Another special form of speech in drama is the so-called aside. Asides are spoken away from other characters, and a character either speaks aside to himself, secretively to (an)other character(s) or to the audience (ad spectatores). It is conspicuous that plays of the Elizabethan Age make significantly more use of asides than modern plays, for example. One of the reasons certainly has to do with the shape of the stage. The apron stage, which was surrounded by the audience on three sides, makes asides more effective since the actor who speaks inevitably faces part of the audience, while our modern proscenium stage does not really lend itself to asides as the vicinity between actors and audience is missing. Asides are an important device because they channel extra information past other characters directly to the audience. Thus, spectators are in a way taken into confidence and they often become ‘partners-in-crime’, so to speak, because they ultimately know more than some of the figures on stage (see Information Flow).

Turn Allocation, Stichomythia, Repartee

In comparison to monologues and asides, dialogue is by far the most frequently used type of speech in drama. In analysing dialogue, one can look at turn-taking and the allocation of turns to different speakers, e.g., how many lines is each character’s turn? Do some characters have longer turns than others and, if so, why? One can also analyse how often a character gets the chance to speak through the entire play and whether he or she is interrupted by others or not. For an example consider the excerpt from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in the SO WHAT section below.

A special type of turn allocation occurs when speaker’s alternating turns are of one line each. This is called stichomythia and is often, albeit not exclusively, used in contexts where characters compete or disagree with one another. In the following excerpt from Richard III, Richard tries to persuade Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf:

KING RICHARD Infer fair England’s peace by this alliance.
ELIZABETH Which she shall purchase with still-lasting war.
KING RICHARD Tell her the King, that may command, entreats.
ELIZABETH That, at her hands, which the King’s King forbids.
KING RICHARD Say she shall be a high and mighty queen.
ELIZABETH To vail the title, as her mother doth.
KING RICHARD Say I will love her everlastingly.
ELIZABETH But how long shall that title ‘ever’ last?
KING RICHARD Sweetly in force, until her fair life’s end.
ELIZABETH But how long fairly shall her sweet life last?
KING RICHARD As long as heaven and nature lengthens it.
ELIZABETH As long as hell and Richard likes of it.
KING RICHARD Say I, her sovereign, am her subject low.
ELIZABETH But she, your subject, loathes such sovereignty.
KING RICHARD Be eloquent in my behalf to her.
ELIZABETH An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.
KING RICHARD Then plainly to her tell my loving tale.
ELIZABETH Plain and not honest is too harsh a style.
KING RICHARD Your reasons are too shallow and too quick.
[…] (Shakespeare. Richard III, IV, 4: 343-361)

This dialogue is marked by repartees, i.e., quick responses given in order to top remarks of another speaker or to use them to one’s own advantage. The repartees in this example express Elizabeth’s doubts and counter-arguments. The fact that stichomythia is used here underlines the argumentative character of this conversation. In a sense, Richard and Elizabeth compete rhetorically: Richard in order to persuade Elizabeth and Elizabeth in order to resist Richard’s persuasive devices. Through the quick turn-taking mechanism, the dialogue also appears livelier and in itself represents fast action.

This is reinforced by a number of word plays and rhetorical figures which use the repetition of words and sounds and thus demonstrate how tightly connected the individual turns are and that each turn immediately responds to the previous one: "everlastingly" – "‘ever’ last" (349f); figura etymologica: "sweetly" – "sweet" (351f), "fair" – "fairly" (351f), "sovereign" – "sovereignty" (356f); parallelism: "As long as […] / As long as […]" (353f); assonance: "low", "loathes" (356f); chiasmus: "An honest tale speeds best being plainly told. / Then plainly to her tell my loving tale" (358f).

The Significance of Wordplay in Drama

The play with language or wordplay entertains spectators and at the same time attracts and sustains their attention. Consider the way Polonius introduces to the King and Queen his explanation for Hamlet’s ‘madness’:

Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad ‘tis true; ‘tis true ‘tis pity;
And pity ‘tis ‘tis true. A foolish figure-
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him then. And now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause.
Thus it remains; and the remainder thus:
[…] (Shakespeare. Hamlet, II, 2: 96-104)

By constantly juxtaposing and repeating words, Polonius attempts to display his ‘cleverness’ because he believes to have found out the cause for Hamlet’s madness, namely Hamlet’s interest in Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter. This play with sound patterns and words catches the audience’s attention because it deviates from normal uses of language. At the same time, it is entertaining, especially since the audience knows that Polonius’ assumption is wrong and Ophelia is not the reason for Hamlet’s madness. Thus, rather than appearing as clever, Polonius comes across as a fool who even uses a fool’s language (although real fools were traditionally considered wise men who indirectly told the truth and held up a mirror to society through their playful language).

A special type of word play is the so-called pun, where words are used which are the same or at least similar in sound and spelling (homonyms) but differ in meaning. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, centres on the pun on the name Ernest and the adjective ‘earnest’, which denotes the character trait of being sincere and serious.

Puns were also very common in Elizabethan plays and they were used both for comical and serious effects. Consider, for example, Hamlet’s advice to Polonius concerning his daughter Ophelia:

Let her not walk i’th’sun. Conception is a blessing,
But as your daughter may conceive – friend, look
To’t. [...] (Shakespeare. Hamlet, II, 2: 184-186)

When Hamlet warns Polonius not to let his daughter “walk in the sun”, this can mean quite literally that she should not walk outside, e.g., in public places, but if one considers that the sun in Elizabethan times was also used as a royal emblem, the sentence can be read as an indirect warning not to let Ophelia come near Hamlet himself. Another pun is used with the words “conception” and “conceive”, which on the one hand refer to the formation of ideas and hence are positive (“blessing”) but on the other hand also mean that a woman becomes pregnant, which was not desirable for an unmarried woman. Thus, Hamlet implicitly advises Polonius to take care of his daughter lest she should lose her innocence and consequently her good reputation. The puns, albeit funny at first glance, convey a serious message.

Another concept to be mentioned in the context of play with language is wit. The idea of wit, which combines humour and intellect, plays a significant role in the so-called comedy of manners. Wit is expressed in brief verbal expressions which are intentionally contrived to create a comic surprise. It was particularly popular in plays of the Restoration Period, and the most well-known examples are William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) and William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700).

Another author famous for his witty plays is the late nineteenth-century writer Oscar Wilde. Consider the following brief excerpt from his play, The Importance of Being Earnest:

LADY BRACKNELL Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.
ALGERNON I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.
LADY BRACKNELL That’s not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together. [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]
ALGERNON [To Gwendolen] Dear me, you are smart!
GWENDOLEN I am always smart! Aren’t I, Mr Worthing?
JACK You’re quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.
GWENDOLEN Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.
(Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest, I)

This short verbal exchange where four of the characters greet one another abounds in witty remarks and comments, which are meant to display the speakers’ cleverness. Lady Bracknell, for example, signals with her reply to Algernon that she is a knowledgeable woman, who has had some experience of the world. Gwendolen’s reply to Jack’s compliment shows her coquetry. She is fully aware of her effect on Jack and plays with her attractiveness. While language here portrays society and its behavioural codes at large, it also gives an indirect characterisation of individual characters.


ad spectatores
turn allocation