Interpreting the Main Idea and Purpose of a Scene

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  • 0:01 Reading Drama
  • 1:42 Who Are the Characters?
  • 2:40 What Is the Problem?
  • 3:07 Where Does the Scene…
  • 3:36 Main Idea and Purpose
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Essays usually have a stated main idea, but it's not as obvious in a play. In this lesson, you'll learn a technique that will help you determine the main idea and purpose of a dramatic scene.

Reading Drama

Reading a play is really different from reading a story or an essay, especially when you're trying to figure out the main idea. In an essay, it's usually easy to find the main idea, because it's often stated in the first paragraph! Stories are a little tougher. Authors usually have a purpose, but they don't always spell it out for the readers. They want readers to work it out for themselves. Drama is more like stories. You'll need to put together the pieces to figure out the main idea and purpose. And in this lesson, you'll learn a strategy to help with that.

Plays are divided into parts. Acts are the big sections of a play and scenes are the small sections that make up the acts. That's not a very technical definition, but it works. You know when a scene is over because the characters leave the stage or the setting changes. That little part of the play, the scene, will be our focus in the lesson. When you're talking about main idea, you're referring to the main point, and when you mention purpose, you're talking about what the author was trying to accomplish. Now that you know the terms, let's get to the technique for breaking down a scene.

It's a little strange to read a play and try to analyze it, because plays are meant to be performed on stage, not read quietly to yourself while taking a test. And if you are learning this skill for a test like the GED, then you should know that you probably won't even get a full scene on the test - just part of one. That's OK though, the strategy I'm going to show you, a list of questions to ask yourself, will help you to determine main idea and purpose, and it'll also help you with all of the other questions that might appear on the passage.

Who Are the Characters?

The first thing to ask yourself is, who are the characters? This won't be hard to determine because plays are written so that the names of the characters who speak appear down the left side of the page. A scene from a play that appears on a test will also only have two or three characters in it. Take the time, as you read the scene, to consider each of the characters.

The script tells you what they say, so you can determine their attitudes, and if there are stage directions, the directions that tell actors how to play the characters, including when to enter and leave the stage, then you'll know something about what the characters are doing on stage. Try to picture the characters in your mind. Make a quick list of what you know about them. This will help you determine the purpose for the scene, but there's a very good chance that there will be several questions about the characters that you'll be able to answer just by paying close attention to them.

What Is the Problem?

Most scenes in plays revolve around a problem. There's a conflict that the scene is either setting up, developing, or resolving. Take a moment to figure out the problem in the scene, and whether the characters are doing something about it. Look for obvious clues like characters arguing or fighting, but you may find subtle ones too, hints at problems that will come later in the play. We call that foreshadowing.

Where Does the Scene Take Place?

Sometimes this will be easy because it will be written near the beginning of the scene. Other times you'll have to infer where the scene takes place by reading the lines. If characters keep mentioning Lady Liberty and how cold it is, you can infer that the scene could take place in New York City in the winter. Settings sometimes don't mean much, but if the play keeps dropping hints about the place and time period, then that's a red flag - the setting is important.

Main Idea and Purpose

Now that you've thought about who, what, and where, it's time to consider why. To show you how it's done, let's look at a famous example (and one that might appear on a test), the party scene from 'Romeo and Juliet.'

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