The IBM Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

In the old days only the Bible rated a concordance, for in it alone every word counted; as late as Johnson’s Dictionary the word is defined as meaning “a book which shows in how many texts of Scripture any word occurs.” There were numerous biblical concordances, but the one everybody knows about is Cruden’s. Alexander Cruden, a contemporary of Johnson’s, known as Alexander the Corrector from his trade of proofreader, published in 1737 the work from which he expected fame. There were signs that even before he started the book he was not quite right in the head, but disappointment at its failure to make his fortune drove him madder, so that in later life he became a rather well-liked, serious, and useful nut about town. A poor return for making so big a concordance by hand is surely enough to drive anybody out of his mind.

The example of Cruden, however, proved no deterrent, and soon Shakespeare, promoted into the sacred book class, was ripe for a concordance, which duly issued from the hands of Mrs. Cowden Clarke in 1845. This first attempt was replaced in 1894 by Bartlett’s New and Complete Concordance, which remains, though its time is running out, the standard work. The reason why its time is running out is that a concordance no longer needs to be hand-stitched; a computer will fabricate it, not only sorting out the words but even printing the pages. One important use is in descriptive linguistics, but there are several literary computer-concordances around already, of Stevens and Yeats, for example.

Now Professor Spevack of the University of Münster takes on Shakespeare with an IBM 7094, which, if the whole thing weren’t so scientifically chilly, one would like to call a Cruden. The work, which will be completed next year, is intended less for pious exercises than to increase “the possibilities for research and interpretation.” It will contain a matter of 16,000 columns. This first volume deals with the comedies that appear in the First Folio of 1623 (that is, all the comedies except Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen, which will be tucked in with the tragedies in Volume III; so, of course will Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida, comedies which were printed with the tragedies in 1623). The second volume will have the history plans and the non-dramatic works; the third will be as described. (No part of Sir Thomas More, it seems, will be included.) Each of these first three volumes contains a separate concordance to each play, and then another for every character in each play. Volumes IV-VI are to be a general concordance of the whole oeuvre.

Computers work faster even than Cruden, though he did his in a year; and they stay sane. But of course you must tell your IBM what you want; it will do that, within minor limitations, exactly, but it will do no…

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