The Importance of Interpretation: Or, Why You Can't Read A Play Like A Book

One of the major differences between verse drama and dramatic verse is a question of whether the interior life of a character is narrated or left to an actor's interpretation.

Visually, the difference is in the formatting.  Practically, the difference is in that crucial question of whether the script is meant primarily to be read or enacted.

Let's look at some examples. 

James Marsters as Spike the Vampire from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV series.

Formatting for Narration vs. Interpration

While formatting may seem merely aesthetic, in actuality how text is formatted helps to convey the author's intent.   Below are two examples: one in dramatic verse with narrative, the other in verse drama which is open to interpretation.

Dramatic Verse Formatting

(Original text by Emily C. A. Snyder)

There, at the castle door, did Guinevere
That lonesome Queen, encounter Lancelot.
Said she, “You shouldn’t be here.”  But he,
Damp from rain and sorrow both, stepped close,
Took her in his arms, and said: “Where else am I to go?”

To Arthur, whom that Knight betrayed?
Or back again to win him most unwilling
A far-too willing bride?  The bloody Knight,
The valiant Knight, the virgin Knight
Who conquered twenty kingdoms, still
Could not conquer any room in Camelot
​Unless Guinevere be there.  "I do not love her,"
Whispered he, into the glory of another woman's hair.
She pulled away, he quicker was, and caught--
Repeated: "I do not love her​, Guinevere."

 Verse Drama Formatting

(From The Siege Perilous, Play Two, Act IV, Scene 1, ​by Emily C. A. Snyder Please note that lines in [brackets] are considered crossed out and not vocalized.)
(GUINVERE’S chambers.)
You shouldn’t be here.
No?  Where else am I to go?
Go—drink a dram with Arthur!
No.  He and I don’t [talk any more]…
I have no one else to speak with.
Sit.  How was [your honeymoon]…?
                                                         Awkward!  If at all.
The things that you and I have done, are not fitting
For Elaine.  I entered, and she sat there:
Eager and arrayed.  I snuffed the light.
Undressed.  Hid beneath the sheets and hoped
She’d make request of what she liked!
I could not stand to look her in the face.
Held her closely through the night, and said that:
                   “We could…wait.”
Before the morning lark could sing, I fled.
I…do not love her.
                                                   I do not love her.
(Pause.  Scene continues.)

​Narration in Dramatic Verse

The first thing that may be apparent is the presence of the narrator or narrative voice in dramatic verse.  In narrative, the writer behaves as the cast, crew, and commentator on the story.  Everything may be described and therefore proscribed.  For example, in the dramatic verse version of the text, Lancelot steps forward and holds Guinevere.  (Keep this in mind for later.)  Other details such as the color of their hair or clothes, the contents of Guinevere's room, action, light, set are all immutable, depending on the narration of the author.

Similarly, in narrative writing - whether in verse or not - there is the possibility for bringing us into the mental or emotional state of the character.  While this may seem to overlap with soliloquy (and keep that in mind, too!), it's different insofar as Lancelot will always follow his thoughts from Arthur to Elaine to Guinevere.  The character is interpreted more rigidly for the audience in narration than it is in drama.

Interpretation in Verse Drama

Conversely, the playwright creating for the stage will leave room for a cast and crew to interpret the piece through their own lens.  While a playwright may certainly put in a given - that is, perhaps one character mentions the color of someone's hair, or may say a stage direction (such as "sit") - there still is room to alter the text through production.

If the playwright allows, the color of someone's hair maybe altered in the text (in the case of verse drama, so long as it scans!).  Or the line could be cut.  Or said ironically.  An actor may choose to sit, if commanded by another...but where they sit, or when, or for how long is open for interpretation...and tells vastly different stories.

The playwright may also put in stage directions, similar to narration.  (Lancelot sits.) for example.  But once again, it's generally understood that stage directions are suggestions and not proscriptive.  In narrative, Lancelot will never have any other actions but the ones described.  But in theatre, Lancelot may do any number of things - or even change his actions every night.  Which again, can alter the feeling of the scene. ​

The interpretation co-authors the story in the moment.

The Creation of Character

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: narrative dictates character in a way that drama only suggests character.  This is why there can be wildly different interpretations of any given character.  Is Angelo in Measure for Measure genuinely in love with Isabella, or has he truly recognized his own malevolence?  Is Hamlet crazy or just putting on a show?  Is Juliet as in love with Romeo as he is with her?

While the playwright may give us an insight into the character's mind via soliloquy, there still is the element of interpretation.  An outside narrator may comment on what the character is thinking, whether the character ought to think this, other times that this sort of thing happened and worked out poorly, etc.  Within soliloquy, we only have the half-thought-out inner monologue of the character, who may not know their own mind yet.

To put it another way, in narrative, the answers to these questions could be simply written out.  In drama, the playwright generally only provides the dialogue and some action, both of which are meant to be interpreted by the actor.

A famous example of this is Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Although Spike's actor, James Marsters read all of his lines as written and executed the actions he was given, from his very first episode the actor made the decision that his character would always find the tenderest way to speak about either his vampire lover, Drusilla, or the woman who was supposed to be his nemesis, the titular vampire slayer, Buffy Summers.

The audience picked up that there was a heart within the character of this seemingly soulless vampire by the way that Marster's interpretation co-authored the creation of Spike. 

The Dangers of Treating Drama Like Narrative

Any Shakespeare performer will caution fellow actors against dictating how a character "should" be performed.  The "should" is attempting to put narrative dictation on an interpretive role. 

The "should" is a danger for anyone reading a drama without allowing for variety of interpretation in performance.  The "should" is something we see teachers foist upon students, behaving as narrator for Macbeth's intentions.  The "should" is something we see in academic papers and critical reviews, behaving as narrators for the "proper performance conditions," the setting, the costumes, even the casting of what is meant to have a wide interpretation.  The "should" is something we see peddled in the entire Shakespeare complex, which speaks narratively for the playwright - and all future verse playwrights - in the question of what they dictate this or that meter means.

Theatre is not the school of "should."  It is the realm of "what if?"

Content Dictates Form

Ultimately, when deciding how to write your story - if the question is between dramatic verse or verse drama - consider whether the story is better told with narrative dictation, or with room for interpretation.  Both have their strengths and weaknesses.  But although both tell story using words, although both may employ verse, and may even be poetic, in practice, drama and narrative are two very different things.


Let's try out some adaptation!  Try taking a piece of dramatic verse - your own, or The Iliad, or what you will - and writing it out as drama.  Conversely, try taking a piece of drama - your own, or any playwright who's willing - and rewrite a small section of it as narrative.

What did you discover?  What did you gain by writing in narrative?  What did you lose?  What did you find in writing as drama?  What did you miss?

Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @hamlet2hamilton!


Popular Posts