Drama is a living, breathing form of writing. It’s meant to be performed, not read in silence like a book. If you’re aiming for top grades, you must treat drama and plays as if they are supposed to be acted out, in front of an audience – consider the way in which an actor might interpret a character or the way in which the stage directions enhance the drama of the play. Literature essays always require you to use form, structure and language analysis – not just language. When you analyse a play as if it is being performed, you are engaging with its form.
How should I think about the play?
The most important aspect of studying Macbeth, of course, is understanding the fact that it is a piece of drama. Let’s start with a basic question: What is a play? I want you to think about that and answer it in your own words if you can. You might also want to research how other people describe plays. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- What does it mean if something is ‘dramatic’?
- How do we normally experience a play? You may think of plays that you’ve watched yourself. If you haven’t seen any plays, think of films that you’ve watched because they are a similar genre.
- How does the acting in a play bring the story to life?
- How does the staging, costume, setting and lighting affect our interpretation of the play?
When analysing form and structure in Macbeth, you should use the ideas about drama to help you develop deeper interpretations of the language and action in the scenes. On top of this, you should use specific terminology that relates to form and structure, to help expand your ideas and achieve more precise points. Here are some form terms to get used to – make sure to always use a range of these in your Macbeth essays:
|Stage directions – these are the easiest things to analyse for drama. They are directions written by the writer that indicate elements of performance onstage. One of the most famous from Macbeth is “Enter the GHOST OF BANQUO, and sits in MACBETH’s place” during the banquet scene in 3.4. This shows that even though the ghost doesn’t speak, he should walk onstage over to the banquet table and sit in the seat at the head of the table – presumably the throne that was intended for Macbeth. You would analyse this in terms of how it creates dramatic tension onstage, as well as how it symbolically reminds Macbeth that he will soon be dead, with Banquo’s sons being kings in his place. You should pick about three or four key stage directions from the play, and practise analysing how they relate to the performance and drama of the play as a whole.|
|Line delivery – the way in which a character speaks a line. You might think about pitch, intonation and whether the speech would be accompanied by a particular posture or gesture. You can also be sensitive to the way in which different actors may interpret the line differently – especially for higher level essay writing, this is particularly a good thing to talk about.|
|Props – items or objects placed around the stage to enhance the scenery and sense of place. In Shakespeare’s day, these were very minimal – important props in Macbeth would have been Duncan and Macbeth’s crowns, bloody daggers used in the murder, Lady Macbeth’s letter, the Witches’ spell ingredients and cauldron. Analyse these by thinking about how they enhance the dramatic effect of the play.|
|Aside – when a character speaks briefly to one other character or to the audience, separate from the rest of the action so that nobody else can hear them. Asides are short comments that give a bit of insight into the character’s thoughts or reactions to the scene. They can also create dramatic irony – revealing something to the audience that the other characters don’t know. When analysing them, analyse why Shakespeare chose to put those particular words into an aside, or why the characters don’t wish to be overheard at that moment.|
|Soliloquy – soliloquies are dramatic speeches – a kind of monologue delivered by a character that reveals their internal thoughts and feelings about a particular subject. Often a character is left alone onstage to deliver their soliloquy – they do not speak to other characters when delivering it, their thoughts are intended for the audience only. Shakespeare uses soliloquies to explore a character’s psychological state – we may see that a character is suddenly different from how they were before, or there may be dramatic irony created when we realise they have been acting and behaving in one way, but they are thinking and feeling entirely differently. These are also an opportunity for Shakespeare to explore the deeper themes and ideas of the play – they are a moment outside of the action, a moment of reflection both for the character and the audience itself.|
|Sound – sounds enhance the drama of the stage and make the scenes feel more real. They can be used to embellish the action, or distract a character from the main scene. Shakespeare uses a few common sounds throughout the play:|
Alarum – an alarm, a warning sound – sometimes a call to battle. It heightens panic and tension.
Drum – a heavy beating sound, signifying soldiers marching to war – often a dramatic device used when Macbeth interacts with the Witches, such as in 4.1: “A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.”
Flourish – a fanfare of trumpet sounds, often to signify an entrance or exit of a king or high born figure.