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Conflict is a key element in drama, the main catalyst that drives the story forward. It takes various forms, from external struggles between characters to internal dilemmas within an individual’s mind. Conflict can be a simple plot device or a complex tool that enriches the narrative, aids character development, deepens themes, and engages the audience.
At its core, conflict starts and maintains the momentum of the dramatic work. It sets off the events that make up the plot, from the initial exposition through rising action to the climax, falling action, and, ultimately, resolution. Conflict isn’t limited to external clashes; it also encompasses the characters’ inner struggles, adding complexity to the drama.
Dramatists use various techniques to portray conflict, including dialogue, action, symbolism, and auditory and visual elements like sound and lighting. Each technique has advantages in highlighting the different aspects of conflict, whether to show subtle dynamics in relationships, emphasize a theme, or build emotional intensity.
Types of Conflict in Drama
Traditionally, there are five types of conflict in drama: internal conflict, external conflict, interpersonal conflict, social and cultural conflict, and cosmic or fate-driven conflict.
1. Internal Conflict
Definition Internal conflict refers to the psychological struggle or moral dilemma within a character’s mind. It is often portrayed through monologues, soliloquies, or reflective dialogues.
Example In William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet,” the protagonist, Prince Hamlet, faces a complex internal conflict regarding the moral implications of avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet’s soliloquies, most notably the “To be, or not to be” speech, reveal his moral and existential struggles. Torn between his sense of duty to his deceased father and his intellectual and ethical reservations about revenge, Hamlet’s internal conflict serves as the psychological backbone of the drama. This internal tug-of-war complicates his relationships with other characters and delves into broad themes of morality, justice, and the human psyche.
2. External Conflict
Definition External conflict denotes a struggle between a character and an external entity, whether it be another character, nature, society, or an abstract concept like fate.
Example In Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” Nora Helmer grapples with an external conflict against the stifling societal norms of 19th-century Norway. Nora’s decision to forge her father’s signature to save her husband, Torvald, imposes upon her a life within the constrained gender roles and expectations of her society. The external conflict reaches its zenith when Nora decides to leave her family, a radical act that defies the conventional social structures of her time. Nora’s conflict, therefore, is not just with her husband but with the societal norms that prescribe her roles as a wife and mother.
3. Interpersonal Conflict
Definition Interpersonal conflict arises when there is a struggle between two or more characters in a play, often driven by differing values, motivations, or objectives.
Example In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the interpersonal conflict is primarily embodied in the longstanding feud between two noble families: the Montagues and the Capulets. This feud is a backdrop for the doomed love affair between Romeo (a Montague) and Juliet (a Capulet). The enmity between the families complicates the young lovers’ relationship and leads to tragic events, including murders, banishment, and, ultimately, the lovers’ suicides. This interpersonal conflict serves as a vehicle for examining themes of love, hatred, and the disastrous consequences of social division.
4. Social and Cultural Conflict
Definition Social and cultural conflict pertains to a struggle that illuminates broader societal issues such as class, race, or cultural norms, often implicating multiple characters or even the entire setting of the play.
Example Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” explores a social and cultural conflict stemming from the witch trials in 17th-century Salem. On one level, the conflict involves specific characters accused of witchcraft. More deeply, Miller examines how fear and mass hysteria can corrupt a community’s moral and judicial systems. The drama is an allegory for the anti-communist “witch hunts” in mid-20th-century America, implicating broader social conflicts that include religion, governance, and individual freedoms.
5. Cosmic or Fate-driven Conflict
Definition Cosmic or fate-driven conflict involves a struggle against larger, often uncontrollable forces such as nature, gods, or fate, providing a lens for existential or spiritual discussions.
Example In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the title character faces a cosmic conflict against the very fabric of the universe as he perceives it. Lear’s initial decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters based on their flattery unravels into events that lead to familial betrayal, societal breakdown, and cosmic disorder. The tempest raging on the heath symbolises this cosmic conflict, portraying Lear as a frail human in battle against vast, uncontrollable forces. Lear’s struggle is not just with his daughters but also with the existential realities of mortality, the unpredictability of fate, and the chaos of the natural world.
Alternative Types of Conflict in Drama
Alternatively, a broader classification system, often used to describe various types of conflict in drama, literature, and storytelling, is Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Technology, Man vs. Fate/God, and Man vs. Supernatural. Different academic circles have developed varying terminology for these titles, which are included below.
