Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure: Part 2

Previous articles on plot structure:

LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 1
LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2
Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure, Part 1

If you remember, last week I discussed Shakespeare's use of 5-act structure, with specific attention to Acts 1 and 2. This week I'm looking at Acts 3-5. This was a very interesting exercise, because in these final acts, some fascinating differences crop up between comedies and tragedies.

Spoiler warnings apply!


One of the biggest differences between Shakespeare and Tolkien is in their treatment of Act 3. As I observed in LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2, Tolkien uses his central third acts to showcase big action/battle scenes. In Shakespeare, the Climax doesn't focus on one setpiece. Instead it marks a series of domino-like reactions surrounding the plot's turning-point.

In five-act structure, the Climax maps onto the Midpoint of KM Weiland's Act 2 and finishes with the "Second Pinch Point". According to classic plot theory, the Climax is a turning point. In a comedy, it's the point at which things start going well for the protagonists; while in a tragedy, it's where they start going badly. In practice it's a bit more nuanced than that.

For example, sometimes Shakespeare plays this almost brutally straight. In Romeo and Juliet, the tone is comedy, comedy, comedy right up to Act 3, at which point it takes a shrieking left turn into tragedy.

Sometimes, Shakespeare plays around with this trope, as in Much Ado. Here the Climax actually occurs offstage when Claudio thinks he sees Hero cheating on him with Borachio. Just as in Romeo and Juliet, this causes the plot to take a turn for the tragic, potentially tricking well-educated members of the audience into believing that everything will end sadly. It doesn't.

Another way Shakespeare plays with his Midpoint? Sometimes, like DK Broster in The Flight of the Heron, he doesn't even let us see it. In both Shrew and Much Ado we hear about the climactic Midpoint only after it occurs, from an eyewitness. At first this might seem an odd choice, given the high potential for drama that might come from directly showing us what is without a doubt the most pivotal scene in the play. Thinking it over, however, I wonder if Shakespeare feared stealing his own thunder. In both cases, especially in Much Ado, it could be argued that he foregoes the pivotal scenes in order to milk maximum drama out of the reaction scenes--the wedding scene in Act 4, for example.

When it comes to the tragedies, though, Shakespeare puts the Midpoint right in front of us. In Romeo and Juliet, it gets played out with vivid gore and maximum drama, as Romeo is goaded into killing Tybalt. In Othello, it's a bit more low-key, as Iago masterfully introduces the suspicion of his wife's infidelity into Othello's mind.

Finally, Shakespeare's third acts end at the point where KM Weiland would advise including a Second Pinch Point.

In Tragedies, the end of the Third Act starts a clock ticking. Juliet's father betrothes her to Paris, and she must take swift and decisive action to avoid being forced to marry a second time. In Othello, the discovery of the handkerchief in Bianca's possession convinces Othello that his wife is cheating--setting him on the path to murder.

In Shrew, the end of the Third Act comes when Petruchio spirits Kate away from her wedding feast to his isolated home, where their final confrontations will play out. In Much Ado, we get a moment of fine dramatic irony as the only people who know the truth fail to thwart Don John's plan. In both comedies, the "Pinch Point" ushers in the final Act 4 conflict between the lovers.


Act 4 leads up the the third plot point.

In the tragedies I analysed, this was the segment of the plot in which everyone takes a deep breath before plunging over the precipice at the Third Plot Point. There's a lot of positioning for the final scene, and here the characters miss their last chances to extricate themselves from the mess they're in: for example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet arranges for her escape from Verona, unaware that Fate plans to prevent it, while in Othello, we get a series of missed opportunities for repentence.

In the comedies, on the other hand, Act 4 is not such a breather. Instead it sees the most intense confrontations yet, following on from the (offscreen) Midpoint. In Much Ado, it's the disastrous wedding scene, followed by Beatrice's ultimatum to Benedick. In Shrew, it's a series of escalating struggles between Petruchio and Kate.

In keeping with this difference, the Third Plot Point at the end of Act 4 has a different function depending on whether it comes in a comedy or a tragedy.

In tragedies, the Third Plot Point ushers in the catastrophe of Act 5. In Othello, I believe the Third Plot Point occurs when Othello smothers Desdemona. That's his catastrophic decision, and it ushers in a series of revelations that destroy him (and everyone else). In Romeo and Juliet, it occurs when Juliet fakes her death, and it causes a similar series of destructive reactions.

In comedies, by contrast, the Third Plot Point is a moment at which the conflict between the lovers resolves itself in an unexpected accord. This occurs in Shrew when Kate, almost despite herself, gets the joke and begins to join Petruchio in his mad world of windy words. It also occurs in Much Ado when Benedick agrees to fight Claudio for Hero's sake, to prove his love for Beatrice. This is a fragile accord which will be tested again in Act 5, but it's basically the end of their conflict.

There are some fascinating differences here. In contemporary three-act plotting, the Third Plot Point ushers in the climactic conflict in which the protagonists either win or lose. However, in Shakespeare's five-act plotting, that win or loss happens functionally at the end of Act 4, at the Third Plot Point itself. Whether in tragedy or comedy, it is the protagonist's last moment of decision. It sets up an Act 5 in which the direction of the plot is largely taken out of the protagonist's hands, showing the unavoidable consequences of the victory or defeat that occurred at the end of Act 4.


