Fragment of a cue script for the part of Orlando in Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso (early 1590’s), and a modern transcript.
“Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it without a prompter.”
-Othello, Othello, I.ii.83-84
As with numerous other theatrical practices, the job of learning one’s lines in the world of early modern theatre was dramatically different than the way in which the same task is undertaken today. English satirist Stephen Gosson put the matter succinctly in 1579, when he wrote, “Players action, doeth answere to their partes.” This statement is true on multiple levels; not only did an actor craft their performance based on their assigned character within a play, but also on the literal, tangible “part” which they received in order to learn their lines for that character. These parts came in the form of cue scripts, and they were a valuable tool throughout the rehearsal process for any actor of Shakespeare’s day.
When it came to memorizing dialogue, early modern actors did not receive complete copies of the play in which they were performing. Full scripts were a luxury and a rarity, given the malleable nature of crafting a play and prepping it for performance. Instead, players were presented only with their individual parts in the shape of cue scripts. These personalized scripts contained only one character’s complete lines, along with each line’s “cue,” a mere two or three words of the preceding speech. It was based on these last few words that an actor had to learn when to deliver his lines, a challenging exercise which required a good amount of mental dexterity. To further complicate matters, cue scripts did not specify by whom the cues were spoken, so an actor had to be alert at all times for those certain combinations of words, which could come from any other player onstage at any time, and which could be unmistakably unique or as mundane as “my lord.” This meant that it was just as crucial for an actor to memorize his cue as his own speech. All cues also had to be listened for with great concentration, for, if a cue were missed, onstage action would come to a halt. By the same token, an actor had to be careful to articulate at least the end of each of his speeches correctly, so that he would, in turn, provide an identifiable cue for his fellow actor. This meant that there was little room for improvisation on the Elizabethan stage within the carefully constructed framework of the script. Instead, dialogue exchange was an intricate puzzle, made to fit together one specific way in order to create a clear and pleasing picture.
Here is an example of a basic cue script format for a scene from Hamlet:
Enter two Sentinels-[first,] Francisco, [who paces up and down at his post; then] Bernardo, [who approaches him].
. . . unfold yourself.
Long live the King!
. . . Bernardo?
. . . upon your hour.
'Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
. . . sick at heart.
Have you had quiet guard?
. . .mouse stirring.
Well, good night.
. . holla, Bernardo
Say- What, is Horatio there?
. . . piece of him.
Welcome, Horatio. Welcome, good Marcellus.
. . . again to-night?
I have seen nothing.
. . . ‘twill not appear.
Sit down awhile,
. . . speak of this.
Last night of all,
. . . it comes again!
In the same figure, like the King that's dead.
. . . to it, Horatio.
Looks it not like the King? Mark it, Horatio.
. . . fear and wonder.
It would be spoke to.
. . .is offended.
See, it stalks away!
Physically, early modern cue scripts were comprised of multiple sheets of paper pasted together and secured with wooden dowels at either end, which allowed them to be rolled up into a small scroll. It is also from this practice that modern theatre gets the term “role” in reference to an actor’s part. In the sixteenth century, constructing these cue scripts in was a specialized job. A copyist was hired by the company, and it was this copyist’s job to write out the part for each character. First, a sheet of paper was divided lengthwise and cut into six-inch widths, which were then pasted end-to-end to form a continuous strip. In addition to the closing words of all preceding speeches, stage directions for the character were included in the left-hand margin. Producing complete, handwritten copies of any given play for all of the actors involved would have been expensive and time consuming. On a basic level, cue scripts were convenient and economical; they were relatively easy to produce, and they were handier for private study. Anything more elaborate would have been considered simply unnecessary to Elizabethan acting companies.
Some concessions, however, had been made over time in the history of cue scripts. The earliest extant English parts provided the actors only with their spoken lines and no cues at all. It is believed by scholars that the eventual inclusion of cues marked a change in acting style from the medieval to the early modern eras, accompanied by a lessening in conspicuousness of a prompter on the stage. During the Middle Ages, the prompter may have stood mid-stage and pointed to the actor’s speeches with a baton. By the sixteenth century, the prompter had been relegated offstage to the tyring-house, and the cue scripts themselves had become the primary learning tool for memorization. This, in turn, privatized rehearsal to a large degree. Cue scripts allowed an actor to prepare for a role independent of the company. In a business which depended on putting up as many plays as possible in a short amount of time in order to make a profit, such a method was the most practical and time-efficient.
Shakespeare’s works, along with numerous others of sixteenth and seventeenth century playwrights, are littered with references to “cues,” such as the quote from Othello presented at the beginning of this article. These casual allusions would seem to indicate a familiarity of play-going audiences of the time with the word, as well as an appreciation of how it might be used either to humorous or dramatic effect, or metaphorically. Characters often exhort each other to remember their “cues” in different situations. In a comedic moment in Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice urges Claudio, “Speak, Count, ‘tis your cue” (II.i.281). In a darker moment, during a monologue in King Lear, Edmund proclaims, “My cue is villainous melancholy” (I.ii.134). There is an inherent implication in the text that an audience will understand these allusions. Another particularly famous “cue” reference of the early modern period may be found in an unexpected place: the epitaph for the famous actor Richard Burbage, member of the Lord Chamberlain and the King’s Men and star of numerous of Shakespeare’s plays. Said to be inscribed on Burbage’s grave, (now lost), the tribute read simply “------------Exit Burbage.” It is the ultimate exit cue, and also a bit of theatrical humor and an appropriate tribute to a great actor which any member of society might have understood.
Links to the ASC
Cue scripts are not extinct in modern Shakespearean theatre. In fact, cue scripts are still used by the actors at the American Shakespeare Center, and they play a particularly central role during the Actors’ Renaissance Season.
 Stephen Gosson, The Ephemerides of Phialo (1579), quoted in Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.
 Don Weingust, Acting from Shakespeare’s First Folio: Theory, Text, and Performance (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 145-146.
 Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), 157-158.
 Palfrey and Stern, 16, 62-65.
 W.W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses (Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, 1931), Vol. 2.
 Palfrey and Stern, 87.