1. Man vs. Man
Alternative Terminology Character vs. Character Protagonist vs. Antagonist Individual vs. Individual
Definition A type of conflict in which two or more characters oppose each other. The clash could be physical, emotional, moral, or intellectual.
Example The hostility between Hamlet and Claudius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” epitomises a complex “Man vs. Man” conflict. Claudius, who has ascended to the throne by murdering Hamlet’s father, is pitted against Hamlet, who seeks justice for his slain father. Their conflict delves into universal themes such as power, betrayal, and moral duty, culminating in a tragic finale that leaves multiple characters dead and the kingdom in disarray.
2. Man vs. Nature
Alternative Terminology Character vs. Environment Individual vs. Natural Forces Protagonist vs. Elements
Definition A conflict that pits characters against natural forces like weather conditions, animals, or geographical challenges.
Example In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the elderly fisherman Santiago battles against the forces of nature, personified by the mighty marlin he attempts to catch. This conflict not only depicts a struggle for survival but also explores themes of courage, man’s will versus uncontrollable external elements, and the inevitability of natural cycles.
3. Man vs. Society
Alternative Terminology Character vs. Culture Individual vs. Social Constructs Protagonist vs. Collective Norms
Definition Here, the protagonist conflicts with societal norms, rules, or cultural practices, often standing against collective prejudice, corruption, or other societal ills.
Example George Orwell’s “1984” portrays Winston Smith’s struggle against the oppressive government of Oceania, led by Big Brother. This conflict against society delves into themes of totalitarianism, individual freedom, and the corrupting influence of unchecked power.
4. Man vs. Self
Alternative Terminology Internal Conflict Character vs. Psyche Individual vs. Inner Struggles
Definition This type of conflict involves an internal struggle within a character, usually involving doubt, ethical dilemmas, or tough decisions.
Example Hamlet’s internal debate over whether to avenge his father’s death illustrates “Man vs. Self” conflict. Hamlet’s soliloquies provide a window into his internal struggle, exploring themes of duty, mortality, and the ethical ambiguity of revenge.
5. Man vs. Technology
Alternative Terminology Character vs. Machine Individual vs. Technological Forces Protagonist vs. Artificial Entities
Definition Characters conflict with technological forces, often leading to questions about humanity, ethics, and the potential dangers of technological advancements.
Example In Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” astronauts conflict with HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence designed to manage their spacecraft. This struggle raises questions about man’s reliance on technology and the ethical considerations of creating machines that can think—and potentially act—against us.
6. Man vs. Fate/God
Alternative Terminology Character vs. Destiny Individual vs. Cosmic Forces Protagonist vs. Predestination
Definition Characters confront conflicts that stem from uncontrollable external forces often deemed divine or predestined.
Example Oedipus’s struggle against his fate in Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” delves into themes of destiny, free will, and the limitations of human agency as he inadvertently fulfils a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.
7. Man vs. Supernatural
Alternative Terminology Character vs. Otherworldly Forces Individual vs. Paranormal Entities Protagonist vs. Mystical Elements
Definition This type encompasses conflicts involving elements that transcend the laws of nature, often featuring in genres like fantasy and horror.
Example Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” involves conflicts with supernatural entities like witches and apparitions. These supernatural elements serve not only as external forces opposing Macbeth but also as catalysts for his internal moral descent, weaving together themes of fate, ambition, and the consequences of unchecked power.
Functions of Conflict in Drama
Conflict serves multiple purposes in drama, from the simple to the more complex. These include plot development, character development, thematic depth, engagement, and resolution.
1. Plot Development
Definition Conflict is the driving force that propels the plot of a drama through various stages, including exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Example In the classic Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex,” the initial conflict is introduced when a plague besets the city of Thebes, compelling Oedipus to find a solution. This sets the stage (exposition) for a series of events (rising action) that lead Oedipus to discover his tragic fate—that he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The climax occurs when this awful truth is revealed, leading to the blinding of Oedipus and his subsequent exile (falling action), finally culminating in a resolution that offers both a sense of closure and a moral lesson on the limitations of human understanding and the inexorable nature of fate.
2. Character Development
Function Conflict functions as a container for character development, revealing various aspects of a character’s motivations, psychological states, and ethical quandaries.
