Monday, September 28, 2015

Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure: Part 1

So those of you who've been around lately know I've been studying plot structure while I outline what I affectionately call The Tome. I started out by reading some materials specifically on plotting--James Scott Bell's laissez-faire approach in Plot and Structure and then KM Weiland's more structured three-act approach in her blog series on structure. However, I didn't stop there. I went on to analyse how plot structure was used in a book which will, DV, have certain similarities to my own Tome: JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (see my blog series here: Part 1/Part 2).

As represented by Freytag's Pyramid
Analysing LOTR gave me a huge amount of information and confidence on how to actually apply plot-structuring-advice to my own work--mainly because it showed me what was necessary and what was not, and how plot structure can be adapted, tweaked, or even disregarded. It also brought me to suspect that Tolkien was not actually using three-act plot structure at all, but an earlier variation: five-act structure.

In Part 2 of my earlier post on plot structure in LOTR, I explained how I believe five-act structure maps onto three-act structure, with the difference mainly being in emphasis: in five-act structure, the climax of the work comes at the midpoint, while in three-act structure, the climax is at the resolution. To quickly recap, in both models, the first acts correspond; then the second, third, and fourth acts of five-act structure all correspond to different stages of the second act of three-act structure; finally, the fifth and third acts correspond.

After having my interest whetted in five-act structure, I decided to study it in more depth by analysing four of my favourite Shakespeare plays--two tragedies and two comedies--so that I could get a handle on how his structuring actually worked in practice. (Always check the writing advice you hear against great classic works of literature. It will broaden your outlook considerably). The plays I chose were Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, and this week we'll look at their first two acts.

Before I begin, a disclaimer or two. I'm not a professional Shakespeare student. I'm only a beginner on five-act structure. It's entirely possible I'm getting some or all of this wrong. In addition, the way Shakespeare used five-act structure was quite different to how Tolkien used it; other authors would no doubt also differ. Finally, it should be noted that Shakespeare himself did not insert the Act divisions found in all modern editions of his plays. We can be reasonably sure he was following a five-act structure since that was the reigning model at his time, but the Act divisions were inserted by later scholars--and in fact, the longer I looked at the plays in question, the more Act divisions I found which I'd have put in different places.

Oh, and: spoiler warning for the four plays discussed!


Shakespeare uses the exposition of his plays to introduce us to his setting, his characters, their motivations, and the conflicts that currently define their world. Here are some of the ways a first act accomplishes this in an engaging manner:

- It may show us the tail-end of the characters' last conflict, which is going to lead directly into the next. For example, Much Ado begins by bringing Don Pedro's soldiers home after a "hot war" with Don Juan which will now erupt into a "cold war" in Messina.
- It may introduce us to a story in which the characters' normal is conflict. Romeo and Juliet begins with an action-packed battle between the Capulets and Montagues. This feud itself is one of the major antagonists (the other would be Fate).
- It may introduce us to a world where things are about to change dramatically--often with new suitors arriving in town, as in Shrew (or, skipping authors, Pride and Prejudice).
- It may be a relatively self-contained plot in itself, which defines the parameters of the plot that will occur in the rest of the play. Othello begins with a mini-plot set in motion by Iago to get Othello in trouble for marrying Desdemona. When this doesn't work, Iago begins Act 2 with a new plot to ruin Othello's marriage another way. Jane Eyre also takes this approach, walking us through Jane's traumatic childhood to show how she gains the strength of character that will define her for the rest of the story.

The main task of the Exposition, in addition to giving us a taste for the flavour of the rest of the story, is to define the conflict in what KM Weiland calls the First Plot Point. Often, Shakespeare accomplishes this by having the villain give a monologue declaring his evil scheme, as in Much Ado with Don Juan or in Othello with Iago. Shrew is an interesting example in that the First Plot Point happens when Petruchio--who, despite being the play's heroic/Christ figure, takes the traditional role of the antagonist--makes a commitment to action: he intends to marry Kate. In R&J, however, there is no overt declaration of intention; rather, we reach the First Plot point when the title characters fall in love, thereby setting themselves on a path to unavoidable conflict with the feud that defines their world.


The events of Act 2 occur as a direct result of the conflict introduced at the close of the Exposition. For example, in a second act...

- The villain might formulate his evil plot for the first time, after declaring his malice at the close of Act 1. This happens in Much Ado, in which Don John has a motive, but no plot until later in Act 2.
- The villain might begin to move an evil plot into play, like Iago arranging for Cassio's disgrace and convincing him to ask Desdemona to intercede with Othello for him (which will make it all the easier to frame Cassio and Desdemona for adultery).
- The protagonists might go from unwittingly stumbling onto the path to making a solid commitment to the conflict, as with Romeo and Juliet leveling up the relationship and getting married. Now the stakes are even higher for them, and they have even more chance of having their lives get ruined by the feud.
- Or, as in Shrew, the heroic antagonist scores a win by arranging his engagement with Kate.

In five-act structure, Act 2 occupies the same space as the beginning of Act 2 in three-act structure. However, it finishes sometime before the climactic Midpoint. Where? Well, I think it finishes at the point where KM Weiland advises inserting the First Pinch Point--a dramatic moment that reminds the audience of the antagonist's strength. As a matter of fact, sometimes Shakespeare does end his second acts with a Weilandesque Pinch Point, like Borachio coming up with a way to spoil the wedding in Much Ado--but at other times, he ends it with a dramatic moment of a different flavour. For instance, Romeo and Juliet's wedding is technically speaking a victory for the protagonists, not a point of heightened danger (though it does raise the stakes significantly). Similarly, in Shrew, Petruchio's betrothal with Kate is a foreshadowing of the happy ending in which Kate and Petruchio will be happily married.

So there you have my thoughts on the first two acts of Shakespeare's five-act structure! Next week, I'm going to finish by outlining Acts 3-5. Stay tuned!

The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 1
The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 2


Jamie W. said...

Hooray! I was looking forward to this, and it does not disappoint. I'm in the middle of trying to organize a Shakespeare Club at my college, and this article reminds me why I care.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it. Shakespeare is wonderful :)

Jamie W. said...

By the way, I was just listening to a panel discussion about what is called "The Benedict Option," and so I was thinking about redeeming culture vs./and creating a parallel Christian culture, or maybe better put, what one of the speakers called "enclaves of excellence." I realized how much your work has shaped my thinking on this topic, both what you say about it and how you do it. Vintage Novels is part of an enclave of excellence.
So many people can criticize and deconstruct modern culture, but you are one of the few who actually go ahead and create something new and worthwhile. Thank you for building with silver and gold and precious stones on the foundation that is Christ.

Suzannah said...

:D Well, I'm so glad you think so. I think what you may be detecting here is my postmillenial eschatology--which I might summarise as a belief that Christ is the Victor in history as well as outside it, and that therefore the mission of Christendom in the world is to rebuke, redeem, and rebuild everything that does not yet bow the knee to Christ.

And that in the long run, this strategy is going to work (not by our own efforts, obvs--1 Cor 3:6). So that really, cultural retreat and deconstruction is not as wise a use of our time as bold advancement of the Kingdom.


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