Digital humanities and Macbeth’s “creepiest” word


Andrew Zox, Cleo House, Jr., and Eric Hissom (The Weird Sisters), Macbeth, conceived and directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre in a co-production with Two River Theater Company, 2008. Carol Pratt.

As the days grow shorter and the leaves start to turn, it’s a natural time to touch on the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays that loosely relate to Halloween—the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, for example, or the Weïrd Sisters in Macbeth. What may seem less likely is that our minds will turn to “the creepiest word” in Macbeth. (What is that word? We’ll explain in a moment.)

This summer, Clive Thompson wrote a column for OneZero, a publication on Medium, “How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in ‘Macbeth.’” In it, he explains that an unassuming, short, and frequently used word in the play can be described that way—and that it was a digital humanities (DH) analysis that isolated its subtle but distinct role.

Thompson writes about technology, science, and culture, a mix of perspectives that drew him to the question of how digital humanities can reveal surprising aspects of familiar texts—and to this story, which he calls “one of my favorite examples of using data analysis to ponder literature.” As he explains it:

Actors and critics have long remarked that when you read Macbeth out loud, it feels like your voice and mouth and brain are doing something ever so slightly wrong. There’s something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people. It’s as if Shakespeare somehow wove a tiny bit of creepiness into every single line. The literary scholar George Walton Williams described the “continuous sense of menace” and “horror” that pervades even seemingly innocuous scenes.

For centuries, Shakespeare fans and theater folk have wondered about this, but could never quite explain it. Then a clever bit of data analysis in 2014 uncovered the reason.

Thompson is describing “The Language of Macbeth,” by Jonathan Hope of Strathclyde University, Glasgow, who is now a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and Folger Director Michael Witmore. In this piece, which is a chapter in the 2014 book Macbeth: The State of Play, edited by Ann Thompson, Hope and Witmore use word-frequency analysis to explore this question of the unsettled, eerie nature of the play’s text.

Their work includes, among other things, a “log-likelihood” table, which shows which words are used more or less often in Macbeth than in the other Shakespeare plays. Some words that are used far more frequently in the play simply reflect its plot or its location in Scotland, such as “cauldron” or “thane.” What is more surprising is a three-letter word that Shakespeare uses far more often in Macbeth than in his other plays, for no immediately obvious reason, one that Thompson calls the play’s “creepiest” word.

Namely, the word “the.”

Kate Eastwood Norris (Lady Macbeth), Macbeth, conceived and directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre in a co-production with Two River Theater Company, 2008. T. Charles Erickson

Aside from its unusual frequency, though, why would the word “the” seem unnerving in the play? Hope and Witmore’s analysis examines the different ways in which “the” is used instead of a more conventional word choice. For example, when Lady Macbeth describes frightening night-time owl sounds, she uses “the” instead of “an” or “a”:

LADY MACBETH: It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night.
Macbeth 2.2.5-7

As Thompson puts it: “Imagine you and I were walking through the woods and we suddenly heard a hoot. I’d probably say, “oh—it’s an owl!” An owl. Not the owl. … By saying “it was the owl that shriek’d,” Lady Macbeth is—in a quite deliciously creepy way—implying that everyone already knows what owl she’s talking about.”

Hope and Witmore describe its effect this way: “So why does Lady Macbeth use ‘the’ here? The effect is to present the owl, not as an actual, specific owl, but as a generalised, mythical or proverbial owl.”

In a second example, Macbeth uses the word “the” rather than “my” as he prepares to kill Duncan.

MACBETH: Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
Macbeth 1.4.57–60

Ian Merrill Peakes (Macbeth), Macbeth, conceived and directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre in a co-production with Two River Theater Company, 2008. Photo by Carol Pratt.

“Why does Macbeth not say ‘my hand’ and ‘my eye’ here?” Hope and Witmore write in their 2014 analysis. “We would suggest that this is the beginning of the dissociation between desire, act, and guilt which wracks him throughout the play… [B]ody parts take on an identity of their own; unclaimed, and so perhaps un-owned, by the person to which they belong.”

Here again—and in several other cases—the meaning is shifted slightly from what the audience, or the reader, would expect, imparting a touch of the uncanny simply through the use of the word “the.”

Of course, Shakespeare’s use of the word “the” is far from the only source of Macbeth‘s ubiquitous eeriness. Instead, it is one of many elements that contribute to its uncanny nature. The work used to discover this aspect of the play also demonstrates the need to put together digital analysis with in-depth scholarship. As Thompson writes, “The computation existed as a set of fresh alien eyes, telling the humans where to direct their attention. But it was up to the humans to find the meaning.”

This particular pairing of digital analysis and close reading is also a compact and easy example of digital humanities, which can sometimes include complex processes to unveil new aspects of a literary text. In effect, it shows the powerful role of one of the commonest, shortest words we use every day—when it is deliberately used in a slightly unconventional way by an extraordinary playwright.

Read Clive Thompson’s article and explore Hope and Witmore’s data analysis.

For another example of the use of digital humanities to study Shakespeare, listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode, Shakespeare and Marlowe: Attributing ‘Henry VI’ Authors.

And for other Halloween-related insights, explore our recent list of contemporary novels that include early modern witchcraft, Some spellbinding October reads, as well as last year’s Shakespeare Halloween Guide: What to watch, listen to, read—and wear.