Drama is oral by nature. There is a close link between: the stage, the audience and the text. That’s why you have to bear in mind that it is written for the purpose of being performed on stage, so visualising the scene while studying it may prove beneficial.
I) Studying plays: the text and its structure
Plays are specific, with a primary text (the main body of the play spoken by the characters) and secondary texts (all the texts “surrounding” the main text): title, dramatis personae (liste des personnages), scene descriptions, stage directions (didascalies) for acting and speaking. The secondary texts provide with clues about the atmosphere, action or information about the characters’ appearance or their tone of voice.
[Inverness. A room in Macbeth’s castle]
Enter Lady Macbeth, reading a letter.
LADY M.: They met me in the day of success…
Plays are usually divided into a number of acts (five in Greek tragedies or in Shakespeare’s plays) divided into scenes. First, situate the passage in the play: is it an exposition scene introducing who, what, when, where and why? Is it a scene helping the action to develop or part of the final denouement?
II) Main characteristic features
Drama is centred on characters, who can be defined by the language they use. To study them determine:
2) How is information conveyed?
Define who is speaking, to whom, what about? In dialogues, determining the way speaking time is allocated helps understand whose perspective is adopted. How long are the lines? You must also differentiate a monologue (long speech delivered by one character), a soliloquy (long speech a character recite to himself) and an aside (a character speaking to the audience only).
Study who is leading the conversation. Find out if some characters’ views are expressed more clearly than others’. And finally, don’t forget to study the silence which can be eloquent.
3) Dramatic irony
How much information is given can have different effects on the viewers and this must be taken into account. The discrepancy between the audience’s and characters’ knowledge of some information can lead to dramatic irony. Thus, duplicities or puns can be understood by the audience while the characters are ignorant and thus lack sufficient insight.
For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is only asleep – not dead – but Romeo does not, and he kills himself.
Lack of necessary information can also lead to surprises for the audience, and this is often used in comedies to resolve confusions and mixed-up identities.
4) Traditional features
Poetry enjoyed its heyday (apogée) during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603), that’s why the iambic pentameter was greatly used by William Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe in their plays. But blank verse or even prose were also commonly used. For example, characters may use prose in informal situations but verse in more formal ones.
The use of a chorus was also frequent, for example in Henry V by Shakespeare. They were characters not taking part in the actions of the play but commenting on the events or giving information to the audience.
Prologue spoken by a chorus
Extract from Romeo and Juliet’s prologue written in sonnet. The audience is told what is about to happen: despite true love, an ill-fated couple (“star-crossed”) won’t escape their fate and will die.