Said Out of Order: Helping Students Interpret Subtext in Drama

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This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.

“I think she’s a gold digger,” quite a few of my students once said during a discussion of Nora Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. When I asked how the students made this interpretation, they unanimously responded that Nora asks for money for Christmas. A reminder of the reason why, which occurs later in the play, only brought the response, “But we didn’t know that at the time.” Since backstory and exposition in drama take place through dialogue rather than through a speaker or narrator as in fiction and poetry, students often do not notice when characters drop "hints" in their lines.  Subtext, which often appears in dialogue in drama (as does almost everything else) can be particularly difficult to discern and interpret, even if it may seem far more obvious than a hint to some readers. After this class meeting, it became clear that students often expect strictly linear and explicit references in a literary text, including plays with their sometimes lengthy blocks of dialogue and monologue. This experience inspired me to create an exercise to help students track implied meanings in plays as outlined below.

1. Select a key piece of information revealed through subtext, such as hints about a character’s past or the foreshadowing of a character’s actions.

2. Write an outline of the play’s act and/or scene structure either on the board or on a handout to distribute and place the moment when the audience learns the full truth in the structure. You might want to include a section for events before the play’s action begins.

3. Have students break into pairs or small groups and ask each to answer a question such as:

  • When does the character first mention or hint at X?
  • When does the character first take a similar action or make a similar choice?
  • When does an action or event take place? (Sometimes it may occur before the play’s onstage events)
  • When does the audience first learn of X, and when does it occur? (These answers may also involve events prior to the play’s beginning)
  • Why does a character do or say X, and when does the audience learn of the reason(s) why?

4. Instructors can decide whether pairs or groups should answer the same question or different questions, depending of course on the lengthy and difficulty of the text. As for the above example from A Doll House, I have all groups answer the question about Nora’s interest in money as a first use of this exercise that is an example of the last bulleted suggestion.

5. Students can either place their answers on the handouts the instructor provides, or the instructor can chart the answers on the board. To provide support for answers, students should include specific page, act, and/or scene numbers.

Having students do this activity while the class discusses the first play of a course or unit introduces subtext in drama and the importance of close readings of dialogue. Alternatively, instructors could choose to use the activity only for a long and/or complex play, which may require multiple uses of the exercises during class time or for homework.  Revisiting these steps for more than one play can then gauge student progress with reading subtext in drama throughout the unit or course.

For a more-tech savvy approach to the activity, professors can make use of a plot-mapping software program like Plotist for a more impressive presentation or if a class is taught in a computerized classroom. A simple chart or outline in Word or on the board can work fine, too. The key is for instructors to use what is most comfortable for them and their students in consideration of available resources. After using this activity at least once, instructors might just find that students no longer accuse Nora Torvald of being a gold-digger. Mine, thankfully, no longer do.