Rethinking Shakespeare’s 5-act Structure

For most of my twelve years teaching high school English, I’ve taught a lesson on the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays.

 

I even put it in a book.

 

But I don’t think any of it is right.

 

Two weeks ago, as we waited in a church pew for our oldest son’s preschool graduation ceremony to begin, my wife, Liz, and I got into a debate about the climax of Hamlet, said debate beginning with my above-repeated admission that what I’ve been saying to students about Shakespeare’s 5-act structure I no longer believe to be true.

 

What I’ve been saying—off and on for twelve years—and what I also included in a chapter on Taming of the Shrew in our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (co-written by Liz and me; she wrote the Hamlet chapter), is that Shakespeare’s 5-act structure can be roughly mapped onto the familiar plot diagram as follows:

 

Act I = Exposition

Act II = Rising Action/Complications

Act III = Climax

Act IV = Falling Action

Act V = Resolution/Denouement

 

I, of course, am not the first nor the only teacher to teach this. It all started with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who diagrammed the five story parts above (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) using a triangle, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:

 

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As an example, Freytag mapped the 5-act structure of a Shakespeare play onto his pyramid (said mapping making its way from Freytag through generations of teachers and teacher resources to me, around twelve years ago, and on to my students, some of whom now teach, and into an additional teacher resource, co-written by me).

 

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The last couple of times that, out of habit, I drew the above diagram on my whiteboard, I knew there was something wrong with it.

 

This was perhaps because it did not square at all with the diagram I had been drawing for students during my short fiction unit.

 

About halfway through my teaching career, I figured out that Freytag’s Pyramid, as shown above, is problematic when applied to fiction writing, particularly short stories, and particularly when trying to help students draft well-plotted short stories.

 

I started drawing this, instead:

 

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The biggest difference between Freytag’s diagram and this one is the latter’s lack of symmetry (reason to follow).

 

A similarity is that they both begin and end with a flat line.

 

The flat line on the left-hand side represents the ground situation (I also discovered, about halfway through my teaching career, that I’d been teaching exposition wrong, telling students that it’s the part of the story in which the author introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. All of that is true, but what is more helpful to students who are drafting stories is to tell them that the exposition has two vital components: the ground situation [the state of things, often teeming with potential conflict, before the conflict is incited] and the inciting incident [just what it sounds like: an incident, often but not always the addition of a character, that incites the conflict and sends the previously flat-lined diagram angling upward]).

 

The flat line on the right-hand side represents the new state of affairs after the conflict has been resolved and the knot unraveled.

 

This post-denouement state of affairs does not/should not/cannot return to the same state of affairs represented by the ground situation. A change must have occurred, otherwise no story has been told, hence the lack of symmetry in the latter triangle (this is not original; it is a modification to Freytag’s triangle suggested by John Barth in his metafictive story, “Lost in the Funhouse” [and probably elsewhere, too, by others]).

 

The other big difference between the two triangles is the elimination, in the latter, of the falling action, one discovering when studying (or simply consuming) stories that the resolution often comes on the heels of the climax (another reason for the lack of symmetry: there is usually much more story before the climax than there is after it).

 

What I like to say to students about the above-drawn diagram is that it is a formula that allows for infinite variations. It is inexhaustible. And it is.

 

I said the same thing to a roomful of teachers at February’s CATE Conference, where Liz and I were leading a workshop on teaching contemporary short fiction.

 

After I had said the above and had used one too many Pixar movies as an illustration, a participant, as a sort of friendly challenge, asked if we could apply the same structure to “The Flowers” by Alice Walker (a one-page story describing a single incident), which we had earlier in the workshop read on the lookout for concrete details.

 

I wasn’t prepared for such a challenge, nor had I previously attempted the suggested application, but the clever teachers in the room quickly discovered, despite all of the differences between “The Flowers” and Finding Nemo, that the structure did indeed fit both. Perfectly.

 

So, then: Shakespeare.

 

Liz’s and my church pew debate came at the end of a week in which I had listened to dozens of high school juniors, during their oral examinations, explain that the Mousetrap (Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, manufactured to reveal Claudius’s guilt) is the climax of the play.

 

When, in our pew, I asked Liz what the climax of the play is, she answered that it is the Closet Scene, particularly Hamlet killing Polonius.

