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An Overview Of Semiotics And Structuralism Drama Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Drama
Wordcount: 3093 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the early 20th Century Ferdinand de Saussure developed the linguistic theory of semiotics, the study of signs within language and the implications of these signs. This involved the analysis of words within texts but after development could be applied to all kinds of art, even paintings and music. The meanings and signs were discovered by studying why a word had been chosen over another, which in turn developed the idea of binary oppositions, for example it is ‘cold’ because it is ‘not hot’. The signs within a text are differential, and it is important to study the relationship between the signs that are being given, and therefore in performance the audience are being sent many messages from what they perceive and this produces very complex layers of meanings as different signs connect with one another. Even seeing how the words are put together, particularly in old texts where the order is different to now, studying the sentences and which words are put with one another give a deeper meaning to the piece.

Saussure introduced the idea of there being a signifier and signified to produce a sign. For example, the word ‘tree’ would be a signifier, and then in the receiver’s mind they would produce their idea of a tree and this would be the signified, which when both are put together produce the sign of an actual tree. There are many interesting parts to this idea, for example the arbitrary state of these signs, ‘in that there is no intrinsic link between signifier and signified’ (Culler, 20) as there is no clear reason why a tree is called a tree. Most words can be classed with this arbitrary argument (except onomatopoeia and words that are formed from two others, such as ‘typewriter’) and as a result what is further revealed is that because these words have no clear reason for use, everyone has their own interpretation. As a result different words mean different things to different people, and therefore one person may take a certain sign from an aspect of a piece, whereas another person’s interpretation could produce a completely separate sign from the same aspect. As there are so many cultures and no two people have the exact same experiences, each view of a piece will be very different. This does not make one reader’s interpretation more important, but in fact all signs picked up by all readers of the piece have to be taken into account, making it more complex than even just one person analysing it.

Texts are made more complicated by the fact that they are diachronic, as they mean different things depending on when they are being read. For example, an ancient Greek play would have different meanings to it if seen by an ancient Greek in comparison to a contemporary audience. These contrasts in cultures add even more signs to a piece, as it is the differences between the views that show that one audience is missing a significant part of the meaning, and what this lack of meaning will mean as a result. Consequently it is important to acknowledge what would have been taken from the piece in its original time and place for cultural context.

Theologists such as Charles Peirce produced another branch off these original ideas based on the idea of the arbitrary state, by analysing how arbitrary a signifier would be in relation to the sign. What he produced was three tiers – symbols (such as a word) which were very arbitrary, indexes would be something more closely connected, (such as a musical note on paper) and icons were the least arbitrary, for example a photo or an actor playing a character. Even though this branched off from Saussure’s semiology ideas, what was important to take from it was that even if a signifier was an icon and was very close to the sign, still ‘a sign stands for something which is not present… thus reinforcing the absence and metaphysical hollowness that haunt all signification’. (Fortier, 22) In light of this, the whole of reality is questioned as if everyone’s interpretation of a situation is different, and no sign is more valid than another, what truly is reality, when nobody has the same view? This is what semiotics takes on as it is used, as every little thing is an interpretation to somebody, and therefore it is hard to see where to stop analysing, leading to ‘unlimited semiosis’, (22) as either everything must have a meaning or nothing has. In light of this a performance can be analysed as soon as an audience enters the theatre space, if not earlier. Peirce’s ideas, though connected, did branch off significantly from Saussure’s original work, so for this essay Peirce’s work is acknowledged but Saussure’s work will be put into use more.

From semiology, Roland Barthes saw the significance of interpretation and chose to take this further in his own studies as he developed what is now known as structuralism. In his ideas, he emphasised the ‘Death of the Author’: ‘it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality… to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’.’ (Barthes, Image, 143) In this light, the author’s only function is to produce the text but the reader’s interpretation is that which brings the detail to the piece, activating ‘jouissance, an orgasmic joy in the unbridled dissemination of meaning’. (Fortier, 24) Similar to semiotics, the use of contrasting cultures can produce ‘resistant reading’ in structuralism, for if a piece has been produced in the style of one culture’s codes, reading it using the codes of a different culture means that the text can be read against itself. Codes were very important to Barthes, seen as cultural definitions, for example to the Western world a cow is often seen just as an animal that produces milk and beef, but to a Hindu culture cows are sacred, so even something as simple as this has hugely contrasting meanings to different cultures, and so codes are put into place to help with this analysis.

