Graham Elsdon looks at ways literature students can usefully write about drama
By the play’s final scene, Macbeth sees life as ‘a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. There is a metatheatrical quality to many of Shakespeare’s works, yet some students find it hard to write about plays as plays.
Drama exists in a strange hinterland for a literature student: do you write about it as if you were a drama student, commenting on movement, proxemics and costume choices, or do you treat it like poetry? How might a student write about dramatic method and tie it to the meanings of the play?
Page and stage
Part of the problem lies in the way students experience a play, often reading it ‘on the page’ rather than seeing the physicality of the action. When you read a novel, the narrator acts as your guide, explaining how characters are feeling and how they behave. But drama shows, rather than tells. In drama, all you have are the words the characters speak. So rather than the action taking place in your head (as it does when you read a novel), drama is the product of a director’s interpretation of the way lines are delivered, facial expression, movement, costume, setting, staging and timing.
Yet writing about dramatic method is less about performance and more about the larger structural choices of the playwright. As starting points, you might consider:
- when and why characters enter and exit the stage
- who speaks most in scenes and who is silent
- how aside and soliloquy are used
- how dialogue is connected to power
- what the audience – and the characters – do and don’t know at various points in the story.
Linking method and meaning
As an example, let’s look at dramatic method in 1.6, where Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle and a conversation ensues between the King and Lady Macbeth. The scene can be found here http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/macbeth.1.6.html
One of the most important aspects of this scene concerns what the audience and characters do and don’t know. Shakespeare positions the audience so they have superior knowledge over some of the characters: before this scene commences, the audience know that Duncan’s death has been discussed. We have already listened to Lady Macbeth’s regicidal thoughts and consequently, when 1.6 is performed, we have the darkly dramatic irony of Duncan and Banquo praising the outwardly welcoming appearance of Macbeth’s castle.
Notice how the dramatic method supports the meanings of the play – the setting for this scene is the exterior of the castle, so we see a dramatic symbol of the play’s concern with appearance, reality and deception – Duncan’s appreciation of the castle’s ‘pleasant seat’ is stark contrast to the horrors which wait within.
The dramatic irony also supports the tragic meanings of the play. In choosing to show Duncan and Banquo as characters who are in the dark about the forthcoming murder, it allows us to understand how deception works, but also offers a tragic significance – the unknowing quality of life and the way in which an innocent, good man is hours away from his death. Here is a good example of how students can link an aspect of dramatic method to both moral readings of the play and also genre approaches too.
Exits and entrances
It’s easy to overlook stage directions, but at the start of 1.6 you will notice the sheer number of characters who enter the stage, yet only two of these characters speak. The effect is one of power – the King’s retinue throng the stage and of course, the most powerful person in the world of the text speaks first. Shakespeare’s decision to give dialogue to Banquo is interesting, as it suggests his centrality, allying him to Duncan, and setting him up in opposition to the Macbeths, reinforcing his essential goodness.
The most important entrance is that of Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare brings her on stage after the innocent dialogue between Duncan and Banquo. It is an interesting moment, because she appears in front of all the Thanes and Duncan’s sons, having just considered regicide. Her dialogue with Duncan provides a nice dramatic contrast with that of Banquo, and once more underlines a meaning of the play – the way in which the innocent flower hides the serpent. Small dramatic details help this, such as Duncan’s request ‘Give me your hand’, which on stage adds a horrible frisson as the victim willingly takes the plotter’s hand.
As the above shows, dramatic method is useful to write about when it is related to meanings in the play. Students may wish to look at the scene which follows 1.6, where the Macbeths’ discussion about the merits of murder is rich in method, with the focus being on soliloquy, entrances, dialogue and shifts in power.
Amongst all the strutting and fretting, meaning is central. Life may well be a tale told by an idiot, but on stage, it always signifies something.
Graham Elsdon is a teacher, author and consultant at www.theenglishline.com