 

The students’ reasons were fuzzy (for many, they were unstated altogether; the reason that was the climax was that their English teacher had said so).

 

Liz’s reasoning, on the other hand, was fully- and well-articulated (she is brilliant in many many things, but particularly astute when discussing Hamlet): that, to poorly paraphrase, by killing Polonius (believing he is killing Claudius) Hamlet demonstrates the resolution that, two acts later, allows for resolution.

 

Both the students’ and Liz’s proposed climaxes occur in Act III (scenes 2 and 4, respectively) and therefore fit the Freytag map of Shakespeare’s 5-act structure.

 

Freytag supposedly leaned heavily on Aristotle, but it is precisely the lessons in Poetics that lead me to question Freytag and my own previous teaching.

 

Aristotle says that the Complication (what we often call the Rising Action) is a causal sequence of story events (or scenes) in which, scene to scene, the stakes (and thereby drama) increase and increase until we arrive at the climax (which Aristotle describes as a reversal in fortune [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

After this final reversal, Aristotle says, there is nothing but the unraveling.

 

How, then, can this causal sequence reach its peak in Act III, with two acts to go?

 

From our pew, I argued that the climax of Hamlet is the duel in Act V. It all builds to that. Hamlet dies (final reversal), after which there is only the unraveling (Fortinbras takes over, honors Hamlet, etc.).

 

Freytag, those juniors, and Liz are right about one thing, though: Act III is climactic.

 

That is because each act has a climax (or reversal, or turn [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

Aristotle says that lengthier works need at least three turns to keep the audience interested (Walker’s one-page “The Flowers” needs only one), hence the three-act structure often found in movies and plays and novels (most of the novels I’ve taught are divided into three parts, or three books, or their number of chapters is divisible by three).

 

When we map this 3-act structure onto our modified triangle, it looks like this:

 

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Three turns, probably alternating (good to bad to good, bad to good to bad, etc.).

 

Shakespeare’s structure is similar, but with more acts. Five turns, each building toward the final reversal in Act V:

 

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So, right or wrong, the above is my new way of drawing Shakespeare’s 5-act structure. It makes sense to me. At least for now.

 

In our pew, after the third time I said, “Aristotle says,” Liz said that John Green says that Aristotle got almost everything wrong. I was about to say something in response, but the ceremony began.

Funtown: A Have/Have Not Story

It’s been pretty warm lately, so yesterday we decided to take the boys to the park. We loaded up some snacks and some soccer balls and made our way to Micke Grove Park, where we played and played all morning and had a great time. It really is a nice park.

The park also has a zoo. And next to the zoo is Funtown. Funtown is a mini amusement park. A park within the park.

I remember going to Funtown when I was a kid. I remember it being fun. And being excited to go there. My kids were excited, too. And they had fun. But, as an adult, Funtown was…interesting.

Funtown resembles sort of a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Like, if, say, seventy percent of the population died in a plague, and afterwards there were still amusement parks, the amusement parks would be like this.

Or, if you’re familiar with George Saunders stories, Funtown is like an amusement park in a George Saunders story.

Micke Grove Park, and everything in it, including Funtown, is operated by the county’s Parks and Rec Department, and, when compared to, say, an amusement park that is not funded by a county but rather by a megacorporation, like, say, Disneyland, Funtown is a vivid demonstration of the haves and have-nots.

We were the first to arrive. Funtown had two employees. Later we would learn that there were three employees, but one was running late. One of the employees was a nice lady who sold us tickets. The other employee was a youngster, as was the employee who would arrive late. The youngsters were nice, too.

As we were buying tickets, Liz and I saw on a sign that Funtown had mini-golf. We’d been talking about taking the boys to play mini-golf, but the nice lady informed us that the mini-golf course was currently closed. They were having a problem with some geese.

“Geese?”

“Yeah, a bunch of geese took it over. So it’s not safe. But we think we can get it open again this weekend.”

Here’s a picture of the mini-golf course. You can’t see any geese, but you can imagine them, hiding out, ready to strike.20180330_113719

There are about nine rides at Funtown. They’re fairly typical rides: tilt-a-whirl, roller coaster, carousel, etc. But the challenge, for a Funtown employee, given that there are nine rides (plus a ticket booth, and a concession stand) but only three employees (and one is late) is that if some family is hanging around a ride looking like they want to ride it, then one employee has to drop whatever they were doing and go operate that ride.

