Shakespeare, in Five Acts I wasn’t surprised by the question (how come Shakespeare wrote in 5 acts, not 3) but by the answers, which are surprisingly detailed regarding the history of dramatic structure. But I’m confused, because I thought that Shakespeare himself made no Act/Scene divisions at all, that came later with publication of the Folio. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong?  Or are they talking strictly about structural elements, i.e. there’s 5 segments to the progression of the story whether Shakespeare labelled them that way or not?

12 thoughts on “Shakespeare, in Five Acts

  1. I could be getting this wrong since I'm just commenting off the cuff here, but I believe that the plays written before Shakespeare's company started playing in the Blackfriars theatre divide rather neatly into two halves, but the plays written for Blackfriars were divided into acts, partly because of the necessity at the indoor theatre of stopping the action after each acts to trim the candles.

  2. Hey, wait a minute–I already wrote the answer to that question. I think I'll avoid getting into an argument with myself.

    Our knowledge of Renaissance stagecraft is, alas, limited, but I think you would not go too far wrong in saying that earlier plays tended to be played straight through, and later plays would often have little interludes between the five acts for music.

    Thomas Middleton even has a bit of fun with this in "The Changeling"–one of the characters conceals a dagger on-stage "during the music" between one act and the next.

    It was a wildly creative time–they probably did a lot of different things over the years.

    This is probably in part a result of the vogue for "private," indoor theatres, which were lit with candles. The act intervals perhaps gave the management time to trim, replace and relight them.

    The five-act _structure_ was there from the beginning, though, and comes down from Aristotle as the proper way to structure a story: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resoultion. Even when playbooks don't show the act divisions, they're usually pretty evident.

  3. It should be said though that though it is true that the classical 5-act structure deriving from Aristotle was certainly used and even in vogue, not all playwrights felt the need to pick it up. Shakespeare, in fact, attracted criticism from Ben Jonson for not adhering to the classical standards.

  4. Touché. But my point remains that not all writers necessarily adopted classical models, and for many of Shakespeare's plays, the division into five acts was arbitrary and in some cases against sense.

  5. Ben Jonson wasn't the only contemporary with something not so nice to say about Shakespeare's departure from the classical form, and there have been many who came after, beginning with Pope in 1723, who have made their disapproval known as well.

    To clarify an element in your first question Duane, act/scene divisions, even in F1, were used to a limited degree. A few examples– R&J have none, Julius Caesar is marked all through with act divisions only, some, but not all of the history plays are dealt with similarly. Hamlet has both act and scene divisions…but they stop at Act II sc ii. 🙂

  6. Interesting. On the site the question is "resolved" with much fanfare, the best answer according to…popular votes. The winner cites the Roman structure–Plautus, Seneca–as something playwrights–specifically Shakespeare–looked to in structuring their plays. He offers Comedy of Errors perfect 5 act structure as very early proof. Considering Shakespeare stole his plot idea from the Roman Plautus this comes as quite a surprise. Also Henry V. is mentioned. Two out of 38–a somewhat loose pattern to base resolving conclusions upon without having a glance at the rest.
    Speaking of having a glance.
    I've heard Aristotle's name thrown around quite a bit lately when it comes to definitive answers on what is correct when it comes to the dramatic form. He (his theoretical notions of what makes a good play, what is tragedy?, etc.) had a huge influence on the Romans idea of theatre. Aristotle insisted until his dying day that men had more teeth than women. To paraphrase philosopher Bertrand Russell, he might simply have had a glance in Mrs. Aristotle's mouth to have found out how right or wrong he might have been.

  7. Well, I regret that the answer I wrote to be useful to some kid named "Banana love" on Yahoo!Answers fails to rise above the level of your contempt. It is a silly place, to me sure, but I like to dip my toe in once in a while to talk about my favorite playwright.

    I will see if I can't have a glance at those other 36 plays sometime…or 34, I suppose, as I did mention "Tempest" and "Winter's Tale" as not having strong five-act structures in my answer.

  8. I was reacting to the big banner "Resolved" and still don't think the question of Shakespeare's devotion to Aristotle's principles has been 'resolved', even with all that's been written here in addition to the Yahoo page. –Also, to the idea that a show of hands might possibly make anything more right than what the facts might say, regardless of the content someone named Banana love might be 'voting' on. It was the first time I'd been to Yahoo Answers. That's how they do it, huh?

    –I've read your stuff here and like it a lot. My apologies if the tone seemed anything like contempt–of the personal kind, anyway.
    Although now I can see how it might have. Sorry.

  9. Oh, no worries. Like I said, Yahoo!Answers is a silly place. You can go there and vote on the "truth" all day. I've actually had one or two factually correct answers voted down…annoying…which is probably why I only make occasional visits there.

    Well: I have some driving to do this weekend, and I get to fill the time with BBC radio productions of A Trick to Catch the Old One (with Alan Rickman) and Volpone (Ian McDiarmid) that I've just gotten hold of. And I know I'll be less grumpy after that.

