The Symposium is considered a dialogue – a form used by Plato in more than thirty works – but in fact it is predominantly a series of essay-like speeches from differing points of view. So dialogue plays a smaller role in the Symposium than it does in Plato’s other dialogues. With dialogue, Socrates is renowned for his dialectic, which is his ability to ask questions that encourage others to think deeply about what they care about, and articulate their ideas. In the Symposium the dialectic exists among the speeches: in seeing how the ideas conflict from speech-to-speech, and in the effort to resolve the contradictions and see the philosophy that underlies them all.
It is important to understand that the Symposium is, like all of Plato’s dialogues, fiction. The characters and the settings are to some degree based on history, but they are not reports of events that actually occurred or words that were actually spoken. There is no reason to think they were not composed entirely by Plato. The reader, understanding that Plato was not governed by the historical record, can read the Symposium, and ask why the author, Plato, arranged the story the way he did, and what he meant by including the various aspects of setting, composition, characters, and theme, etc.
For a very long time it was widely believed that Socrates was presented in the dialogues by his admiring disciple, Plato, as an ideal philosopher and ideal human being. It was thought that what Socrates said was what Plato agreed with or approved of. Then in the late 20th Century another interpretation began to challenge that idea. This new idea considers that the Symposium is intended to criticize Socrates, and his philosophy, and to reject certain aspects of his behavior. It also considers that Socratic philosophy may have lost touch with the actual individual as it devoted itself to abstract principles.
The above view, attributed to Martha Nussbaum, can however be challenged in favor of the traditional one. The portrayal of Socrates in the Symposium (for instance his refusal to give in to Alcibiades’ sexual advances) is consistent with the account of Socrates put forward by Xenophon and the theories that Socrates defends throughout the platonic corpus. Plato shows off his master as a man of high moral standards, unwavered by baser urges and fully committed to the study and practice of proper self-government in both individuals and communities (the so-called "royal science"). The dialogue’s ending constrasts Socrates’ intellectual and emotional self-mastery with Alcibiades’ debauchery and lack of moderation to explain the latter’s reckless political career, disastrous military campaigns and eventual demise. Alcibiades is corrupted by his physical beauty and the advantages thereof ; he ultimately fails to ascend to the Form of Beauty through philosophy.
One critic, James Arieti, considers that the Symposium resembles a drama, with emotional and dramatic events occurring especially when Alcibiades crashes the banquet. Arieti suggests that it should be studied more as a drama, with a focus on character and actions, and less as an exploration of philosophical ideas. This suggests that the characters speak, as in a play, not as the author, but as themselves. This theory, Arieti has found, reveals how much each of the speakers of the Symposium resembles the god, Eros, that they each are describing. It may be Plato’s point to suggest that when humankind talks about god, they are drawn towards creating that god in their own image.
Andrew Dalby considers the opening pages of the Symposium the best depiction in any ancient Greek source of the way texts are transmitted by oral tradition without writing. It shows how an oral text may have no simple origin, and how it can be passed along by repeated tellings, and by different narrators, and how it can be sometimes verified, and sometimes corrupted. The story of the symposium is being told by Apollodorus to his friend. Apollodorus was not himself at the banquet, but he heard the story from Aristodemus, a man who was there. Also, Apollodorus was able to confirm parts of the story with Socrates himself, who was one of the speakers at the banquet. A story that Socrates narrates, when it is his turn to speak, was told to Socrates by a woman named Diotima, a philosopher and a priestess.