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Subtext is content of a book, play, musical work, film, video game or television series which is not announced explicitly by the characters (or author) but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters which are only covered in an aside. Subtext can also be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction, often through use of metaphor.

Subtext is content underneath the spoken dialogue. Under dialogue, there can be conflict, anger, competition, pride, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters -- what they really think and believe. Subtext just beneath the surface of dialogue makes life interesting, but it can also cause people to be misunderstood.

Examples of subtext often include the sexuality of the characters, such as the nature of the relationship between the teachers in the film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour (which was based on an actual case in Scotland), or the gender ambiguity of Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served?.

In the play "Ghosts" by Henrik Ibsen subtext is important in gaining a greater understanding of the character as they cannot always speak freely due to the constrictions of social conventions at the time.

A scene in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, in which subtitles explain the characters' inner thoughts during an apparently innocent conversation, is an example of the subtext of a scene being made explicit.

Especially in light of their inherently ambiguous and self-referential character, many authors have explicitly used subtexts (or subtexts about subtexts) in humor.

In the episode "My Best Friend's Bottom" of 'British TV comedy Coupling, Captain Subtext is a tool used in the narrative to explicitly make the viewers aware of the subtextual message in the dialogue. In it, the dialogue and the subtext have been deliberately made humorous.

It might also be claimed in these last two examples that once the subtext is made explicit, it is no longer a subtext: The authors are highlighting a supposed subtext in order to create a new subtext about the transformation of the previously implicit subtext. Because of their complexity and implicit character, subtexts are often debated, especially by theorists wishing to advance a particular position or theory by claiming something as a subtext.

Subtext is also a frequently used method of subtly inserting social or political commentary into fiction. (This technique is not new. Voltaire used it in Zadig and Candide.) Subtext is often also inserted in narratives where explicit themes are unable to be shown or expressed due to censorship or simply interest in appealing to a general audience. Frequently, these subtexts may be of, but not limited to, a sexual nature or possible references to sexual orientation. Their inclusion is such so that they are easily overlooked by younger viewers but may be caught by more mature viewers. Television sci-fi such as the original Star Trek and Doctor Who (both of which implicitly avoided onscreen sexual situations) have often been discussed with respect to certain scenes or lines of dialogue. Subtext also serves to add a complexity to a premise that may superficially appeal to younger viewers but may also attract older fans, as is often the case with cartoons, sci-fi and fantasy. It also may serve to aid in suspension of disbelief.

Political uses

Historians have often identified certain themes that served as subtexts during times of chaotic change or revolution. By careful use of subtext, especially such that is highly symbolic and culturally bound to a sub-group with little formal power, groups can work to instill a sense of purpose or focus to an anticipated future revolution, often without the ruling party's understanding.

Such an example of the power and controversy of subtexts might include the deliverance theme pervasive in the songs, stories and symbols of the slaves in the United States up through the Civil Rights era and perhaps, still today. Note the recurrent themes of Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the thinly veiled reference to the big dipper and little dipper constellations in the Spiritual "Follow the drinking gourd."[citation needed]

Others would point to the "deep river" and "looking to Canaan land" subtexts as working to pacify or fragment the slave population by focusing their attention on the afterlife thus possibly overlooking the injustice of the present.

See also








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