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Writing About Drama: Terms and Conventions

As in all critical writing, the most important thing to remember is to keep your analysis specific and textual.  As a rule of thumb, offer five lines of analysis for every line of drama that you quote.  Develop a thesis that allows you to approach the assignment as an investigation, not only into the world of the play, but into the way that world is constructed and presented.  Your thesis will make a claim about your interpretation of the play that you will then prove through textual evidence.  In the case of Shakespearean drama, you are responsible for an accurate interpretation of that text — rely on glossaries and the Oxford English Dictionary to be sure that what you are interpreting is actually what is in the text.

Learn the difference between opinion and analysis.  Your likes and dislikes are important to your critical approach, but should be implied by your analysis, not expressly stated.  Similarly, try not to “analyze” the obvious — don’t spend time “proving” that Iago is evil, that Katherine is a shrew, that Hamlet is tormented, that King Lear is old and weak.  Look for controversy, inconsistency, words that can be interpreted in more than one way.

Analyzing drama asks much the same skill as analyzing prose fiction; however, you must provide an additional awareness that drama, unlike prose, is meant to be performed (or, if read in text form, to be imagined as it would be performed).  Thus you are not only interested in language, but also in action, in the staging or any special theatrical effects called for by the play, and in the sense of elapsed time called for by the plot.  In drama, there is also a heightened awareness of conflict — drama intensifies the clash between people and other people, between people and their culture, between people and fate or circumstance, between people and values, between men and women, between the elderly and the young, between the powerful and the oppressed, between, essentially, good and evil.  Is the conflict you are witnessing balanced or one-sided?  Is its outcome in doubt or inevitable?  Is it the same conflict throughout the play or does it change?  Is there more than one source of conflict?  Is the source of conflict a symbol or metaphor for a broader problem or controversy (i.e., does an argument between a man and woman reflect larger issues of power and self-determination, and if so, how does the playwright indicate this?)

All of the following may be used as part of your overall analysis:

 Character Analysis

•     As in prose fiction, consider the following when trying to understand a character: Age, Sex, Race, Social Class, Profession, Financial stability, Family Structure, Love/Marriage Relationships, Physical/Emotional health

•     Is the character happy or unhappy with his/her place in this list of identifying qualities? 

•     Do any of these change in the course of the play, and how does the character deal with the change?

•     Is there any discrepancy between what a character says and what s/he does?

•     Is there any discrepancy between what other people say about a character and what s/he says or does?

Language

•     Do all characters speak in language appropriate to their sex/age/social class, etc.?  If not, why not?

•     Is the dialogue written in prose or verse, or a combination of the two?

•     Is the prose dialogue realistic, poetic and stylized, or somewhere in between? 

•     Does the playwright incorporate figures of speech or poetic devices into the characters’ speeches?  What do such things tell us about character?

•     Do any characters speak in asides, and what is revealed in these speeches?

 Plot Analysis

•     Identify the rising action, the climax, the resolution and the denouement.  Do they occur in expected or unexpected places?

•     Does the plot follow the Aristotelian “Unities” (see handout on Dramatic Theory and Terms)?  Why or why not?

•     Is there a pattern of reoccurrence of any events?

•     Are the events in the plot realistic or fantastical, or a combination of both?

•     Is each event prepared for or motivated by the characters/other events, or do some things seem to happen because of random chance?

•     Are there any subplots?  What is their relationship to the main plot?  Is this relationship evident from the start, or revealed as the play progresses?

 Setting

•     Is the play set in a “real” or an imaginary place? 

•     Is there more than one setting (the Aristotelian Unities again)? 

•     Do the characters belong in the place(s) they’re in, or are they misplaced/displaced?

•     Does the setting contribute to conflict, or diffuse it?

 Metadrama

•     At any point in the play, are the characters or the audience reminded that they’re in/seeing a play? 

•     Are there any references to the “world as a stage,” or do any characters put on a play or speak directly to the audience?  

•     What is the effect of such references? 

•     Do they change or intensify the mood or tone of the play? 

•     Are any of the important conflicts in the play exacerbated or resolved at the moment of such theatrical self-reference?

 
 

Technicalities:

While it is true that drama unfolds in the context of time, your analysis need not be chronological in structure (unless you are explicitly analyzing plot).  Most important: unless the assignment specifically asks you to, NEVER summarize the plot of a play — it’s too easy to do this instead of analyzing.

Be specific not only about what characters are doing but about how they are behaving while they're doing it.  One quick way to indicate this to your reader is through active verbs.  Seek out your "says'es" and "Is'es" and "have's" and try a more specific term, such as: (for "says") suggests, protests, insinuates, pleads, moans, proclaims; (for "has") clings to, obsesses over, possesses, steals, suffers from; . . . and so on.  Always annotate quotes by listing, in a parenthesis at the end of the sentence in which the quote appears, the numbers of the act, scene, and line(s) the quote is from: (Hamlet III. ii. 12-15).  Inclusion of the title is only necessary if you haven't already given an internal reference in the body of your essay.

Be sure to use dramatic terms accurately; refer to the following guide for definitions:

Dramatic Theory and Conventions

 I. THEORY -- Idealized rules based on classical writers; some playwrights honored them (Jonson, Dryden) while others didn't (Marlowe, Shakespeare):

      A.  The Unities (developed from Aristotle's Poetics by 16th century critics)

            1.  TIME (action on stage should occur within 2-1/2 hours)

            2.  PLACE (same locale/setting for entire play)

            3.  ACTION (all events should describe a single plot line — this was the                       only rule Aristotle actually spelled out)

      B.  Probability -- Aristotle recommends that the action proceed rationally, with no events unprepared for.

      C.  Decorum -- Characters should speak, dress, and behave in a manner suitable to their rank, sex, age, personality; also, style/expression should fit the genre or subject.