  10. Craig: Thanks for understanding. Sometimes I can get on a roll and the idea takes over. The down side is that it can also Roll Over other considerations, excluded from… considerations of that sometimes 'too important' point, all things…considered. My question is: Could you tell I don't care much for Aristotle's opinions? 🙂 He's a current topic in relation to Hamlet's "flaws" on the Shaksper Discussion List right now.
    I was inspired to do a little, as I had so caustically put it, "glancing", myself, since I'd never actually done it with this in mind. What follows is comprehensive only so far as it might go for mere initial data gathering. When you get a chance, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know what your opinion is about what it might–or might not– indicate.
    Act/Scene Divisions in Shakespeare's Plays—a quick thumb-through of the Folio of 1623
    Plays with act & scene divisions: The Tempest; The two Gentlemen of Verona; The Merry Wives of Windsor; Measure for Measure;The Comedie of Errors; As You like It; Twelfe Night, Or what you will; The Winter's Tale*; King John*; Richard II; Henry IV, parts 1 & 2; Henry VI, 1*; Richard III*; Henry VIII; Macbeth*; King Lear; Othello*; Cymbeline*.
    Plays with Act divisions only : Henry V; Coriolanus; Titus Andronicus; Julius Caesar; Much Ado About Nothing; Loves Labour's lost; A Midsommer Nights Dreame; The Merchant of Venice; The Taming of the Shrew*; Alls Well, that Ends Well.
    Plays with no act or scene divisions: Henry VI, part 2; Henry VI, part 3; Troylus and Cressida; Tymon of Athens; Antony and Cleopatra; Romeo and Juliet*; Hamlet*.

    *–more to come:

  11. *Curiosities: these are only cursory observations culled from a very quick scan for act/scene divisions.
    –The Winter's Tale: Act I is less than one stave long.
    –King John:has 2 Act IVs (an obvious mistake of course, but questionable scene divisions and/or lack of them are apparent)
    –Henry VI,1: acts 1& II have no scene divisions; act V almost makes it to the length of 2 staves long.
    –Richard III: Act I seems to run a little long-18+ staves; Act IV, sc. 4 Richard sends Buckingham off, speaks a few lines–exits–enter a Scrivener who speaks 14 lines, Richard and Buckingham immediately re-enter “…at severall Doores”, no scene division.
    –Macbeth: Acts I&II Act I has seven scenes, the first four (various heaths and camps) dealing with the witches, battles, and Macbeth's exploits, etc. Sc.5 (The Castle) Lady M reading Macbeth's letter and Macbeth's arrival, Sc. 6 Duncan's arrival, Sc. 7 Macbeth's “If it were done” soliloquy; the King's banquet well underway, and ends with Lady M making Macbeth aware that he's forgotten where the“sticking place” is. Act II begins with Banquo and Fleance immediately meeting Macbeth outside following this action already underway. The alternate locale division seems obvious, especially since the action is continuous as to place and occurrence from the point of the obvious change of locale.
    –Othello: Act III, sc. 2 is 7 lines long.
    –Cymbeline: Act III has 8 scenes—scene 8 a very short exchange between 2 nameless senators and a tribune. Rather than devote an entire scene to Imogen's monologue, modern editors only allow for 7 scenes,and have Imogen exit and reenter in Sc.6–what was 7. (fancy that–an editor actually helping to move things along)
    –The Taming of the Shrew:Act I begins and seems to consume Act II, as there are no act or scene divisions from the beginning of the play all the way to Act III. Also, acts III & IV have no scene divisions.
    –Hamlet: Act and scene divisions stop completely after Act II, Sc 2.
    –Romeo & Juliet: The first sonnet of the Chorus (Prologue) isn't included, but his second speech is. (this has nothing to do with act/scene anomalies, but it is interesting, since it is included in Quarto 2).
    So, what does this prove? Nothing–as it stands.
    As I said, this is only a cursory glance, very quick to catalog act/scene data; anything else is literally what jumped off the pages as I was turning them and, to be sure, doesn't even approach what a close reading might reveal. But at quick look anyway, I think it shows that whoever was responsible for those decisions might have had a particularly difficult time parsing out the continuum of Shakespeare's stream of consciousness. There seems to be an awful lot of 'run-on' where there shouldn't be (where a definite or abrupt change might indicate a change in act or locale ) as well as false and halting delineation where continuous action and/or a smoother segue seem to be not only called for, but leaving the text alone, actually exists.
    On the other side of the coin, any ultimate conclusion (if such a thing is attainable; it might even be a highly doubtful quest) would include compositor and typesetter mistakes and possible arbitrary decisions, together with examinations of Shakespeare's foul papers, the "good" quartos, and etc., which would certainly have had something to do with the where and when of this or that particular division—addition or change– and so, should be accounted for in any assessment.
    I don't know if I'm quite up to that.

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