Dramatic Speech Prefixes and “Distant Reading”

What do we talk about when we talk about Renaissance drama? Do we talk about the performances of plays like Othello or Volpone, or do we talk about their appearances in print? Do we talk about “audiences” or do we talk about “readers?” Is the “play” a performance, or is it a “book?” It’s not my plan to offer my own opinion here (even if my interests probably lean more in one direction than the other). But I will say something about a curious textual feature in printed play-texts that poses some interesting problems to either camp in this debate, especially when we submit the plays to some kind of digital textual analysis. It also calls us to pay close attention to discrepancies among modern editions of Renaissance plays.

Speech prefixes. In early dramatic play-texts, speech prefixes are the tags that appear throughout the text, usually down the left margin (but not always) and that indicate who is speaking. Here’s a good example from a particularly exciting scene in the 1592 edition of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (British Library copy, available in EEBO). The speech prefixes are clearly marked off in purple (by me, of course):

ST [3]

As a technology of printed drama, speech prefixes are undeniably useful, but at the same time they quite possibly interfere with the “continuous” kinds of reading that understand the play as an acted performance. They are, and are not, a part of the text (in some ways, they are like stage directions, although these bear their own distinct complexities).

I began thinking about this issue recently after reading Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Curious about what the play’s text “looked like” from a distant perspective, I hastily pulled a version of the play’s text from Luminarium, dropped it into a simple text file, and then examined it through the digital text-analysis tool Voyant. Thus far I have found Voyant useful for its ability to bring forth commonly-used words in a given text or corpus, and to track the trends of words as they appear.

Here’s what Voyant showed for this Luminarium preparation of Kyd’s play. I should add that this text was transcribed in 2007 by Risa S. Bear, and before that it hails from J. Schick’s 1927 London edition. We might very well question Schick’s methods if we had time to investigate editorial history. But alas; once again, “hasty” is the word to describe what was really an experiment more than anything else. The results appear below:

ST [1]

Upon my first glance at these results, I noticed something, and was actually a little annoyed by it. The speech prefixes from the Schick-Bear text constituted a significant portion of the recurring words (these appear in the bottom-left window of the interface). You can also see this to be the case in the “Word Cloud” at the top-left, which visualizes words in a size according to their recurrence; although this feature normally strikes me as kitschy and not very useful, it also showed that “hier” (this edition’s prefix for “Hieronimo”) was the most frequently-used “word” in this text, with 141 appearances. A quick scroll down and I found other encroaching speech prefixes: “lor” (Lorenzo) 97 times, “bal” (Balthazar) 65 times, “bel” (Belimperia) 60 times. From one perspective, these prefixes are intruding upon the language of Kyd’s play, that is, the language that would have been spoken in some form or another upon the Renaissance stage (I should note that this play’s textual history is famously knotty and confusing).

Yet, the inclusion of these speech prefixes in the distant reading tell us something about the very real presence of these tags among the speeches, soliloquies, and verbal banter that readers find so commonly in printed Renaissance drama. Textually, or even typographically speaking, this realization complicates the notion of the “play-text” as a comprehensible whole. Rather than resisting their frequency, we might press upon the issue further.

I’ll end with some derivative questions: What does the proportion of speech prefixes to “regular text” impress (pun possibly intended) upon the reader? How do these proportions change across plays in a playwright’s corpus, or over a period of time more generally? What can we make of prefixes that effectively double the name of a character, like “King” in The Spanish Tragedy, which appears 107 times, sometimes as a prefix, and sometimes within a particular character’s speech? What about prefixes that change and fluctuate at the mercy of print-shop compositors, or at the hands of modern editors? All within good time.


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