How to Express a Theme in a Poem or Play
A theme is a message that an author or playwright wants to convey to his audience. Themes can be explicitly stated or inferred. More often, writers weave themes seamlessly into the plot of a play or the poetic devices of a poem, and a reader has to infer them.
Poets use poetic devices and elements to express themes, according to instructor Becky Villarreal at Austin Community College. For example, in “The Courage that my Mother Had,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet uses the title to alert a reader to her theme. She also expresses the theme of courage in her poem by using certain poetic devices. In the last stanza, the line, “That courage like a rock,” is a simile that compares her mother’s courage to a rock, which is also a symbol for strength and stability. Poetic devices like imagery and symbolism are ways that poets express themes in their poetry. Poetry often utilizes symbols from landscape and nature to express theme, states an ACS Distance Education website on creative writing.
In plays, authors have many tools at their disposal to express theme. One of the easiest ways to express a theme in a play is to use characterization to convey your message. For example, in the famous musical “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean, the hero of the story, undergoes a transformation of character, as does his nemesis, Inspector Javert. Valjean is a convict sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Because he keeps trying to escape, he is in jail for over 19 years. He leaves jail with the mentality of a felon. Without even going further in the story, a minor theme that readers can infer from this is that people are products of their environment. However, the major theme in the story is that people can change. During the course of the play, Valjean changes his identity and becomes a respected mayor, but Inspector Javert continues to pursue him. Javert is a rigid man who doesn’t believe that people can redeem themselves. Jean Valjean’s character and the actions that he takes during the course of the play show that Javert is wrong and amplify the theme that the author wanted to convey. People have the capacity to change for the better.
Another way that authors express theme in plays is by the plot. In "Les Miserables," Javert is so immovable in his beliefs that he commits suicide at the end of the play. Because Valjean spares Javert’s life during the rebellion, Javert comes to a crisis of a belief so imbedded in his mind that he cannot cope with the fact that a convict saves his life. Javert would rather die than accept the fact that people can change. This resolution shows the theme of change by showing the negative effects of being rigid and reluctant to undergo personal change and growth.
Just as poetic devices can help a poet express theme, an author’s use of literary devices can help to express themes in a play. In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare uses a variety of literary devices to express different themes in his famous play. The line spoken by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, “Search for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man,” uses both foreshadowing and a homophone to express a theme of violence and death in the play. Tybalt murders Mercutio and puts him into a grave the next day.
Stacy Alleyne is a certified English teacher with a BA in English and graduate work in English, education, journalism and law. She has written numerous articles and her own dining column for the "Gazette."