Infographic of the Day: Can Charts Throw Light on Shakespeare?

Hey, interface designers: Keep your algorithms off our literature!

Understanding Shakespeare sounds like the perfect antidote to the un-bookish ways of an entire generation raised on LCD screens and Leo DiCaprio's Romeo. Billed as a "new form of reading," it's a data visualization project that turns Shakespeare's prose into language Web addicts are supposed to be able to comprehend: algorithms, data maps, and the like. The problem: We can't grasp one damn lick of it.

[Click images for more full-sized versions]

Take the image above. It's a visualization of the dramatic structure in The Comedy of Errors, a short, spirited play about twins separated at birth. But based on the graph, you'd think it were one giant love poem to the word "will." What makes a lot more sense: Reading the actual play. (Or at least the CliffNotes.)

Understanding Shakespeare is the bachelor's thesis of Stephan Thiel, an interface-design grad from the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. He isn't the first to turn the principles of information design on literature and fail. People love visualizing the Bible, even though it turns an already complex text into complete gobbledygook. (Yay, more ambiguity people can start wars over!) The interface designer and professor Boris Müller stuffed the entirety of Faust into a single poster, but most of the words are so small you can't make out what they say. And British designer Stefanie Posavec must've spent hours throwing together this incomprehensible map of On the Road -- which is weirdly appropriate since the book reads like it was written by a 8-year-old hopped up on Adderall.

[This shows the most popular quotes in Hamlet, based on Google hits.]

The visualizations are beautiful, there's no doubt about that --Thiel's Shakespeare project included. But information design isn't just about aesthetics; it has to, well, inform, too. And where literature's concerned, the only way to do that is to crack open a book.

[Images via Flickr]

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  • Nyog

    I teach literature at a small college (after a first degree and career in Computer Science)--and boy-oh-boy do I agree with your analyses here, both of the infographics, which are all graphics and no info, and of Kerouac. As a dedicated and innovative teacher, I keep hoping for some infographics which offer real ways into complex literature for my students. I am not a graphic designer, but I think it will take a combination of insight-led work (of the older cognitive-function-intensive kind) and more computer-generated work. This the sort of circular process, inductive to deductive and back again, which literary academics have been engaged in forever, so perhaps what it will take is a collaborative process.