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Mapping the links between gender, status and genre in Shakespeare’s plays

Murphy, Sean and Archer, Dawn and Demmen, Jane (2020) Mapping the links between gender, status and genre in Shakespeare’s plays. Language and Literature, 29 (3). pp. 223-245. ISSN 0963-9470


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The AHRC-funded Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language (ESL) project has produced a resource allowing users to explore Shakespeare’s plays in a variety of (semi-automatic) ways, via a web-based corpus query processor interface (CQPweb) hosted by Lancaster University. It enables users, for example, to interrogate a corpus of Shakespeare’s plays using queries restricted by dramatic genre, gender and/or social status of characters, and to target and explore the language of the plays not only at the word level, but also at the grammatical and semantic levels (by querying part-of-speech or semantic categories). Using keyword techniques, we examine how female and male language varies in general, by social status (high or low), and by genre (comedy, history and tragedy). Among our findings, we note differences in the use of pronouns and references to male authority (female overuse of ‘I’ and ‘husband’; male overuse of ‘we’ and ‘king’). We also observe that high-status males in comedies (as opposed to histories and tragedies) are characterised by polite requests (‘please you’) and sharp-minded ‘wit’. Despite many similarities between female and male usage of gendered forms of language (‘woman’), male characters alone use terms such as ‘womanish’ in a disparaging way.

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