In his work S/Z, Barthes produced five important Narrative Codes, which were: proairetic, which indicated actions; hermeneutic, providing suspense in questions within the text; cultural, using social norms to define information about characters, referencing outside the text to knowledge that should be common to certain cultures; semic or connotative, which detail characters through theme, connected to the final code, symbolic, which goes further than this to binary pairings and larger themes to create a more detailed image for the reader. (Barry, 51)

It is clear that semiotics and structuralism overlap and connect with each other greatly and so can be used together in analysing a piece of text, artwork or similar. In their development it seems as if they fed off each other, each building on the same ideas and creating similar ideas. However the main difference appears to be that semiotics are very focused, studying in detail cultural inferences, whereas structuralism is much broader and looks more at the overall effects of the play. By understanding these systems and theories of how all aspects of a text are codes and symbols for the reader to interpret, they can then be used on a play, such as the medieval play ‘Everyman’. Written in the late 15th Century, it is generally thought that this play’s origin is the Dutch play Elckerlijc, written about the same time (Patterson, 142). Interestingly in the idea of the Death of the Author, the author is unknown for this piece. As a result any personal influences are immediately ruled out and simply the reader’s interpretation can be focused on.

In this play, Everyman is preparing to die after a visit from Death, and so asks different allegorical figures to join him on his journey to his final resting place. All of these figures represent certain characteristics of humans, such as ‘Goods’, ‘Kindness’ or ‘Strength’, but are ‘vividly fleshed out, for the playwright gives these characters traits and behaviours that make them powerfully “real” and recognizable as individuals on the stage rather than as abstract moral emblems.’ (Worthen, 236) As a result the use of gestures and the language style that each character uses would emphasise these traits or attributes, and so semiotics can be used to analyse these in detail. Sadly in this text there are very limited stage directions as with most pieces of that era, so much of the work has to be found within the text itself. This reminds us that a play text is arguably not complete in its own state, as it is simply a tool to be used to produce a performance.

In medieval times God was much more prominent than nowadays, and so for God to appear in a play in such a way would have had a significant impact on the audience as a true moral lesson in the dwindling ways of people’s behaviour. However in contemporary audiences who are much more atheist, the full significance of the situation may be lost, as an afterlife is believed in less and less, so this means that the moral must come out of not the religious side of the play but of the morals, to simply encourage people to be better in their way of living rather than to emphasise the preparation of arriving at heaven’s doors.

God, in this play, only appears at the beginning of the play to send Death on his mission but as he is the first proper character to appear his moment is made even more prominent. What is notable about the version in Patterson’s Wadsworth Anthology is that when God finishes speaking he ‘withdraws’ (line 71) whereas all other characters such as Death ‘exit’ (183). This contrast in word choice implies that God never truly exits, and is therefore still involved in the action on stage, a very subtle religious message to the audience that God is always watching. The text also suggests something about the character of God, as he says ‘they forget clean’ (30) and ‘clean forsake me’ (35). Using the word ‘clean’ as he describes sinners is very symbolic as it reflects God’s willingness to forgive and see people as naturally good people who are corrupted, but the cleanliness of their souls is still evident.

In contrast to God, Death’s language seems simpler and more to the point when speaking to him, as he takes no time to talk about himself but offers himself up fully for God’s will: ‘Your commandment to fulfill’ (65). An audience’s first view of this character would see a very obedient character that was sudden and swift, which portrays death in reality, which is often sudden and sharp, striking at an unexpected moment. Already within the first 70 lines the reader has experienced very powerful messages, some of which may have only been absorbed subconsciously but will be brought up constantly throughout the play.

Everyman, the human representative in the play, is very interesting to study. He gives off a style of conversation that is very hermeneutic, constantly asking questions until he finally gets the answers he needs. His inquisition suggests that he is very confused and startled by the appearance of Death, as would any human, as well as doubtful of what is happening. However as soon as he understands he seems sorrowful and it is clear that he does believe what he is being told by Death as the questions become less frequent. Sadly though, he seems naïve of reality, saying ‘Death giveth no warning!’ (132) but this seems foolish as death never gives warnings in real life. His fear of death is shown through his desperation, as he offers Death a thousand pounds if his fate could be delayed, again a sign of naivety. Overall this seems to represent a man who does have faith, who is naturally good, but who has got lost in life and has been distracted by worldly things rather than higher meanings.

