Reading & Interpreting Dialogue from a Script or Play

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  • 0:01 Chewing the Fat
  • 1:17 Connotation, Denotation & Tone
  • 3:07 Interpreting Shakespeare
  • 4:29 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.

Interpreting lines from a play means more than understanding the definitions of the words. In this lesson, you'll learn how to tap into the emotional content of lines and develop an interpretation.

Chewing the Fat

Flap one's lips, shoot the breeze, run off at the mouth, shoot the bull, talk a blue streak - these are a few of the many expressions in English that we have about talking. Talk is a crucial part of our existence, and in a play, talk is just about all you have. Unlike prose, plays don't give the reader much to go on other than the words the characters say, so if you want to understand a play, you have to understand both what is said and the meaning behind the words.

Our words can pack a lot of meaning into only a few syllables. Start by thinking about this short sentence, 'He's really thin.' Now compare that to this sentence, 'He's really skinny.' Both of these sentences mean the same thing, that the person being discussed is underweight, but they carry different attitudes. The first sentence is either matter-of-fact or perhaps slightly positive. The second sentence has a negative vibe to it, a judgmental sound.

To better interpret lines in a play, you have to think about the meaning of the words, the attitudes they carry, and the attitude of the speaker.

Connotation, Denotation, and Tone

Denotation is the word we use to refer to the dictionary definition of a word. In our example sentences, 'skinny' and 'thin' have the same denotation. Where they differ is their connotation, or the feeling that a word invokes. To understand lines in a play, you first have to be able to read the literal meaning of the words - their denotation. Then you have to think about the feelings that the words invoke - their connotation.

Consider these lines, 'Johnny is so childlike' and 'Johnny is so childish.' The first sentence is a positive statement that connects Johnny to the good qualities of children. The second one is negative, connecting Johnny to the immature and negative qualities of children. While both sentences have the same denotation, the difference in connotation changes the way we interpret the lines.

Finally, you should consider the tone, which is the speaker's attitude. Sometimes the playwright will give you the tone, but other times you have to infer it. A line like, 'He's a genius,' delivered in an admiring tone would be a high compliment. The same line, delivered in a sarcastic tone, would be an insult.

Sometimes playwrights state the tone in the stage directions, the italicized instructions for actors in a script, but often the reader or audience has to figure out the tone. If you're reading a play, consider the situation and what you know about the character. Those two factors can help you hear the attitude coming from the speaker. As we saw in the 'He's a genius' example, the tone can completely change the meaning of a line.

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