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.

Borges at Disneyland

I read a lot of Borges.

My critical thesis in grad school was on Borges’s influence on the fiction of John Barth.

There’s a framed illustration of Borges in the hallway of my house, surrounded by pictures of my family. The Borges picture is bigger than the other pictures.

See:

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In Borges’s fiction, there is a finite number of possibilities–a finite number of things that can happen to an individual–so what separates, or sets apart, each individual is the particular things that happen to each of them, and to Borges these particulars are limited by time, so that if everyone was immortal, then all things would happen to all people, and all people would therefore become one person. Each individual, for instance, would at some point write Hamlet, so each individual would be Shakespeare (or would have lived the particular events of Shakespeare’s life), but each individual would also be Justin Bieber, having also lived the life of Justin Bieber.

Because of this worldview, characters in Borges’s stories (for example: The Immortal, Shakespeare’s Memory, Borges and I) often blend into one another (or, to put it another way, using Borges’s common motif of the mirror: characters become reflections of one another).

And that’s what I kept thinking about when we took our kids to Disneyland.

Everywhere I looked, I saw a reflection of myself (or, to put it another way: everywhere I looked, I saw my own life being lived by hundreds and hundreds of other men).

For example, here’s a picture of my kid eating a churro. I’m not in the picture, but there’re at least four other versions of me that are in the picture. Can you spot them?

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And, of course, it’s not just me. The lives of my wife and of my kids are repeated over and over, as well. Some of those repeats are in this picture, too.

Take, for another instance, the picture above of Borges in my hallway. Next to Borges is a (much smaller) picture of me and my wife and my mother and my kids with Mickey Mouse. What the picture does not show is that we had waited in a long line of families (dozens of families) all of whom took that same picture, and that same long line had formed dozens of times over the course of that day, as it did and as it will do on all other days, including today, such that thousands of thousands (millions?) of families have the same picture with Mickey Mouse hanging on their wall (though probably not next to a picture of Borges).

So we are all at the same place having an individual experience that thousands of other people are also having on the same day and that thousands and thousands (millions!) of other people also have had or will have on each day prior and each day after the day that we had it.

Yet: it’s an incredibly individual and magical experience. Or at least Day One is magical.

Most of the people who are on that day living the same life as you are living either Day One or Day Two (for some, there is also a Day Three, but for almost all, there is Day One and Day Two).

And because you are at Disneyland and not at California Adventure, then you and most of the other people who are also living your life (specifically, the ones with strollers and giant, over-stuffed diaper bags) are living Day One.

All of you individually planned a trip, and all of you are on Day One of that trip. Day One is Disneyland. Day Two is California Adventure. If there’s a Day Three, it’s back at Disneyland (which means that, everyone who is living Day One will encounter some people who are living Day Three, but it’s easy to tell the people living Day Three from the people living Day One: the people living Day Three are the people who look like they are trying to recreate the magic of Day One, quickly, before driving home, but failing).

It was pretty much the same when I was a kid, except that Day Two was Knot’s Berry Farm, or later Universal Studios, because when I was a kid California Adventure was the parking lot.

Anyway, Day One is magical. For everyone, but especially the kids. And the kids don’t know and probably wouldn’t care if they did know that thousands of other kids who are living an alternate version of the same life are also having an independently magical experience. Each of the dozens of kids who are lined up to meet Princess Aurora has the individual and magical experience of meeting Princess Aurora, and that experience is unaffected by its repetition for dozens in front and dozens behind (plus hundreds and thousands and millions who have done and will do the same on a day that at Disneyland always looks the same and that repeats itself into infinity)

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About Day Two:

Day Two is pretty awesome, but perhaps less magical. Day Two is about strategy and efficiency. Everyone living Day Two has lived the magic of Day One and is now going to get their money’s worth, because this s-word is expensive.

Day Two begins at the rope line. Everyone living Day Two has read on Pinterest that they need to get there (to California Adventure, where, as mentioned, Day Two is lived) before it opens and to line up at the rope line.

Some people who are living Day Two have read on Pinterest that as soon as the rope drops they need to speed walk straight to the line for the Cars Fast Pass.

Other people are living a version of Day Two in which the thing to do is to speed walk past the Fast Pass line and directly to the Cars ride itself.

A few people are living a version in which the thing to do is to go do something else other than Cars precisely because everyone else who is living Day Two is going straight for Cars, but this way of living Day Two basically means foregoing Cars altogether, and Cars is pretty awesome.

We lived the version of Day Two in which we went straight to the line for Cars. It was pretty awesome. We were glad we lived this version because the people who lived the version of Day Two in which they got into the line for the Cars Fast Pass had to wait a long time for that Fast Pass, and the Fast Passes were mostly for late that afternoon, and pretty soon they were gone altogether.

Anyway: everyone who is living Day Two has a strategy with which to conquer Day Two, most of those strategies meant to outsmart everyone else who is also living Day Two and who have the same or similar strategies.

The rest of Day Two is basically a contest to see who in the family first gets to the point that they’ve had so much fun they could kill someone.

And then the next yous arrive and you go home.