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ENGL 2240: Module 3: DRAMA


The last section of our course, drama, combines many of the literary elements we've already covered so far:  character, setting, and plot from the prose section, and you will discover the poetic and lyrical qualities of many of the sections of the play, Hamlet.  You will notice that I've placed all of Hamlet's soliloquies together into their own compartment on the page.  These poems (that's really what they are, but done as solitary speeches--the definition of a soliloquy--although the audience here's them) employ the familiar iambic pentameter of the sonnet (for which Shakespeare was also famous), though much lengthier.  Also of note, most of the other characters in the play also employ this device, especially royalty.  The other characters use vulgar (here, to mean common) language, or are reduced to, "What? Ho!" which is hardly poetic.

First, though, let's take a look at ancient Greek theater.  The plays of this time are some of the most important ones we have today, thus "classical" in both time and substance.  Many were humorous, like "The Frogs," "The Birds," and "Lysistrata," where the women of the city take control of a potentially war-like setting and demand peace by refusing to have sex with their husbands until they agree to a peaceful settlement with the neighboring city.  In Ancient Greece, competitions were held frequently, and almost always took place over several days, and included not just theater, but sculpture, music, and other forms of artistic expression.  One scholar noted that for Greeks, competition:

"was a sacred endeavor. Competitive festivals were religious, held in honor of the gods and local heroes, and competitors offered their performances as tribute. More revealing, athletic events were accompanied by artistic competitions, including music, dancing, sculpture, and acting. Mastering any form of art or athletic event requires years of devoted training and practice. To the Greeks, all acts of mastery were worthy of offering to the gods, because there is virtue in struggle, in striving for better. All acts of mastery, those that require careful training and practice to perfect, therefore, are sacred. It was not to prove who was greatest among them in their chosen fields that drove the Greeks to compete, or to win prizes (the only prize was a wreath of leaves): it was to offer in tribute the effort, struggle, and the sacrifice that is required of mastery."

The ancient Greek drama also made use of a number of characteristics: masks, choruses, and stagecraft.  The Chorus was the central group of figures which moved back and forth in front of the stage, between the audience and the performers, much like the "orchestra pit" of today.  They were always men (women were not permitted to perform as it was considered beneath them), and they wore masks which usually covered their whole head, like a helmet.  If it was a comedy, they were smiling masks; if the play was a tragedy, then, a sorrowful or mournful look.  They acted as the "bridge" between the performance and the audience, repeating important phrases uttered by characters, and intoning on unwise choices.  It also helped to assure those seated in the upper levels of the arena could hear most of what was being said.  I've included both pictures of ancient theaters, and two film clips (from the film "Mighty Aphrodite" and "History of Western Theater' (about 10 mins.) which show the importance of the Chorus to both the creation of theater and the modern theater of today.  "Mighty Aphrodite" is a modern film by Woody Allen which employs both ancient and modern theater techniques into the making of the film. Also, please note the "itinerant" or traveling performances begun by Thespis, these will play a prominent role in "Hamlet," when the traveling players arrive at the palace.

Before we begin delving into "Hamlet," we need to cover a bit more drama-specific vocabulary.  Each drama is broken into specific segments:  acts, scenes, and lines.  This is both a measure of documentation (Hamlet Act II, scene iii, line 48) and a method for citing a specific location in the play.  Note that capital letter "I"s are used for acts, lower case "i"s for scenes, and numbers for lines within that scene.  At the beginning of every play, you will also notice a complete list of all of the characters who appear within the play.  This is known as the "dramatis personae" or "people of the drama" and most often provide a short description of the character, like "wife of the king," "servant," "court player," and "court jester."  The cast is always in order of appearance on the stage, not in order of importance, or the number of lines they speak.  Characters who do not appear on stage, are generally not included in the cast of characters.  When a character breaks from the action on the stage and speaks directly to the audience, it is called an "aside."  When a character leaves the stage, they generally have three options, the back of the stage (usually a doorway) or either the right or left side of the stage.  When all characters leave, as in the end of a scene or act, the term used is "exeunt," meaning "all leave."

Rather than include a lengthy synopsis of the play here, I've included one on the page for you.  Take a moment to read it before you watch one (or more) of the film versions of the play.  It will hopefully help you keep track of both the characters and the plot.  Shakespeare's innovation of a "play within a play," (the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago" inside of the play "Hamlet") was both a stroke of genius, and a clever way for he and Horatio to watch Claudius' reaction (seeing the re-enactment of his murder of King Hamlet) to the play to determine his guilt.  Of course, there are plenty of supernatural elements:  the ghost, superstitions like "the stroke of midnight" (when the ghost arrives), dawn or "the cock's crow," show the heavy reliance both Shakespeare and his audience would have had on superstition.



Chorus 1 ("Mighty Aphrodite")

Chorus 2 ("History of Western Theater")