READ: Dissecting the Play / Reading for Understanding

5 Obstacle and Conflict

Drama is conflict! But what is conflict? Or more specifically, what is dramatic conflict?

If we take a look at Greek drama and the chanting of the Chorus, there is no dramatic conflict, hence no drama. There is no drama even though they are chanting in front of an audience and telling a story. There is no drama because the essential ingredient is missing.

Those who call Thespis the first actor just because he stepped out in front of the Chorus, are missing a crucial point. Something is still lacking, the crucial event that is at the heart of the drama that has shaped drama from the start.

Snout, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, brings us closer to this heart of drama:
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall,
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a cranned hole or chink
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often, very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast, and this stone doth show,
That I am that same wall. The truth is so. [5.1.155-62; emphasis added]
Unlike Snout, the ancient Athenian lamenting never pretends to be anyone but himself. The great invention was more than stepping out in front of the Chorus, it was pretending to be someone else. Thespis was not an actor, until he pretended to be Pesticles. This was a giant and new step.

What does all this have to do with conflict? This: characters in plays talk a lot. Talking is drama's most common activity. Talking conveys nearly all we are likely to know about a play, its people and its progress. A human being talks in order to get what he or she wants. If you want nothing, you say nothing. An obstacle then, is any resistance to my having what I want. Dramatic conflict is distinct from other kinds of conflict. A play's conflict is between what someone wants and what hinders the want: the obstacle. You must know why a character speaks aloud. What is wanted (motivation)? What is in the way (obstacle)? An obstacle can be anything, but in every case it must be something that the character is willing to fight.

There are four main types of dramatic conflict:
1) Me against myself. If I want something that you have, I may be tempted to steal it, however I know that stealing is wrong. This is between me and my own reservations.
2) Me against other individuals. If I want something that you have, you may guard it with a baseball bat. The conflict is between me and you.
3) Me against society. I stole what you had that I wanted. Now I am wanted by the Police. I am now fighting for my freedom and fighting against society.
4) Me against fate, or the universe, or natural forces, or God or the gods. This is a very difficult battle to win. It could be man against a sheer cliff face, or Macbeth refusing to accept his fate.
In all four cases, the battle is between what I want and my obstacles.

Summary: When analyzing a play, it is important to be able to define the obstacles faced by the characters. A characters want is opposed by some obstacle. A character talks to maneuver another character or characters in such a way that the obstacle is removed. To understand a line of dialog, you must know what the speaker wants and how the speaker intends the words spoken to overcome the obstacle.


Shakespeares works are Public Domain, and;

Ball, David. (1983). Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. Southern Illinois University.