      D.  Verisimilitude -- Events must be true, believeable, and more or less realistic.

      E.  Five-Part Structure:

            1.  EXPOSITION -- presents the situation and events leading up to the action; introduces characters and defines their relationships

            2.  RISING ACTION -- complicates the original situation, creating conflict among the characters

            3.  CLIMAX/TURNING POINT -- change in direction of the course of events, particularly for the protagonist

            4.  FALLING ACTION -- resolving of complications

            5.  CONCLUSION/CATASTROPHE -- final revelation or outcome (such as discovered identities in comedy or death in tragedy), resulting in "restored order" ("dénouement" often refers to falling action and conclusion together)

 II.  DRAMATIC CONVENTIONS

      A.  Chorus -- group of actors who speak in unison (later replaced by a single actor) functioning as an expository device

      B.  Confidant(e) -- Character whose main function is to carry information to and from the main character and to provide the excuse for a character to speak thoughts aloud.

      C.  Soliloquy -- When a character reveals inmost thoughts directly to the audience.  Reveals the speaker's perceptions, not necessarily the "truth."  Conventionally, the speaker doesn't reveal an awareness of the audience's presence, although sometimes awareness is shown for comic effect.

      D.  Aside -- During a scene, when a character suddenly turns to another character or to an audience and speaks a line heard only by the audience and addressee.  Convention requires the other characters to reveal no knowledge that the first character is speaking.

      E.  Metadrama -- Some playwrights have their characters either refer directly to the presence of the audience or other parts of the theater in the course of their speeches, or else use specifically theatrical figures of speech (i.e., Shakespeare has a character in As You Like It begin a speech, "All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players./They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts . . .).  Such references are usually included for comic or ironic effect, but can also be used in tragedy to enhance the play's critical commentary on politics, society, philosophy, etc.  Metadrama also refers to the inclusion of a play-within-a-play, as in Hamlet.

 
 

TYPES OF COMEDY

 Comedy in Shakespeare’s time tended to fall into several categories, requiring varied levels of sophistication on the part of the listener for fullest enjoyment: 

Burlesque — purely physical comedy: potty and sexual jokes, pratfalls, foodfights, drinking/drug jokes, drag costumes.  This level of comedy requires almost no prior knowledge — references are to the most basic kinds of human experience.

Farce — plot-oriented comedy (similar to situation comedy today): disguise/mistaken identity, eavesdropping (intentional or unintentional), coincidences and accidents, get-rich-quick schemes that backfire, etc.  Familiarity with the formulas and conventions of plot increase enjoyment.

Romantic comedy — boy-get-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back: humor is based on the delusions and pretensions of young people in love, misunderstandings, etc.  Familiarity with the conventions of love poetry often required for appreciation of satire about lovers.

Comedy of manners — humor requires a knowledge of the social mores and fashions referred to in the plays; jokes center around social hypocrisies and pretensions.  This type of comedy would probably only be funny to people who were familiar with the values and behaviors of the elite characters being satirized.

Witty comedy — humor based on wordplay (puns and literary allusions) and on comic heroes who use intelligence and language to outwit their adversaries and get what they want.  This type of comedy requires the highest level of previous knowledge on the part of the audience, since much of the humor assumes a sophisticated command of the nuances of language and the uses of formal logic and rhetoric.

 No one play ever featured only one type of humor exclusively — most comic plays feature a mixture of all these types.  You will note, though, a decided hierarchy of humor in this list, from “low-class” to “high-class.”  Shakespeare’s theater was not overly concerned with observing decorum, or a separation of comic styles — that would come later, in the 18th century.

  
 

TYPES OF TRAGEDY
Critic Northrop Frye developed a general outline for the typical tragic plot pattern

 1.  ENCROACHMENT — The protagonist takes on more than he should and makes a mistake that ultimately causes his own “fall;” it is often an act blindly done, demonstrating the hero’s faith in his own power to regulate the world or his insensitivity to others.  Even in cases where the act is unconscious, the tragic hero encroaches on the norms of human conduct within a given world.

2.  COMPLICATION — This builds up and includes the events that align opposing forces.    

3.  REVERSAL — This is the point at which it becomes clear that the protagonist’s expectations are mistaken, that his fate will be the reverse of what he had hoped.  At this minute, the vision of the audience and dramatist are the same.       

4.  CATASTROPHE — This exposes the limits of the protagonist’s power and dramatizes the waste of his life.  Piles of dead bodies remind us that the forces unleashed are not easily contained; there are also elaborate subplots in later tragedies, which reinforce the impression of a world inundated with evil.      

5.  RECOGNITION — The audience (and sometimes the protagonist) recognize the larger pattern inherent in the action.  If the protagonist does experience recognition, s/he begins to share the vision of reality that the dramatist and the audience see.  From this new perspective s/he can see the irony of her/his actions.   

 NOTE: You may have heard the term “tragic flaw” (hamartia) used to describe the cause of a protagonist’s downfall.  We prefer Aristotle’s “some error of human frailty” or Frye’s “encroachment” because these terms offer subtler and more complicated descriptions of the human condition.  The problem is rarely a simple personality quirk on the part of one character.



This page maintained and moderated by Prof. Kristen McDermott, Central Michigan University.
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ã Kristen McDermott, 2007-11.  The materials on these pages are intended solely for the use of Central Michigan University students currently enrolled in my courses or who are considering enrolling in my courses.  Use of this material, especially syllabi, in any other context is prohibited without first obtaining permission from Dr. McDermott.

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This page last updated: 09/15/2011

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