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Structure of a Shakespearean Play


William Shakespeare is considered by most to be the greatest writer in the English language. He wrote 154 sonnets, two long poems and many other works of poetry, but today his most-read works are his plays. Shakespeare used the Elizabethan five-act structure, which evolved from the Greek form and remains an often used starting point for contemporary films and plays.

Act I: Inciting Action

The inciting incident of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is the ghost of King Hamlet revealing the deception of his brother Claudius to his son, Prince Hamlet. This is where the plot begins. Hamlet is compelled to learn the truth about his father's death. The rest of the story unfolds from this incident. The first act also contains exposition that explains the setting, characters and background of the drama.

Act II: Turning Point(s)
The famous skull of Yorick from

A Shakespearean play may have several turning points. Act II generally has at least one turning point for the protagonist. In the case of "Hamlet," the turning point of Act II comes when Hamlet realizes that Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are being used against him by Claudius and his mother. In Act II he plans the play within a play in which he will "catch the conscience of the king."

Act III: Climax

In Act III, Hamlet gains the knowledge that he needs to take action against Claudius. This is referred to as the "climax" or "crisis decision." Act III starts with the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, in which Hamlet contemplates the action he must take to right the wrong that Claudius and his mother have done to his father.

Act IV: Falling Action

The falling action in a Shakespearean drama contains further turning points. As the consequences of the action in Act III begins to unfold, tension builds, and often further character development occurs. In a tragedy such as "Hamlet" the reader or viewer is led to believe that there is still hope for the protagonist. In a comedy, things go from bad to worse for the hero or heroine.

Act V: Resolution

In the final act, the conflict is resolved, either through ruination or triumph. The resolution in a tragedy is the catastrophe resulting from the climactic actions, usually focusing on the downfall of the protagonist. In a comedy, the resolution usually involves the marriage of all principal characters in a happy ending.

About the Author

Owen Roberts is a writer and musician from Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University who writes for blogs and publications such as The Brooklyn Rail and ThisRecording.com. Roberts plays with the band Boy Crisis.

Photo Credits
  • Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Pablo Sanchez