’s message comes to the surface, and Shakespeare’s poetic style is also clarified a bit more.

While I can’t say that this practice gives me any incredible insights that I wouldn’t have been capable of finding on my own, I do believe it gives me a sense of intimacy with the text that I didn’t have before. Through this intimacy, it becomes simpler for me to recognize some of the important qualities of Shakespeare’s work that I might otherwise have missed.

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!