Dramatic Techniques in Shakespeare
William Shakespeare uses dramatic techniques -- strategies that help a playwright present his story on stage -- in his comedies and tragedies to capture the audience's attention. His characters often speak directly to the audience, and he uses recurring symbols to draw viewers into the play. Shakespeare relies on dramatic irony to add suspense, such as revealing hidden truths and incorporating twists into the plot that the characters seemingly know nothing about.
Monologues and Soliloquies
Shakespeare uses monologues and soliloquies -- individual speeches by characters in the play -- to reveal the character's feelings and provide background information necessary to the plot, climax or resolution. Monologues and soliloquies give scenes an emotional, personalized appeal. For example, in "Hamlet," Prince Hamlet has a lengthy monologue that explains his plan for exposing his murderous uncle. The monologue helps viewers understand Hamlet's hatred toward Claudius and sets the stage for upcoming events. In "Macbeth," Macbeth offers a heart-wrenching soliloquy after hearing of his wife's death by suicide.
Visual cues, such as recurring images and symbols, foreshadow events and help viewers connect ideas and themes throughout the story. This dramatic technique helps the audience see, not just hear, important details about the play. For example, Shakespeare repeatedly contrasts light and darkness in "Romeo and Juliet," foreshadowing the eventual demise of forbidden love. In "Othello," Shakespeare uses a handkerchief to symbolize love and purity. When Desdemona loses the handkerchief, it represents her unfaithfulness to Othello.
An aside -- a moment when a character breaks from the scene and speaks to the audience without other characters hearing or reacting -- happens only in performances. It's difficult to use asides in written works, because there's no easy way to demonstrate these frozen moments that allow characters to talk directly to readers. For example, Shakespeare uses an aside in "Julius Caesar" when Trebonius talks to the audience about the conspiracy to kill Caesar and take his throne. Shakespeare also uses an aside in "Henry V" when Henry breaks from the scene and casts the audience as members of his army.
Shakespeare's plays often feature situations in which the audience or another character has a better understanding of events than a central character does. This is dramatic irony, and he uses it to incorporate humor, confusion and conflict into his plays. As a result, characters often react carelessly or foolishly because they lack knowledge, insight and self-awareness. For example in "Much Ado About Nothing," Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to make Benedick look foolish when he assumes Beatrice doesn't recognize him in his mask. Similarly, in "Twelfth Night," Viola dresses in disguise to try to win Olivia for Duke Orsino. In reality, the audience knows that Viola wants to marry Duke Orsino.
- Shakespeare Quarterly Open Review: Selfhood, Shakespeare, and Soliloquies
- No Sweat Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Play Themes
- Folger Shakespeare Library: What's in a Symbol?
- University of North Carolina, Davis: The American Shakespeare Center Study Guide
- Washington State University; Much Ado About Nothing; Michael Delahoyde
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