I have an essay on Shakespeare’s Five-Act Structure in the February issue of California English. Here’s a link: https://cateweb.org/journals/february-2019/
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:
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).
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:
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:
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:
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.
In seven days, summer will be over. Seven weeks ago, the time seemed unlimited. At that time, we made a summer wish list. It went like this:
- Plant a garden.
- Read 50 new books (the kids, not us).
- Go to aquarium.
- Go to Santa Cruz.
- Grow flowers.
- Go to a National Park.
- See the redwoods or sequoias.
- Go camping.
- Ride horses.
- Go swimming.
- Go to a beach.
- See a Ports game.
- Go fishing.
- Go to Exploratorium.
- Learn 20 new sight words (again: the kids, not us)
- Go to Oakland Zoo.
- See fireworks.
With seven days to go, the only items not crossed off are: Go to a National Park, Go fishing, and Go to Exploratorium.
Tom (our 4-year-old) and I are planning to fish this weekend when we go camping (for the second time—the first time having been a trial run in the backyard), so, wish-list-wise, we’ve done pretty well.
Here are some highlights:
- We planted a garden. I made an eight-cinder-block by four-cinder-block garden and we planted seeds for carrots and peppers and green onions and transplanted a tomato plant. None of the seeds grew. Too much shade. But the tomato plant, in one corner, is doing fine.
- Tom “read” well over 50 new books this summer. He doesn’t actually read read. We read to him, mostly. But then he can read some of his books, or can read them back to us, in part via memorization and in part because he knows a lot of sight words, twenty new of which he learned this summer.
[Note: I can claim no credit for all of the sight words that Tom knows. That is all thanks to Liz, who is a wonderful mother who diligently does homework with him, makes flashcards, games, etc. Our sliding glass door, for example, is currently covered with taped-up words which Tom can move around to make sentences.]
I bought him a box set of Shakespeare stories for kids at Costco. It was on sale. Now he’s into Shakespeare. He likes the comedies, but his favorite is Macbeth. He recites the opening lines. He asked for a Macbeth birthday party. Asked several times, actually, but he’s since settled on a superhero birthday party and a Macbeth Halloween party. By the way, there’s less stuff on Pinterest for a Macbeth birthday party than there is for a superhero birthday party (which isn’t to say there’s nothing).
[Note: I don’t actually know anything about Pinterest. But Liz does, and for the past four years she has thrown one amazing birthday after another.]
- Our aquarium trip was to the California Academy of Science. The California Academy of Science was awesome; the kids loved it. The problem was that we went to said academy on the day of the Warriors’ victory parade, which we thought would be okay if we avoided Oakland, which we did, but despite avoiding Oakland all veins (in the morning) to the Bay Area and (in the afternoon) all arteries out of it were clogged such that a trip that was meant to start after breakfast and end at naptime actually ended around dinner time.
- We went to Santa Cruz—specifically the boardwalk—this past weekend. The boardwalk is sort of an interesting experiment—especially in contrast to, say, somewhere like Disneyland—of an amusement park at which there really isn’t much security—anyone can walk in and out as they please—and the park is seemingly operated by a band of high school students on their summer break (go ahead: go there and see how long it takes you to find an employee that can vote).
But the result of the experiment is that it all works out just fine. The place is tons of fun. Tom especially liked the log ride. And our kids are too young to notice the pot smell blended into the ocean air.
Here’s a fun story: Near the end of our trip, Sam (the two-year-old) got into one of those moods in which he demanded to be held. Around the same time, he pooped, and the essence of said poop sort of seeped through his swim diaper and through his shorts—both wet from the salty brine—and onto my arm. I’m not saying I had poop on my arm. More like water that smelled like poop. Added to which Sam is now too big to carry on one arm for too long, so by the time we vacated the boardwalk and made our way back to the truck, where awaited the diaper bag—I having earlier been sent ahead to load all of our stuff before one more trip up and down the boardwalk—each of my forearms smelled like a septic tank. Hashtag parenting.
