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Farrar, D. (2016). The Corpus of Revenge Tragedy (CoRT): Toward Interdisciplining Early Modern Digital Humanities and Genre Analysis. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 789-790.
The Corpus of Revenge Tragedy (CoRT): Toward Interdisciplining Early Modern Digital Humanities and Genre Analysis

The Corpus of Revenge Tragedy (CoRT): Toward Interdisciplining Early Modern Digital Humanities and Genre Analysis

Discoveries in anatomy and dissection in early modern England and the lively publishing economy of medical texts during this period undoubtedly played a critical role in the popularization of medical and anatomical language in early modern English drama. England’s mid-sixteenth century saw the beginnings of the culture of dissection (Sawday 1995), and it was not long until language once exclusive to physicians and anatomists found its way onto the early modern stage and invested the tumultuous worlds of revenge tragedy. Just as the human envelope was peeled away on anatomists’ tables, in artists’ engravings, and by writers’ quills in order to permit autoptic access to what was previously veiled, so can Digital Humanities (DH) techniques and processes of inquiry offer new modes of dissection on dramatic texts. The value of DH to and in early modern dramatic studies rests not only in its capacity to complement existing modes of literary analysis but also in its disruption of reading, interpretive, and knowledge construction practices of early English texts.

Additionally, within the work of genre analysis, DH approaches perform a valuable role in the furthered exploration and understanding of a genre’s discursivity and position as a cultural phenomenon rather than just a material object (Steggle 2015). In the continued study of early modern revenge tragedy--a genre that has received relatively little attention in comparison to others--DH can prove invaluable by demonstrating how this genre increasingly participated in discourses of medicine and anatomy across the Elizabethan (1558-1603), Jacobean (1603-1625), and Caroline (1625-1642) periods via mapping the movement of anatomical language from the medical register to a literary and dramatic one. As has been rightly suggested, DH significantly expands the purview of what can be questioned by literary analysis to include not just a consideration of literary texts but also larger modes of cultural production (Wilkens 2015). An examination of how revenge tragedies adopted and exploited the medical register is significant to understanding not only the cultural significance of the revenge tragedy genre but also discovering the early modern conceptions of embodiment and the pervasiveness of the contemporary medical arena in popular culture.

This project thus reports on a hybrid corpus linguistics and geohumanities approach to a genre analysis of early modern revenge tragedy, which serves to widen the scope of inquiry and interpretation in respect to the role of the body and anatomical language in revenge tragedy. As a means to map the increasing frequency of anatomical language and medical vernacular in revenge tragedy, a corpus analysis was conducted using AntConc, a digital tool that enables textual analysis and corpora comparison. I created the Corpus of Revenge Tragedy (CoRT) as an experimental corpus of approximately 40 revenge tragedies to compare against other corpora, including Shakespeare’s corpus and other larger corpora, such as the Early Modern English Medical Texts (EMEMT) Corpus, the Corpus of English Dialogues (CED), and the Early English Books Online-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) Phase I database of more than 25,000 texts. As a means to focus interpretation, I developed a variety of word lists by collating—through traditional concordance-making methods—an Anatomical Lexicon (AL) of 209 representative material and metaphorical words from revenge tragedies. The AL provides first recorded usages of each word, root language(s), as well as select definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary and definitions (when available) from Henry Cockeram’s The English Dictionarie (1623). In a subset of revenge tragedies, I manually flagged all anatomically inflected words. I then broke the list up into 2 primary categories and 13 secondary categories. Anatomically direct words are words that deal directly with anatomy (e.g., eye, brain, arm, etc.). Anatomically indirect words are words that deal indirectly with anatomy (e.g., sconce, aspect, soul, etc.). The categories are compositely based on the early modern medical texts of Thomas Vicary, John Banister, Andreas Vesalius via Thomas Geminus, Helkiah Crooke, and Ambroise Paré via Thomas Johnson. As such, data mining is an essential method to this project since this is a method that necessitates and encourages interdisciplinary work (Hagood 2012). Data mining has also helped shaped this project both instructively and interpretively since--as DH typically does--it allows not only new modes of investigation but also produces new systems of knowledge making.  

As this diachronic project’s interest is grounded in a discussion of how early modernity conceptualized not only the body itself but also understood embodiment (and how those two things manifested in revenge tragedy), this project also looks to geohumanities--a branch of DH--as a means to consider the geography of anatomical language and printing trends in early modern London. Through a lexical mapping of anatomical words in conjunction with a mapping of publication locations that printed revenge tragedy texts, we can gain an understanding of the cultural geography of London in respect to the pervasiveness of the medical register. Through various DH methods, the CoRT and AL complement and enrich existing bodies of knowledge about histories of anatomy and medicine, early modern drama, and early modern theories of embodiment.

  1. Hagood, J. (April/May 2012). A Brief Introduction to Data Mining Projects in the Humanities. Bulletin: American Society for Information Science and Technology. https://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Apr-12/AprMay12_Hagood.html
  2. Sawday, J. (1995). The Body Emblazoned. London: Routledge.
  3. Steggle, M. (2008). “Knowledge will be multiplied”: Digital Literary Studies and Early Modern Literature. In Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. (eds), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Oxford: Blackwell. http://www.digitalhumantites.org/companionDLS/
  4. Wilkens, M. (2015). Digital Humanities and Its Application in the Study of Literature and Culture. Comparative Literature. Special section, “Empirical and Systemic Approaches to the Study of Literature and Culture” (accessed 13 March 2016).