On line 184, Everyman says ‘Alas, I may weep with sighs deep!’ This is a very poetic moment as there is an internal rhyme and a true rhythm to the line, and we can learn a lot just from these words. It gives a general feeling of true sorrow, emphasised by ‘Alas’ but he also seems a softened character, by the use of ‘weep’. Where ‘sob’ or ‘cry’ may have been used, the author has provided us with a softer sounding word that creates poetry. The beautiful result is that of grace and compassion, and so the reader feels for and relates closely to the character of Everyman, which is obviously the point of the play.

We, as readers, then experience the arrival of the first moral figure – Fellowship. Death has just left but clearly the impending doom still lingers in the air, as Fellowship even though oblivious to the recent events uses many words connected to death, such as ‘life’s end’ (213), ‘die’ (220), ‘say no more’ (223) and ‘hell’ (232). This could be seen as dramatic irony, as these words would sting Everyman because of his most recent experience. As a character he is very friendly and his first words on line 206 (‘…good morrow, by this day!’) are of enthusiasm and amity. These emphasised, optimistic words suggest that Everyman will be safe after all, and Fellowship vows his companionship to Everyman with words suggesting he would die for the friendship, wanting nothing in return. However in discovery of what is needed, Fellowship fails Everyman and refuses to commit to the journey, even in ‘true’ friendship. This seems like a comment on human actions, questioning whether all humans are like Fellowship, willing to be dedicated and loyal until a true time of need comes and we have to sacrifice something important to ourselves. The despair that comes over Everyman in realisation of the fleeting, worthless relationship would resonate throughout an audience as they realise their own decisions in life.

Many of the characters are like this, giving Everyman hope at first but letting him down at the true moment of need. Even Five Wits, Beauty, Discretion and Strength, who all appear to be dedicated to him, fail him at the moment when he reaches the grave. All of these are comments on human observations, as we fail one another in the same way and depend on the wrong things in life. Strength is a very interesting character to analyse as every time he speaks he uses several proairetic words, for example ‘We will bring him all thither, / To his help and comfort, ye may believe me’ (lines 675-6). This suggests that this strength is to represent both mental and physical strength, as his words are active as well as emotive, as ‘help’ and ‘comfort’ have dual functions. The physical aspect is emphasised by reference to Judas Maccabaeus, a Jewish historical warrior, so there is a true feeling of fighting and power which is encouraged further by his words such as ‘in battle fight on the ground’ (685). However, as Strength leaves, it reflects on how fear would overpower Everyman at this point, finally coming to terms with his mortality and feebleness as a human as well as despairing in his inevitable fate.

Knowledge, on the other hand, is the figure that saves and guides Everyman in the end. He acts as a helping hand to the protagonist, as he can give him information and provide logic and clear decisions, such as suggesting the visit to Confession. This pushes Everyman forward where he may have been lost before, having not thought to call on Knowledge but was suggested by Good Deeds. This is used within the text to show how when fear arrives, humans struggle to focus and think logically, so the arrival of Knowledge is vital to Everyman’s continued journey, who soon realises the value of this companion and depends on him: ‘give me cognition’ (538) so the message of the true worth of knowledge is passed on to the readers.

Our final character contact is that of the Doctor, who sums up the whole significance of the tale for the reader. In reality a doctor is a scientific, logical person who can be trusted and is responsible for saving others, so the image of a doctor at the end is very official and makes the meaning that more important to listen to. Stating the point of the play very clearly, he addresses the audience directly (‘ye hearers’, line 903), drawing in the spectators to emphasise the connection between Everyman and every man. He stresses the importance of understanding the moral of the play by saying ‘take it of worth’ (903) while the word ‘worth’ plays on the idea of our true values in life and what things are really worth to us.

This play has constant religious intonations throughout, a significant example is that it opens with the words ‘I pray’ and the last line says ‘Amen’. This is suggesting that the whole text is a prayer, from start to finish. Additional to this is the constant references to Jesus such as on lines 751 and 894 as well as a variety of other religious figures, which supports the theory that a monk or cleric wrote it. (Patterson, 236) Furthermore, the use of the Angel who uses very soft sounds rather than having words chosen with sharp endings or harsh starts, we get a very peaceful feeling of this character as appears only briefly and suggests a soothing impact on our Everyman. Overall, by analysis we can see deeper emphasises of the various figures and their significance within this story as well as the story of life. Semiosis and structuralism allow us to question words with a more scientific mind to see hidden layers of meaning, giving the whole play a stronger feeling of implication on our own life. The author, although unknown, may have written it as a message on his own views, or may have been channelling a message from above, but whether in text or performance the reader is taught that this life is fleeting and we must not hesitate to discover our true priorities on Earth.


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