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Phylogenetic profiling and the reception of classical drama

Joseph Dexter and Pramit Chaudhuri

Harvard University and Dartmouth College

Recent developments in reception studies, world literature, and the digital humanities have made effective use of enlarged scale in posing and answering new research questions. The continuously expanding database of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD; represented in Macintosh et al. 2005), the encompassing of substantial non-western material in comparative literary studies (Damrosch 2003), and the inclusion of vast quantities of non-canonical works enabled by text digitisation (Moretti 2009, Barker and Terras 2016, Long and So 2016) collectively entail new forms of data gathering and visual presentation, which in turn open new hermeneutic horizons.

This paper draws inspiration from computational biology to offer a new method of organising, visualising, and interpreting the reception histories of literary works, focusing on classical drama. We repurpose a technique known as phylogenetic profiling to chart the evolution of Plautus’ Amphitryon through a sample of 22 adaptations ranging from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The paper describes the new methodology, presents resulting analyses about the treatment of dramatic characters across the tradition, and discusses implications for the practice of classical reception studies. To demonstrate the scalability of the approach, we conclude by briefly describing a similar profile of Sophocles’ Antigone, which incorporates 129 adaptations spanning four continents.

Phylogenetic profiling is a standard technique in computational biology used to summarise large evolutionary histories (Pellegrini et al. 1999, Pagliarini et al. 2008). A typical phylogenetic profile is a binary matrix (i.e., the value of every entry is either “0” or “1”) indicating the presence or absence of genes across a large number of evolutionarily separated organisms. An attractive and intuitive visualisation can be constructed by drawing a rectangle (with the m genes written along one side and the n organisms along the other) and colouring each of the m x n tiles inside the rectangle black or white according to its binary value. In biology, phylogenetic profiles have applications beyond visualisation. Of particular interest, phylogenetic profiles can be used to infer functional similarities between genes on the basis of their shared presence in a set of organisms. In our application of the concept, each text in the reception tradition is treated as an organism, for which we determine the binary presence or absence of a macroscopic component (such as a character or scene). These phylogenetic profiles can then be used to identify patterns of influence and related groups of adaptations.

Our methodology combines the compilation of character lists for each adaptation with a novel graphical representation of the data to highlight clear trends across time in the use of minor characters and anomalous treatments of major characters. Furthermore, when cross-referenced with the geographical locus of the adaptation, the phylogenetic profile indicates those trends that are local and those that are more universal. The phylogenetic mapping of synchronic and diachronic trends across multiple regions goes some way towards addressing a criticism of reception studies for privileging national traditions at the expense of larger frames of comparison (Marshall 2006).

The profile of the Amphitryon highlights especially influential and anomalous adaptations. Molière’s omission of Blepharo, for instance, leads to his complete erasure from the subsequent tradition. This effect supports the standard view of Molière as the most influential post-classical treatment of the myth (Shero 1956, Margotton and Huby-Gilson 2010). Innovations need not be inherited from a single influential source: the addition of Juno is a popular innovation and occurs in three geographically separated clusters of productions (Heywood in England, de Rotrou in France, and da Silva and de Canizares on the Iberian peninsula). Certain innovations are highly specific to the adaptation and therefore do not provide a compelling model for other authors. The English farce Jack Juggler, for example, is the sole production to omit Jupiter - a radical break from the Plautine original and a counterintuitive element in a tradition that places great emphasis on the presence of Jupiter on stage.

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Ancient MakerSpaces: Digital Tools for Classical Scholarship (all-day workshop Saturday January 7)

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