Our first ride was the fish. It’s fish that go around an octopus, which the kids thought was great.

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But about the time we finished with the fish, two more families arrived, which made it much more complicated for the two employees. Luckily the second youngster showed up, late, but then a fourth family showed up, too, and someone needed to sell them tickets.

So we and one of the other families decided to sort of stick together, ride-wise, to make it easier.

Next was cars. Cars that go around and around. First Tom tried to pick this purple car, but, as indicated by the caution tape and the sign, it was unavailable.

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The sign says: “This car is down (sad face). Don’t ride me.” A pedantic English teacher might point out that the point of view of this sign is inconsistent.

The tilt-a-whirl, nearby, was in a similar situation: at least one tilty-car had an Out of Order sign taped to it (but no caution tape).

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Then we went for the train ride. It’s a little train that runs all around the perimeter of the park. We sat in the first car, right behind the engine. The instrument panel reminded me of the 1958 Cessna Luscombe my grandfather used to take me flying in when I was little.

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Once the passengers were all loaded, before departing, the youngster reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out a hammer. Then he crawled under the engine and banged on something a few times. Then he got up and looked at me and said, “I have to do that to start it.”

After a few tries, it started right up, and we were off.

Here’re three pictures. One picture is of the youngster banging with the hammer, another is of Liz watching the youngster bang on the engine that will next transport her entire family around the park, and the third picture is of the youngster driving the train.

And here are pictures of Tom and Sam, delighted with the train ride:

The train ride included a view of the bathroom, which you get to by going out the back gate, past the dumpster, and this fenced off area where they collect all of the broken Funtown stuff:

The train also passed the roller coaster, the theme of which is Giraffe, or perhaps Safari, and these two guys, who were working on The Scrambler, seemingly trying to figure out what was wrong with it (we didn’t ride The Scrambler):

We would encounter these two guys again later, at this airplane thing that Sam rode:

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During the ride, Liz overheard the guys talking. It turns out one guy was a (the?) manager, and the other guy was an inspector. The manager guy told the inspector guy that they could only afford to re-paint one or two rides a year. The planes were due for some paint.

As soon as Sam got off, the guys swooped in. They had been watching closely, and something apparently didn’t look right:

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Here’s the thing: when you go to Disneyland, the employees are all very nice and helpful. They seem, genuinely, to want you to have a good time.

But the employees at Funtown, all three of them, were also very nice and helpful. And they also seemed, genuinely, to have wanted our boys to have a good time (which they did; they talked about it all afternoon).

The difference is, the nice and helpful Disneyland employees have a lot more to work with. They know they have a good product, backed by a corporate machine (as opposed to a parks and rec department). The nice and helpful Disneyland employees don’t have to crawl under the train and bang it with a hammer. They don’t have to hand-crank the roller coaster to get it going. And they generally don’t have to battle geese for territory.

CATE Conference 2018

A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.

 

Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).

 

This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.

 

The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misconception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)

 

Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.

 

We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.

 

Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.

 

(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)

 

We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).

 

We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.

 

But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.

 

This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).

 

So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.

 

Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).

Our Two-year-old May Be Winning

Liz and I have been teachers for, collectively, over twenty years. A strength we have each developed over those years is classroom management.

 

The key to effective classroom management, we have found, is establishing crystal clear expectations (for pretty much everything) and being relentlessly consistent about those expectations, including, perhaps most importantly, the doling out of consequences for failures to meet those expectations.

 

And since becoming parents five years and forty days ago, we have periodically smugly noted to one another that those well-honed skills have made us better parents.

 

But then came Sam.

 

After thousands of students and one relatively well-behaved five-year-old, it would appear that Sam (our second) is winning.

 

Take, for example, yesterday, which ended, once they both finally passed out, with lots of red wine.

 

Sam is two. Several weeks ago, he discovered independence, and, as a result, Sam hasn’t worn his shoes on the correct feet since. When you try to help Sam, he sort of screeches: “My tuhn!” Sam says “My tuhn!” a lot. All day long, for example. But no one else ever gets a turn, ever. It’s always his tuhn.