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TWO ENGLISH TEACHERS RAISE A CHILD:
4-year-old, to preschool teacher, upon arrival Monday morning: “I have a Macbeth speech.”
Preschool teacher: “What?”
4-year-old: “I have a Macbeth speech.”
Preschool teacher: “You have a Macbeth speech?”
Preschool teacher: “Can I hear it?”
4-year-old: “When shall we thwee meet again,/In thwunder, lightning, ow in wain,/When the huwly-buwly’s done,/When the battle’s lost and won!
FIVE MINUTES LATER:
Mom, in reference to sunflower plants sprouting from small pots: “Can you tell me about these?”
4-year-old: “Oh. That’s science.” [Walks away]
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.
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?
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)
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.
Our first full day in NY, having arrived really late the night before (actually, really really early that morning) at our new apartment, we woke up early A) because we were hungry and B) because I had convinced Liz that we should get up early and go to Central Park and stand in line for Al Pacino’s final (free) performance in The Merchant of Venice (weeks later the show would move to Broadway and charge hecka hundred dollars a ticket), reminding Liz, who seemed more enthused about A) and less enthused about B), that if we were going to move across the country and be all adventurous and fancy, then this (B)) was precisely the type of fancy, adventurous thing we should be doing (as soon, of course, as we had fulfilled A)).
So after walking from our apartment for several miles in we-had-no-idea what direction towards we-had-no-idea what and finally finding a McDonald’s, we sat satisfied (at least, in regards to A)) over Sausage McMuffins with Egg and I figured out how to use Liz’s phone to GoogleMaps walking and subway directions from our location to Central Park, and after circling the same block numerous times in search of the indicated subway entrance, and walking up and down the steps of several such entrances and crossing streets and questioning annoyed MTA attendants in attempts to get on the correct side that would go in the correct direction, and then passing our stop twice, once one way, then the other (cuz we were on the A, not the C)—all behaviors that would become frequent motifs in the days to follow—we arrived at the Park, made our way to the Delacorte Theater, where we found the line that began at the box office and ended…ended…ended…0.7 miles and 13 minutes later at the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, Liz and I both thinking, at the same time, we would later learn, how nice it was to live in a city where this many people—and look, from all walks of life—would camp out in the Park—for days, it appears, in some cases—for the love of theater. The love of Shakespeare. It was so nice that we weren’t the least bit annoyed an hour later when we made it kind-of-almost up to the box office but the tickets ran out, just before we were approached by the first scalper, a stringy blonde girl who appeared to have given up on eating and now needed money to buy things that were probably not food (she reported that after waiting in line for twenty-six hours she had decided that she didn’t really feel like going to the show and would we like to buy her tickets from her), the first of about forty scalpers that would approach us before we escaped the Park, most of whom employed the muttering-under-the-breath method and all of whom we had passed on our wistful 13 minute walk to the end of the line. The excitement continued as we crossed Central Park West to the Natural History Museum, outside of which we witnessed a “scalper fight” that Liz remembers better than I do but that consisted of a meth-ed out scalper boss lady shouting at her cranked-out scalper minion—who had waited all night but got tired and bailed shortly before the line started moving—that now she wouldn’t have enough effing tickets for her effing buyers and so forth.
The next two hours we spent in search of a Kmart, the hour after that, having found Kmart, searching for the Kmart’s entrance, and the hour after that lugging several bags of Kmart merchandise (those big bags they have, the ones you could put a toddler in, if you know what I mean) and a box of cat litter up and down a busy NY street in search of a subway entrance, finally giving up and paying way too much for a cab ride from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, unaware we had been in Lower Manhattan and unaware we had been super close to a number of subway entrances.
As the sun set on that first day and we realized we had no batteries for the pump on the air mattress we had just purchased at Kmart, I stood on our stoop and gazed toward that Big Apple, resigning myself to the fear-laden knowledge that the following day we would have to face her again, in search of batteries, not knowing—having seen only our small stretch of Crown Heights—that Brooklyn offered real stores that sold real things, and either she would consume us, body and soul, or we would emerge from her clutches victorious, batteries in hand.