Shakespeare math!

The only frustrating thing about writing something relatively new in literary criticism is the dearth of resources available for consultation. I’m currently rereading the second of Jonson’s Caroline* plays, The New Inn, in preparation for my second chapter. Wanting to place the play in its critical context, and also measure the validity of my own reading against the “official” ones, I typed a general keyword search: “Jonson + New Inn” and got the following response:

32 results found for: KW=Jonson and KW=New Inn in MLA International Bibliography

Not bad, except that once I removed all the out of date and irrelevant articles, I was left with a total of seven articles which I could locate and (hopefully) use. That’s not much of a critical dialogue, and it’s representative of the kinds of results I’ve found throughout my work on this paper: most of the sources I find are on Jonson’s work or the English renaissance in general.

Well, then I started searching for articles on As You Like It, my comparison play for this chapter[i]:

494 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=As You Like It in MLA International Bibliography.

That’s a significant lot more material to sort through; even limiting myself to the cut-off date of 1985, and only dealing with the material that covers transvestism, performance, and the festive genre, I still have seven pages of potential articles.

So I started to muse: the Shakespeare criticism outnumbers the Jonson criticism by more than 15 times — on a single play. Do these numbers hold for the dramatists in general? Let’s compare:

2593 results found for: KW=Jonson in MLA International Bibliography.

Not bad for Ben. Until you see Will’s results:

36387 results found for: KW=Shakespeare in MLA International Bibliography.

Again, this is about a 14:1 ratio of Will:Ben.

Consider the meaning of these numbers, however; with “only” 2593 results, I was able to look over every Jonson title in the database.[ii] By the 2593rd result in the Shakespeare list, I was still only in articles from the year 2004 (which means I hadn’t yet covered a respectable ground of “recent” scholarship). Also, assuming an average of 20 pages per article:

2593 articles x 20 pages = 51860 pages total.

Considering I read between 300 and 500 pages a week during the school year, I could, theoretically, go back and read every Jonson article in two or two-point-five years:

51860 pages / 300 pages per week = 172 wks


51860 pages / 500 pages per wk = 104 wks.

The Shakespeare criticism by comparison:

36387 articles x 20 pages = 727 740pages

Assuming max reading time (500 pages/wk), that’s 1455.5 weeks of reading, or about 28 years. Too, after two years spent reading nothing but Jonson criticism, there may be a couple dozen new articles to catch up with: an extra week’s reading. After 28 years of reading Shakespeare, however, we can expect about 18151 new articles (2593 articles = four years of Shakespeare criticism, 28/4=7, and 7 x 2593 = 18151). That’s another 363 020 pages to read, or another 726 weeks (14 more years)!

The Shakespeare critic is always behind. Not only is it impossible to catch up on one’s Shakespeare readings, I imagine it must be fairly difficult (impossible?) to write anything new in Shakespeare studies. With 36 387 or more articles floating around in databases, a lot of ground must already be covered. I decided to try a random sample of keyword searches:

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=cheese in MLA International Bibliography [iii][iv]

21 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=dog in MLA International Bibliography

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=coffee in MLA International Bibliography [v]

27 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=punctuation in MLA International Bibliography

36 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=tree in MLA International Bibliography

In comparison, Ben got 21 results for dog. and 2 for punctuation. Zero results for any of the other searches. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I decided to also try a few adjectives:

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=handy in MLA International Bibliography [vi]

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=ribald in MLA International Bibliography

And some modern searches:

2 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=Seattle in MLA International Bibliography

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=baseball in MLA International Bibliography [vii]

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=telephone in MLA International Bibliography [viii]

Finally, I decided to see what cross-discipline work critics are doing on Will and Ben:

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=biology in MLA International Bibliography

7 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=physics in MLA International Bibliography

1 results found for: KW=Shakespeare and KW=geometry in MLA International Bibliography [ix]

Jonson got zero hits for all of these searches, but he did score in the higher maths:

1 results found for: KW=Jonson and KW=calculus in MLA International Bibliography [x]

I’m fairly impressed that Will has proved almost absolutely relevant, and perhaps this indicates a certain universal quality does exist in his works (then again, maybe it means we don’t interrogate our canon as much as we ought). I can’t imagine, however, the amount of critical reading required for Shakespeare studies, let alone the frustrations which must tag along when the contemporary Shakespeare scholar attempts to find something innovative on which to write.

This experience increases my respect for the patience and toil of decent Shakespeareans, as they wade through the mires of “results” in library databases. Still, I wouldn’t trade my Ben for all that.

End Notes:

[i] this chapter. Articles impending on As You Like It, The New Inn, and festive comedy, just as soon as I finish revising chapter one.

[ii] every Jonson title. Yes, I did look at each and every result: which probably explains the insanity that follows.

[iii] MLA International Bibliography. I’m thinking of turning this into a party game, where the object is to come up with the most bizarre and unlikely objects of Shakespeare study, have your friends take votes on whether any articles come up (one point per nay-saying friend + number of results found, minus one point the number of nay-sayers for every negative search). What’s that? You’re all busy next Friday? I guess I’ll invite Roland: he never has plans these days.

[iv] and cheese. Berry, Herbert. “Shakespeare, Richard Quiney, and the Cheshire Cheese.” Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship. 9.1 (January 1991). 29-30.

[v] and coffee. Rude, Donald W. “Two Unreported Seventeenth-Century Allusions to Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews. 1.4 (October 1988). 133-134. [Subject: Coffee-house Jests].

[vi] and handy. Halio, Jay L. “Handy-Dandy: Q1/Q2 Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation. Ed. Jay L. Halio. Newark; London: U of Delaware P; Associated UP, 1995. 123-50.

[vii] and baseball. Ardolino, Frank. “‘This Speaker Is As Well-Known in Baseball As Shakespeare Was As a Playwright’: The Use of Shakespeare in Sports Films.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. 18.1&2 (October 2000). 45-55.

[viii] and telephone. Charlton, Bruce. “Shakespeare versus the Telephone Directory: Three Rival Versions of the Literary Canon.” Durham University Journal. 87.2 (July 1995). 365-71.

[ix] and geometry. Berry, Francis. “Shakespeare’s Stage Geometry.” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch. 160-71 (1974).

[x] and calculus. Green, Juana. “Properties of Marriage: Proprietary Conflict and the Calculus of Gender in Epicoene. Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama. Ed. Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 261-87.

6 May 2008

Caroline. adj. During the reign of Charles I, that is, the years 1625-1649. As differing from the Carolignian period, which occurred in the 7th century, and denotes the reign of Charlemagne and his Frankish ilk. Yes, sometimes remarkably intelligent people do confuse these two in thesis proposals and other documents of that nature.


3 thoughts on “Shakespeare math!

  1. Thank ye! There is definitely something good to be said for a critical community — if only because it means one knows more people upon which to share (inflict) puns.

    Will definitely has better PR: when I tell people I’m writing about “one of Shakespeare’s colleagues” they don’t give me that weird look and ask “what, the Olympic runner?”

    Incidentally, I just watched Titus A. Will just writes beautiful poetry sometimes. And some amazing bawdy jokes. They make me giggle (but in horror, naturally: it is a tragedy, after all).

  2. Pingback: Jonson v. Shakespeare : It's All About The Math | Shakespeare Geek, The Original Shakespeare Blog

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