HOW TO CRITICALLY ANALYZE A DRAMATIC TEXT

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Setting

Setting is the place or the time where or when the action of the play takes place. In textual analysis, setting is also discussed. Setting could be a tribe, a village a town or a country depending on the disposition of the playwright. In some plays like Oedipus Rex, Arms and the Man, Hamlet and many others, the playwrights mention specific towns/countries like Thebes, Bulgaria, and Denmark. However, in some other plays like The Marriage of Anansewa, The Lion and the Jewel, and The Song of a Goat, the setting of each play is identified through the names of characters or other landmarks. In The Lion and the Jewel for instance, the reference to ‘sango’ by some of the characters highlights the Yoruba background of the play. Setting in terms of time, period, or locale can be mentioned, implied or alluded to in the text.

Language

Language seems to be the most essential technique in the analysis of any dramatic text. It is through language that the playwright communicates his ideas; so he manipulates it to suit his intention. Language could be in form of speech, gestures or other bodily signs/symbols. Dramatic language is not just an ordinary language because the playwright is compelled to incorporate descriptions about setting, character and the overall presentation of the story through the characters. The language must therefore be very economical, vivid and expressive. In Oedipus Rex, for example, the language is concise but loaded with meaning. Let us look at the following exchange in which Teiresias sums up the misfortunes of King Oedipus.

Oedipus: Man, must you wrap up your words in riddles?

Teiresias: Where you not framed for skill for solving riddles?

Oedipus: You taunt me with the gift that is my greatest.

Teiresias: Your great misfortune and your ruin.

In the last line of this exchange, the Blind Seer states that by solving the riddles and becoming the king of Thebes, Oedipus paved the way for his misfortune, which is marrying his mother after having killed his father.

Consequently, there is a plague in Thebes and this leads to the search for a solution. In the course of this search, Oedipus discovers his true identity and this leads to his ruin. Another good example of condensed language in Hamlet is Polonius’ advice to his son, Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / for loan often loses itself and friend/and borrowing dull that edge of husbandry”.

So, in dramatic language, the dramatist must think in terms of the characteristics of the characters, their speeches, their actions and the environment in which they operate and incorporate them in language.

This is important because unlike in prose, where the novelist has enough time and space to describe everything and this include probing into the inner beings of the character, the dramatist relies only on dialogue to explore characters, describe incident, create environment, atmosphere and mood. This is the reason why he pays attention to the diction.

Diction is the choice or selection of the words which forms the dialogue through which the playwright communicates his ideas to his audience. The diction could be simple or difficult. A play that has very simple diction invariably will have a simple and direct language so is said to be accessible to a wider audience. This is because more people will read and understand it. Also, when it is presented on stage, people will understand the story and absorb the message with ease. In a play with simple diction, the playwright uses familiar and simple words.

On the other hand, some plays are difficult to understand. They are usually filled with unfamiliar words, terms, and symbols. Such plays are said to be obscure and the playwright is said to be writing for a select audience. This is because many people will find it difficult to understand and appreciate the play. The problem here is that if you do not understand a play, you would not enjoy it or be entertained by it.

You can read a simple play just once and enjoy the story but it will take  at least a second reading for the story of an obscure play to be understood. For instance, you can read two plays by Wole Soyinka, The Trials of Brother Jero and Madmen and Specialists. The former is very  simple, direct and entertaining. It tells a story of a fake pastor who swindles people to make money. The latter is on the Nigerian civil war but you will have to read it several times to be able to decode the symbols used in it for you to understand the play.

Other Devices Used For Critical Analysis

Imagery

A playwright could employ literal or connotative language in his work. A literal language gives a direct meaning of the words while a connotative language gives more than one meaning to the word. The language here determines how we mentally visualize the object or situation. This is called imagery. It also shows the playwright’s attitude towards a particular character or situation. In The Lion and the Jewel, for example, Baroka is referred to as a ‘fox’, a ‘crafty rogue’, ‘wiry’, ‘goated’, ‘tougher than his sixty-two’, these references helps the reader to have a mental picture of Baroka.

The image of a character and his mode of dressing as described in a stage-direction helps us, to a large extent, to evaluate the character’s disposition, personality, and the attitude of the playwright towards that character.

Symbolism

In everyday life, you come across symbols and even use them at times. Symbols are objects or things that communicate meaning or messages without using words for example, a cross or a bible symbolizes Christianity. It could be a character, an object, or an incident which represents an idea, a person, a quality, a profession or situation. Symbolism is an artistic device through which the playwright uses factual language in a way that it deviates from its simple function of describing or recording but used to stand for or represent something else not directly named. This means, therefore, that in a play, you could have symbolic action, symbolic object and symbolic character.

Irony

A playwright uses irony to add flavour to his story. Here, a playwright uses words or action to create certain kinds of discrepancy between appearance and reality; between what is said or done and what is meant or intended. The types are verbal irony, dramatic irony and situational irony.

Verbal Irony

This is the simplest and commonest type of irony. It is a figure of speech where the word is the opposite of what is meant; for example, when he is a giant or the tallest man refers to a very short man.

Dramatic Irony

Here, there is a contrast between what the character says or does and what the reader knows as the truth. If a speech is meant to be understood in one way by a certain character in a play but the audience understands it in a different way, the scenario becomes a dramatic irony. In other words, a character is under a delusion of a certain fact which has been overtaken by an intervening circumstance.

Situational Irony

In irony of situation, the expectation does not come out in the way it is anticipated. It is a situation of appearance versus reality. The action of a character here is at variance with the consequences or result of the action.

Conclusion

We have tried in this article to give you a detailed discussion on the steps you take in critically analysing a play. This is very important because they are tools you need to possess before you can appreciate, understand and criticize any play. We have also tried to show you how to analyze plays by identifying the dramatic elements and other devices used and how appropriate they are.

The reading of the play may be for an examination, entertainment or even for a job. If for instance, you secure a job as a literary editor in a print or even an electronic media, you need to know these techniques very well to aid you in your job. Who knows you may aspire to write a play, so the knowledge you have acquired in this unit will be of immense benefit to you.

Critical analysis in the study of dramatic literature could be seen as the ‘palm oil’ with which drama is eaten. In other words, you cannot give what you do not have. So, you cannot talk of literary appreciation without knowing what to look out for to determine whether the playwright has done well or not. You have learnt from this article that you approach the study of a play through its content and form. The content is the theme and the subject matter while the form is the style.

 

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