The small world of shakespeare’s plays

Abstract

Drama, at least according to the Aristotelian view, is effective inasmuch as it successfully mirrors real aspects of human behavior. This leads to the hypothesis that successful dramas will portray fictional social networks that have the same properties as those typical of human beings across ages and cultures. We outline a methodology for investigating this hypothesis and use it to examine ten of Shakespeare’s plays. The cliques and groups portrayed in the plays correspond closely to those which have been observed in spontaneous human interaction, including in hunter-gatherer societies, and the networks of the plays exhibit “small world” properties of the type which have been observed in many human-made and natural systems.

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Correspondence to Daniel Nettle.

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James Stiller has an M.Sc. in evolutionary psychology from the University of Liverpool. He is currently studying for a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, where he is conducting research into the perception of social patterns.

Daniel Nettle is a lecturer in biological psychology at the Open University. His research interests include the evolution of language and culture, evolutionary psychology, and individual differences.

Robin Dunbar (B.A., Ph.D.) is British Academy Research Professor and a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool. His research interests span mammalian behavioral ecology, including humans; cognitive mechanisms; and Darwinian psychology.

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Stiller, J., Nettle, D. & Dunbar, R.I.M. The small world of shakespeare’s plays. Hum Nat 14, 397–408 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-003-1013-1

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Key words

  • Drama
  • Group size
  • Humans
  • Shakespeare
  • Small world networks
  • Social networks