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Theatre Theory: Week 3 Structuralism & Semiotics. “Is this a dagger I see before me?” (...I don’t know?! Give me a sign...) . Approaching theory: . C hoosing to emphasise a concept in a new way, is much more important than discovering a new concept .

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theatre theory week 3 structuralism semiotics
Theatre Theory: Week 3 Structuralism & Semiotics

“Is this a dagger I see before me?”

(...I don’t know?!

Give me a sign...)

approaching theory
Approaching theory:
  • Choosing to emphasise a concept in a new way, is much more important than discovering a new concept.
  • Simply look at it from a different angle.
q how might a liberal humanist read this poem as compared to a structuralist
Q. How might a Liberal Humanist Read this poem, as compared to a structuralist?

Red was your colour.

If not red, then white. But red

Was what was wrapped around you.

Blood-red. Was it blood?

Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?

Haematite to make immortal

The precious heirloom bones, the family bones.

When you had your way finally

Our room was red. A judgement chamber.

Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood

Patterned with darkenings, congealments.

The curtains - ruby corduroy blood,

Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.

The cushions the same. The same

Raw carmine along the window-seat.

A throbbing cell. Aztec alter-temple.

Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.

And outside the window

Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail

As the skin on blood,

Salvias, that your father named you after,

like blood lobbing from a gash,

And roses, the heart’s last gout,

Catastropic, arterial, doomed.

Your velvet long full skirt, a swathe of blood,

A lavish burgundy.

Your lips a dipped, deep crimson.

You reveled in red.

I felt it raw - like the crisp gauze edges

Of a stiffening wound. I could touch

The open vein in it, the crusted gleam.

Everything you painted you painted white

Then splashed it with roses, defeated it,

Leaned over it, dripping roses,

Weeping roses, and more roses,

Then sometimes, among them, a little bluebird.

Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.

Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco

Folded your pregnancy

In crucible caresses.

Blue was your kindly spirit - not a ghoul

But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.

In the pit of red

You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.

But the jewel you lost was blue.

Hughes, Ted Birthday Letters, Red. Faber & Faber. London

  • Difficult to boil structuralism down to a single ‘bottom-line’ proposition
  • Its essence: the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation - they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of (hence the term ‘structuralism’).
  • The structures in question are imposed by our way of perceiving the world and organising the experience.
  • The structuralists opposed the Liberal Humanists in that they believed that meaning or significance isn’t a kind of core or essence inside things: but rather, meaning is always outside.
  • Furthermore they believed that meanings are attributed to the things by the human mind, not contained within them.
  • The structurlalist approach is taking us further and further away from THE TEXT and into large, abstract questions of genre, philosophy and language .
  • For structuralists, determining the precise nature of Ted Hughe’s poem is important.
  • Liberal Humanist would want to work only with the text.
  • Structuralistsmove away from interpreting individual literary work and look toward the abstract structures which contain them.
  • These structures are abstract: the ‘notion’ of a play , or the ‘notion’ of ‘drama’.
  • Arrival of structuralism in Britain and the USA in the 1970s caused a great deal of controversy.
  • Structuralism ‘turned English studies on its head’
  • Devalued ‘all that it had held dear for around half a century’ , asking questions such as : what do we mean by ‘’literature’? ‘How do narratives work?’ ‘What is a poetic structure?’
  • Traditional critics did not welcome the suggestion that they ought to switch their attention from the individual literary work to larger philosophical notions

Remember the project of theory:

To re- establish connections between literary study and three academic fields:


ferdinand de saussure
  • Words are arbitrary . Attributed by random chance. Not logical. They bear no connection to what the word designates.

Words are ‘unmotivated signs’,

this is not a new thing to say. (Plato)


it is a new thing to emphasise.

What is the implication if we make this a central notion?

If words are arbitrary, thenlanguage can’t possibly be a reflection of the world and experience”

An attack on Liberal humanism (trust the text).

2. Words can’t be defined in isolation from other words. Its meaning depends on its definition to other words.

Meanings of words are relational

THEY ARE UNDERSTOOD when look at in context of ‘how they relate to each other’ ( We have no concept of ‘day’ without the linked concept of ‘night. No notion of ‘good’ without the notion of ‘bad’).

  • We construct something by how we choose to ‘coin’ (name) it.

This ‘coining’ has implications on its meaning:

terrorist vs. freedom fighter

council estate vs. social housing

Language establishes our world, it doesn’t just record it.

Meaning is always attributed to the object [or idea] by the human mind, and

constructed by and expressed through language: it is not already contained within the thing.


Applying the ideas of structuralism to theatre: If we ‘read’ a scene through the application of semiotics, what new questions might we ask? Where might we find meaning?

  • The signifier is the ensemble of elements in a theatrical production that compose its meaning - the text, the actor, the stage space, the lights, the blocking, the stage directions.
  • The signified is the meaning or message which is derived from this signifier by the ‘collective consciousnesses’ of the audience.
  • So, for example,

semiotics seeks to describe the way in which the set becomes a sign: how it signifies place, time, social milieu and mood. Semiotics also identifies and explores those elements of the actors performance that signify character and objective to the audience.

    • Practical Work: David Tennant's Coward Soliloquy - Hamlet - Preview - BBC Two.


signifier signified
Signifier & Signified

David Tennant's Coward Soliloquy - Hamlet - BBC Two

Does your dog bite?

(We used this example in class for a semiotic reading of why this jokes works. i.e. HOW ITS MEANING IS MADE!)

hamlet prince of denmark act ii scene ii


Am I a coward? Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?

Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face? Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat

As deep as to the lungs? who does me this, ha?

'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall

To make oppression bitter; or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

O, vengeance!

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A scullion!

Fie upon't! foh!--About, my brain! I have heard That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,

Have by the very cunning of the scene Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaim'd their malefactions; For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ, I'll have these players Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks; I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,

I know my course. The spirit that I have seen May be the devil: and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy,--

As he is very potent with such spirits,--

Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds More relative than this.—

the play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king .



In review: KEY IDEAS ARISING FROM STRUCTURLAISM (How might these points take issue with Liberal Humanism? Think your way through the different elements which make up theatre how might structuralism and semiotics bring you to a new understanding of theatre as a sign system):

  • The meanings we give to words are purely arbitrary.
  • The meanings of words are relational.
  • Language constitutes our world.
  • The basic operatives in the production of meaning are the signifier (or sign) and the signified.

Concept Checklist

  • Basic ideas of Liberal Humanism
  • Basic ideas of Semiotics and how this theory takes issue with that of Liberal Humanism
  • Signifier & Signified
  • Saussure: Language as arbitrary, relational, constitutive
  • Decoding a theatrical performance
further reflections
Further Reflections
  • Semiotics, when applied to theatre, explores how theatre ‘communicates’, or how theatre ‘produces a meaning’. How might the structuralist approach to theatrical analysis allow you to ‘read’ a text from a different angle? Think your way through all the different elements which make up theatre and think about how structuralism and semiotics might bring us to a new understanding of theatre as a sign system.
  • Further Reading :
  • Mythologies - Roland Barthes (Palladin 1973)
  • Theatre as Sign System - Elaine Aston & George Savona (Routledge 1991)
  • Nice Work - David Lodge (Penguin 1988)
next week
Next Week
  • Mark Fortier & Semiotics:
  • - “How open are ‘the signs’ of a drama text or performance? Can all audiences be expected to read these signs in the exact way?”
  • Set Reading:
  • Review this week’s Peter Barry: 39-60 &
  • Fortier: 17-36