Symbolism in Plays: The Art of Conveying Deeper Meanings on Stage

Symbolism in theater is like the secret sauce that gives a play its depth, flavor, and meaning. It’s not just about what you see on the surface; it’s about the hidden messages, the emotions, and the ideas that are conveyed through various elements on stage. From the colors of the costumes to the smallest prop, everything has the potential to carry a deeper meaning. As a millennial audience, we crave content that makes us think, feel, and question. Symbolism in plays does just that. It’s not just a play; it’s an experience.

Introduction to Theatrical Symbolism

Symbolism in theater isn’t a new concept. It’s been around since the days of ancient Greek theater, evolving over the centuries to become a key element in modern plays. But what exactly is it? In simple terms, symbolism in theater is the use of symbols – objects, colors, sounds, or movements – to represent ideas or qualities that are different from their literal sense.

The Evolution of Symbolic Elements

  • 19th Century Origins: Symbolism in theater really took off in the late 19th century with French poets leading the charge. It was a movement that reacted against the realism and naturalism of the time, offering a more stylized, abstract approach to storytelling.
  • Modern Interpretations: Today, symbolism is used in a variety of ways, from highlighting social issues to exploring complex human emotions.

Elements of Symbolism in Theater

Let’s dive into the different elements of symbolism you might encounter in a play.

Characters as Symbolic Elements

  • Beyond the Literal: Characters in a play can represent more than just their actions or words. They can embody concepts like hope, despair, or freedom.
  • Example: Think of a character who always wears white. They might symbolize purity or innocence.

Symbolic Use of Color

  • A Spectrum of Meanings: Colors in theater are never just about aesthetics. They carry meanings and emotions.
  • Red for Passion: For instance, red can symbolize love, anger, or danger.

Movement and Gestures as Symbols

  • Expressing the Unspoken: Sometimes, what a character does is more telling than what they say. A slow walk might indicate sadness, while a sudden movement could signify shock or fear.

Symbolism Through Costumes and Props

Costumes and props are like the unsung heroes of symbolic theater. They can subtly or overtly convey messages and themes.

Costumes Conveying Symbolic Meanings

  • Fabric of Storytelling: The texture, color, and style of a costume can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, background, or current state of mind.

Props as Powerful Symbols

  • Objects with a Story: A simple prop, like a locked diary, could symbolize secrecy or hidden desires.

Symbolic Scenery and Set Design

The set is not just a backdrop; it’s an integral part of the story. It sets the tone and context and can be loaded with symbolism.

Contributing to the Symbolic Landscape

  • More than Meets the Eye: A window in the set might represent freedom or a longing for the outside world.

The Role of Light and Sound in Symbolic Theater

Lighting and sound design are crucial in setting the mood and emphasizing symbolic elements in a play.

Lighting Enhancing Symbolism

  • Shadows and Light: The interplay of light and shadow can create a sense of mystery, danger, or revelation.

Sound and Music as Symbolic Elements

  • Auditory Symbolism: The sound of rain might symbolize cleansing or sadness, depending on the context.

Symbolism in Script and Dialogue

The words spoken by characters can be laden with symbolism, adding layers of meaning to the narrative.

Analyzing Symbolic Language

  • Double Meanings: A line of dialogue might have a surface meaning and a deeper, symbolic interpretation.

Interplay of Dialogue and Symbolism

  • Words as Symbols: A repeated phrase in a play could symbolize a character’s internal conflict or a recurring theme.

Exploring the Depths of Symbolism in Theatrical Styles

In the world of theater, symbolism isn’t just a tool; it’s a language that speaks volumes. It’s the subtle nuances in a Greek tragedy, the bold strokes in a modern play, and the vivid imagery in an expressionist piece. As we continue our journey into the realm of theatrical symbolism, let’s explore how different styles and cultures use this powerful element to tell their stories.

Symbolism in Classical Greek Theater

Greek theater is where it all began, and symbolism was at its heart. Here, every mask, gesture, and chorus line was laden with meaning.

Mythology and Gods as Symbols

  • Divine Representation: Gods and mythical creatures often symbolized human traits and natural forces.
  • Masks and Costumes: These were not just for show; they were symbolic of the character’s role in the story and society.

Modern Theatrical Symbolism

Fast forward to modern times, and symbolism in theater has evolved, yet it retains its core essence – to convey deeper meanings.

Contemporary Symbolic Elements

  • Breaking Boundaries: Modern plays often use symbolism to challenge societal norms and explore complex themes.

Expressionism and Symbolism in Theater

Expressionism in theater is all about exaggeration and distortion to express emotional experience rather than physical reality.

The Role of Symbolism in Expressionism

  • Abstract and Emotional: Here, symbolism is used to depict the inner states of characters, often through distorted sets and lighting.

Global Perspectives on Theatrical Symbolism

The beauty of theater is its universality, and symbolism is a language that transcends borders.

Eastern vs. Western Traditions

  • Cultural Interpretations: Different cultures use symbols in unique ways, reflecting their own stories and histories.

Impact of Symbolism on Audience Perception

The power of symbolism lies in its ability to influence how we perceive and interpret a play.

Influencing Interpretation

  • Personal and Universal: Symbolism can resonate on a personal level while addressing universal themes.

The Future of Symbolic Elements in Theater

As we look ahead, the role of symbolism in theater is set to evolve, embracing new forms and ideas.

Emerging Trends and Predictions

  • Innovative Approaches: Future plays might use technology and multimedia to create new types of symbolic expressions.

Symbolism in theater is like a treasure hunt – the more you look, the more you find. It’s a journey through time, culture, and emotion, revealing the depth and complexity of human experience. Whether it’s the subtle hint of a color, the bold statement of a set piece, or the layered meaning of a line of dialogue, symbolism enriches our understanding and enjoyment of theater. It’s not just about what’s on stage; it’s about what’s behind it, beneath it, and beyond it.


This exploration of theatrical symbolism is a reminder that in the world of theater, nothing is as simple as it seems. Every element, every gesture, and every word is a piece of a larger puzzle, waiting to be deciphered and understood. As millennials, we’re not just passive viewers; we’re active participants in this artistic conversation. We’re here to question, to interpret, and to find our own meanings in the rich tapestry of the theater.