 

Yesterday, when it was time for Sam to get dressed, I pulled out a pair of shorts, triggering a head-thrown-back fit of agony.

 

Sam’s fits of agony, in their extremity, are what to a normal fully-grown human would seem appropriate if we had tied his hands behind his back and forced him to watch as one-by-one we guillotined his favorite toys.

 

In reality, though, these fits are prompted by more pedestrian matters: that was the last cracker, or that pencil is blue.

 

Or, I chose the wrong pants.

 

I pull from the drawer another pair of pants. Wrong pants. Agony. Head-throwing. Another pair, and another, and another. All wrong. The child collapses. This is now a Greek tragedy.

 

I call for Mommy. Then I hide and listen as Liz reenacts the same scene. Pair after pair after pair of pants, all wrong.

 

Liz demanded my return, her tone implying threat of divorce. We finally offered Sam the dirty clothes he had just taken off, which he accepted.

 

We tried to help him dress, but it was his turn (information that was shrieked at us). The pants went on fine, but the shirt ended up inside-out with only one arm in its correct slot, the other arm joining the head out the head hole, so that, for the remainder of the day, Sam resembled a cross between a Go-Go Girl and a member of the Roman Senate.

 

Sam’s independence and his reactions to it being thwarted are complicated by the fact that some things, at two years old, despite it being his turn, he is just not capable of doing.

 

Take, for instance, Batman. In this house there are at least half-a-dozen anthropomorphic toys of various sizes representing the fictional character of Batman. On any given day, any of those Batmen may be the “right” Batman. The challenge, then, is finding the right Batman on the right day. [Note: it’s not always Batman. The above is also true for Superman, or Sherriff Woody. Or Harry Potter. We have two Harry Potters. At one point yesterday, I caught myself desperately pleading with my two-year-old that That is Harry Potter. That is Harry Potter!]

 

Buy yesterday, finding the right Batman wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was that the right Batman was the tiny little Lego Batman.

 

The tiny little Lego Batman has a tiny little cape. The tiny little cape is hard to put on. Even for a fully-grown daddy (or mommy) it’s a test of dexterity and focus.

 

So the four o’clock hour consisted basically of doing our best to keep Sam from injuring himself as he flailed about, unable to put on the cape but unwilling to accept help.

 

It’s not that behavior like this didn’t happen with Tom (our five-year-old). But back when Tom was on all fours banging his head against the floor, there wasn’t also a five-year-old standing there emphatically demanding that we look at the play-dough rock he made or how to spell his friend’s name.

 

Yesterday, naptime (a precious period on any Saturday) was cut short when the finally-sleeping Sam was stirred by his older brother repeatedly storming through his door to gallop down the hall and loudly announce that he’s been playing very quietly in his room. And to pee.

 

Later in the day, while Tom finished a movie he had started watching the day before, Sam and I generated pages worth of dialogue consisting of the same two lines repeated (and repeated and repeated):

 

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

 

And so on.

 

But the true highlight came shortly before dinner. We were playing out front. Sam was playing in the bed of the truck. For reasons unknown, Sam began trying to lick my truck. More accurately, when I say Sam began trying to lick my truck, I mean that he first successfully licked the truck—a rather substantial helping of the dust-covered rear window—and then tried repeatedly to lick other parts of the truck, with me repeatedly stopping him.

 

Tom walked up. He asked for a napkin. There was something on his hands. We had just carved pumpkins. I couldn’t get Tom a napkin; I was busy blocking Sam from licking the running board. My pants were covered in pumpkin, from said carving. Mid-lick-block, I instructed Tom to just wipe his hands on my jeans.

 

Several minutes passed. I asked the boys who had stepped in cat poop. They were both barefoot. I pulled out the hose, then checked feet. Nothing.

 

It was another several minutes before I noticed that the pumpkin on my jeans was not at all pumpkin.

 

Come to find out, it had been Tom who had stepped in cat poop, but he had cleaned it up himself, with his hands, having then, according to his father’s instructions, wiped those hands on his father’s pants.

 

Liz drew the bath. I opened the wine, to breathe.

boys pumpkins

[Note: there are no numbers of fits or amounts of cat poop that are not worth enduring for these two (sometimes) smiling faces.]