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Analyzing Plays

When you are writing an analysis of a play, remember that it may combine aspects of both prose and poetry. You might want to refer to the UWC’s handouts on analyzing poetry, novels, and short stories, since they contain ideas that also apply to analyzing a play. The main distinction, of course, is that a play is meant to be performed for an audience.

An analysis essay breaks a play into parts and then discusses how the parts contribute to the whole effect or theme. This handout will help you conduct your analysis and prepare your work in an essay. Make sure to check your assignment for specifics about how the essay should be written. In some cases, for example, you may be asked to do research, or you may be analyzing just one aspect of a play or comparing it to other works of literature. Analyzing a play will help you clarify what points you want to develop in your paper.

Overview

When beginning, it’s helpful to identify the play’s key elements, just to organize your thoughts.

  1. Title and playwright
  2. Setting/time Period
  3. Main characters/supporting characters
  4. Main conflict
  5. Resolution
  6. Climax

Ex. of Key Elements in the play for Peter and Wendy

  1. Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie
  2. London 1800s and Neverland, takes place over a week or so
  3. Peter Pan, Wendy, Captain Hook / John, Michael, Tinkerbelle, Smee, Mrs. and Mr. Darling, the Lost Boys, Indians, pirates
  4. Wendy, John, and Michael Darling don’t want to grow up so they run away to Neverland. Captain Hook is after Peter.
  5. Fight on the pirate ship between Captain Hook and Peter
  6. Captain Hook defeated by Peter and chased by a crocodile; Darling children return home to their mother with all the Lost Boys. Peter returns to Neverland with Tinkerbell.

Types of Plays

Plays can fall into one of several genres—comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romantic comedy, satirical comedy, or tragicomedy. These categories usually have specific features that define them, so you’ll want to identify the type of play you’re reading and consider how it meets or deviates from the expectations for that genre. For instance, what would it mean if the hero in a tragedy lacked a tragic flaw?

Historical Context

Considering the play’s historical context can also be helpful. Many plays make a statement about the time in which they’re written. For example, The Crucible by Arthur Miller was written during the Red Scare of the 1950s, a time of great fear in the United States about the spread of communism. Although Miller’s play is about the Salem Witch Trials, he intends his audience to see parallels between the treatment of witches in the early American colonies and the treatment of communists in his own time.

Themes

Themes are topics or ideas threaded throughout a play that tie it together. In Shakespeare’s Henry triad (a story in which the crown of England goes to three different men) power and kingship are repeated themes. Gluttony is also a theme, as is the idea of a public face versus a private face. Identifying these common themes and where they overlap can produce interesting results. In the Henry triad, for example, characters’ lust for the crown leads them to adopt facades that only seem kingly. Shakespeare’s plays raise questions about leaders. What makes a king? Do men merely assume kingship and then play the role, so that all is falseness, ornamentation, and pageantry? Is there such a thing as a “rightful” king? Or is it all simply a gluttonous lust for power and the hungriest find a way to wear the crown at any cost?

Characters

Characters act out the author’s themes and are sometimes the manifestation of them. It’s helpful to identify which theme a character represents. In Peter and Wendy, for example, Peter represents the ultimate expression of both the glory and the selfishness of youth. To discuss this characterization of Peter in an essay, you might cite descriptions of Peter from the text and quote some of his more relevant dialogue. For example, Peter can never remember anyone’s name, illustrating his egocentric nature and inability to put others before himself.

Dramatic Devices

Dramatic devices are strategies used by a playwright to add interest to the work, create a particular effect on the audience, or enhance the work’s major themes. Some dramatic devices include:

rising action monologue lighting
falling action narration music
foreshadowing breaking frame Greek chorus
soliloquy costumes an aside
dramatic irony flashbacks foil

It is useful to identify places where devices are used in a play. Consider whether any are particularly effective in advancing or reinforcing a playwright’s themes. In Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, the villain, Iago, often speaks in asides (i.e., addresses the audience directly). Pragmatically, this serves to give the audience inform-ation the characters don’t have, providing dramatic irony. In your essay, you might explore other reasons Iago connects to the audience in this way. Othello is primarily about social taboos and the punishments inflicted on those who break them, and it is Iago who contrives these punishments. In linking the villain and the audience through asides, Shakespeare may be suggesting that his audience should examine the vicious enforcement of social norms in their own society.

Plot, Setting, Organization

A play’s general organization is controlled by plot and setting. Consider whether the play employs realistic or non-realistic conventions. Does it present a surrealistic or metaphoric world, or does it attempt to depict reality? What is the dramatic effect on an audience of the setting? Also, consider the significance of the events the author chooses to present versus the ones occurring offstage.

It’s also important to consider the stage’s appearance as an element of setting. If you’re reading a play, you can examine the stage notes at the beginning of each act. If you’re watching a play, you can see the stage. Consider the placement of objects and the proximity of actors. Is the whole stage used or just part of it? Are bright colors used, or is everything gray and brown? What’s the weather like? How are characters dressed? Think about the significance of these things as they pertain to the themes. (Keep in mind that the choices made by the director and stage designer for a particular production may or may not follow the author’s suggestions.)

Thesis

Once you have analyzed the play, write out a thesis sentence that explains some aspect of it. In the example, below, the thesis explains a theme:

Ex. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller draws a parallel between the Salem Witch trials of 1692 and McCarthyism of the 1950s, when communism became the devil and a community of people used “evil” as an excuse to take out their personal spite on those they had always wished ill.

You might want to make some notes about how the playwright achieved this.

Ex. Miller sets up the parallel by showing Salem to be a theocracy, which would make the devil and those communing with him enemies of the town; it follows that America, then, is a democracy, which would make communism the modern devil and communists enemies of America (“The House of Un-American Activities”). Reverend Hale’s books are similar to the books, lists, and pamphlets of the McCarthy era that listed communists.

Next, combine these ideas into the main claim you want your paper to make. You may have to rephrase or omit some information as you streamline the thesis statement.

Ex. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible draws a parallel between the Salem Witch trials of 1692 and McCarthyism of the 1950s, when communism became the devil and a community of people used “evil” as an excuse to take out their personal hatred on those whom they had always wished ill. Miller creates this parallel by presenting Satan as the affront to a society’s way of life, as communism was, and by including details such as Reverend Hale’s books that mirror McCarthy propaganda.

Before you write, check your assignment for particulars. Make sure that when you develop the supporting paragraphs that you provide support drawn from the text of the play itself.

Ex. The books starry-eyed Reverend Hale has brought with him mirror contemporary events: “In these books the Devil stands stripped of all his brute disguises. Here are all your familiar spirits—your incubi and succubi; your witches that go by land, by air, and by sea; your wizards of the night and of the day” (ln 24). These lines mirror the sentiments surrounding McCarthy’s published pamphlets listing those who were communists. The play suggests the ridiculous nature of the pamphlets by over-dramatizing Hale’s books.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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