Act 5 has a lot of names, but Resolution, Catastrophe, or Denouement are the most common. It occupies the same space as Act 3 of a 3-act plot, but in practice it often plays out with quite a different purpose. In 3-act plotting, Act 5 is where the hero's final struggle takes place, leading to his win or loss. In 5-act plotting, that struggle has usually already taken place, with the decisive moment often occurring at the Third Plot Point. Another word associated with Act 5 is "unravelling". So Act 5 is the point at which plots are revealed and everyone finally figures out what everyone else was up to. The Third Plot Point may have been the point at which the protagonists won or lost, but they may not even know it yet. In Act 5, they find out.

In Shrew, Act 5 sees the unravelling of Lucentio's zany plan to marry Bianca. It's followed by Petruchio placing his bet that Kate will prove to be the most obedient of her three sisters. In the eucatastrophe, she proves worthy of his trust, winning his bet and finally getting the honour and authority over her sisters which she craved at the beginning of the play. In Much Ado, Act 5 sees Benedick following through on his commitment to challenging Claudio, proving the strength of his love for Beatrice. This sets him on the path to tragedy (he intends to kill his best friend), but a eucatastrophic turn of events reveals Don John's plot, vindicates Hero, and leads to Claudio's repentance. In the comedies, Act 5 not only ties up loose ends, it also tests the commitment between the new couple and proves it strong.

In Romeo and Juliet, we find catastrophe: both the leads commit suicide, thereby bringing about the reconciliation of their confused and grieving families. Rather than being revealed, Friar Lawrence and Juliet's plan goes horribly wrong. Meanwhile, in Othello, moments too late to save Desdemona, Emilia exposes Iago's plot, which leads Othello to commit suicide as a final act of justice.

In both cases, the protagonists have already either won or lost by the beginning of Act 5. The decisive moment was the Third Plot Point. The Catastrophe (or eucatastrophe) which follows is not typically driven by the protagonists' direct action. Instead, it is the moment at which divine justice or divine mercy overtakes the protagonists' previous choices and the story spirals out of their control. Maybe the protagonists get good rewards for good deeds (as in Shrew). Maybe they commit themselves reluctantly to a righteous course which will destroy their lives, but are saved by a last-minute twist (as in Much Ado and everything Tolkien ever wrote). Or, in tragedy, maybe justice for their folly overtakes them, righting the world. In each case, interestingly enough, both Shakespeare and Tolkien show preference for denouements that take matters out of the protagonists' hands.

Fascinating, no?

To make all this easier for you, I've made a simple diagram comparing five and three act plotting.

Previous articles on plot structure:

LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 1
LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2
Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure, Part 1


Jamie W. said...

Fascinating! I wonder how deep that divide between losing and taking control of one's fate would go? It'd be interesting to make lists of books that follow each model, since it has definite worldview implications, yet it's something I think most authors don't realize. It seems natural for the one called the hero to be the one making the resolution happen.

tpbaehr said...

Prompts me to think about plot structure of the Story we're in.
Is it 5 acts? 3 acts? Other?

Here's a go at 5 acts:
Act 1 = Creation-Fall
— Plot Point = Fall
Act 2 = Out of Eden
— Dramatic moment = Exodus
Act 3 = Redemption
— Dramatic moment = Jesus - life, death, resurrection
Act 4 = In to Glory
—Plot Point = Conversion
Act 5 = Consummation

Side question - where is 'Plot Point 2' in your diagram?

Suzannah said...

:D I love it, Peirce!

Plot Point 2 is technically called the Midpoint, which would of course correspond to the Resurrection--the turning-point at which everything stops being a tragedy and begins to be a comedy!

I still think 5 and 3 Acts are simply different ways of looking at the same thing. So any given story, as long as it's well plotted, could be described in either of those terms. Differences between how 5 acts was used in the past, versus how 3 acts is used these days, probably says more about the people telling the stories than the story structures themselves.

Jamie, I'd regularly noticed before that Tolkien loved taking affairs out of his characters' hands at the resolution. I agree that there's a very clear worldview implication. I don't think it means a book in which the protagonist brings about the resolution necessarily has an inferior worldview, of course. But sitting down to analyse Shakespeare showed me the fascinating link between the purpose of the fifth act and this specific worldview quirk...

One thing I've learned studying storytelling across the ages is that a LOT of things that look normal in modern storytelling don't really look normal in other time periods. For instance, your worldview can often dictate whether you spend a whole book following one person's story, or whether your book weaves a whole lot of different protagonists into one story. Unity in focus was something that was highly in vogue during the Renaissance, while multiple plotlines and diversity in plotlines was seen as a much more medieval thing. CS Lewis talks about this in STUDIES IN MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE LITERATURE. Again, I don't necessarily think there's a right and a wrong way to do it; but traditionally it's been the pagan-influenced humanists who've wanted to give as an almighty single hero, while it's the medieval-influenced Christians who've focused on weaker multiple protagonists. Just try to figure out who's the main character of LOTR, for instance. You could make a good case for Sam, but he only achieves that status for a SMALL part of the last half of the book.

Again, not hard and fast. BEOWULF focuses on a single pagan hero, but does it in a particularly Christian way, deconstructing the pagan heroic ethic along the way.

*waves hands* So many thoughts. But it all has worldview implications. All of it.


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