Example Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” showcases how conflict can drive character development. Macbeth’s internal conflict over his ambitions and his sense of morality allows for a complex psychological portrait. His initial hesitancy to kill King Duncan shows his moral reservations, while his eventual decision to commit the murder reveals his darker, more ambitious facets. As the play progresses, his internal and external conflicts lead him to become increasingly tyrannical and isolated, culminating in his tragic downfall.
3. Thematic Depth
Function Conflict is a vehicle for exploring complex themes, often allowing for subtle and multifaceted interpretations of issues like morality, justice, and the human condition.
Example In “Death of a Salesman,” the conflict between Willy Loman and his sons, particularly Biff, explores deeper themes of the American Dream, identity, and familial relationships. Willy’s internal conflict regarding his worth and his external conflict with his family allow the play to delve into an intricate examination of societal values and human shortcomings.
Function Conflict inherently creates tension and suspense, engaging the audience emotionally and cognitively as they anticipate the outcomes of the various conflicts presented.
Example The numerous conflicts in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” particularly between Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, create a palpable tension that keeps the audience invested. The conflicts touch upon issues of class, gender, and mental health, creating a complex tapestry of emotional and intellectual engagement.
Function The resolution of conflict offers closure to the audience, often imparting a moral or thematic lesson that resonates beyond the specificities of the narrative.
Example In “Antigone,” the primary conflict between Antigone and King Creon resolves tragically, with Antigone’s death and Creon’s ultimate realisation of his hubris. This resolution offers a stark lesson on the dangers of inflexible adherence to a law or moral code at the expense of human compassion and understanding. The play closes with a sense of tragic inevitability, underlining the human costs of ethical and political conflicts.
Techniques for Presenting Conflict in Drama
Conflict can be presented in many ways in dramatic works, including character dialogue, action and physicality, symbolism and motifs, sound and music, lighting and scenography.
Technique Dialogue is a primary means of articulating conflict, allowing characters to voice their perspectives, feelings, and motivations. Monologues and soliloquies provide deeper insight into a character’s internal conflict.
Example In Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” dialogue is a central technique for presenting the intricate and emotionally charged conflicts between George and Martha and between them and their guests, Nick and Honey. Sharp, incisive lines and quick exchanges reveal layers of marital discord, failed aspirations, and social expectations. The dialogue is instrumental in creating tension and exposing the vulnerabilities and power dynamics of the characters.
2. Action and Physicality
Technique Non-verbal cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, and physical movements, offer visual representations of conflict, often complementing the spoken dialogue.
Example In Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the physicality of the characters—Vladimir and Estragon—adds complexity to their existential conflict. Simple actions like removing a shoe or pacing in a circle become visually potent representations of their frustration, inactivity, and the circular nature of their existence. These physical manifestations extend the play’s verbal exchanges and create a more immersive experience of the conflict for the audience.
3. Symbolism and Motif
Technique Recurring symbols or themes can subtly or overtly underline conflicts, providing additional layers of meaning.
Example In Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the fragile glass animals serve as a recurring symbol that underscores the emotional and psychological conflicts within the Wingfield family. The delicate glass unicorn, in particular, symbolises Laura’s vulnerability and uniqueness, serving as a focal point for the conflicts surrounding her identity and the family’s overarching struggles with reality and illusion.
4. Sound and Music
Technique Sound and music can be employed to add emotional resonance to the conflict, whether through sound within the world of the play or sound as a complement to the action.
Example In the musical “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim employs music as an essential tool for highlighting the various conflicts. Characters have distinct musical motifs that develop alongside their emotional arcs. Tense musical passages accompany the suspenseful moments, while softer, melancholic tunes underline the tragedy of the characters’ plights, thus expanding the emotional depth of the conflicts presented.
5. Lighting and Scenography
Technique Visual elements such as lighting and set design can set the tone or mood for the conflict, offering a further sensory layer that complements the narrative.
Example In Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the lighting and scenography are crucial in presenting the multifaceted conflicts related to the AIDS crisis, spirituality, and social justice. The frequent changes in lighting correspond to shifts in tone and mood, helping to outline various settings and periods. Ethereal or stark lighting accompanies moments of spiritual or existential conflict, while more naturalistic lighting is employed for realist scenes, thereby enhancing the thematic and emotional intricacies of the conflicts depicted.