ENGL 339: Shakespeare
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Dramatic Plot Structure

As you read through Shakespeare's plays, be aware of the major movements of the plot.  Analyzing the plot structure can help you to understand the action as purposeful, connected, and oriented to a logical end rather than seeing it as a haphazard accumulation of seemingly random episodes.  

Exposition:  introduces characters and setting; provides basic information about relationships between characters and an initial conflict between them. (A Midsummer Night's Dream: Hermia doesn't want to marry Demetrius, the man her father has picked.  King Lear: Cordelia won't flatter her father like her sisters do, so he banishes her.  The Tempest: Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, was shipwrecked on an island after his brother Antonio upsurped his dukedom and allied himself with Milan's enemy, Naples.)

Rising Action: suspense builds;  "the plot thickens."  Characters make decisions in response to the opening conflict; these decisions complicate the action.  Opens up the plot, allowing for different possibilities of resolution. (A Midsummer Night's Dream: Hermia and Lysander elope; others follow them to the woods. King Lear: Goneril and Regan reject Lear, who begins to realize his error in judgment.  The Tempest: Antonio is shipwrecked on Prospero's island along with Alonso, King of Naples, whose brother Sebastian plots to kill him and usurp his throne.)

Turning Point: characters or circumstances change (for the worse or the better) due to an action upon which the main plot hinges.  The central or focal point of the play, hence the main purpose of the action. (A Midsummer Night's Dream: after ridiculous confusion, the lovers are matched appropriately.  King Lear: discovery of his terrible errors and personal vanity causes Lear's madness but paradoxically brings profound insight.  The Tempest: Prospero's daughter Miranda and Alonso's son Ferdinand fall in love; Prospero's magical intervention leads Alonso to repentance.)

Falling Action: the unravelling of complications leads to the resolution of conflict. (A Midsummer Night's Dream: the lovers' choices receive official sanction; Egeus's desire to punish Hermia's disobedience is overruled. King Lear: Lear's madness and repentance lead to reconciliation with Cordelia; the evil characters start being resisted by the good ones.  The Tempest: Antonio's and Sebastian's plot is exposed.)

Conclusion:  in comedies (and romances), celebration of a new order, new identities and a harmonious end to conflict, frequently expressed through marriage(s).  In tragedies (and romances), the restoration of moral and social order.  Evil people are dead or no longer in power.  In tragedy, this restoration of order comes at great cost; in romance, seemingly due to divine providence, manifest through improbable supernatural occurences. (A Midsummer Night's Dream: three marriages and a wedding feast.  King Lear:  many deaths, but the political conflict is over.  The Tempest: Prospero's dukedom is restored; the evil-doers are forgiven; the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand seals the peace between Milan and Naples.)

Note: while the parenthetical examples above are based upon the main plot line (primary action) of the play, the same concepts apply to the subplots, which frequently involve foils to the main characters (e.g. Titania and Oberon's dispute in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Gloucester's misjudgment of Edgar and Edmund in King Lear; Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano's plot to usurp Prospero's power in The Tempest).

(Adapted in part from a handout of unknown authorship shared by a student at Arizona State University)

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2002

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