Stage Directions

Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Stage Directions

“The actors are at hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.”
- Peter Quince, A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.116-117

The Elizabethan Stage:1 
An understanding of Shakespearean stage directions must begin with an understanding of Shakespearean staging. One contemporary description of early modern stage practice is from Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to London in 1599. He wrote:

“The playhouses are so constructed that they [the players] play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats, which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door.”[2]

Permanent playhouses were still a fairly new concept in Elizabethan London when Shakespeare was writing since the first purpose built playhouse was built in 1576 in north London. For the most part, theatres followed a similar design pattern, and therefore, it follows that early modern stage directions were largely influenced by the structural features of these playhouses. For example, theatres had a “heaven” and “hell” (the spaces above and below the stage), and these figured prominently in stage directions throughout the early modern period. Aside from providing some exciting stage action, entrances to or from the heavens or hell had a powerful symbolic effect on an audience. The Roman god Juno enters from the heavens in The Tempest. This direction reads only “Juno descends [slowly in her car],” and twenty-five more lines of dialogue occur before the direction “Juno alights” (IV.i.74-100), offering an idea of how long it might have taken for an actor to be completely lowered from the heavens. 

Conversely, directions relating to hell, unsurprisingly, held negative connotations for Shakespeare’s audiences. In Antony and Cleopatra, one stage direction reads “Musicke of the hoboyes is under the stage” (IV.iii.12), which creates an eerie effect.  The trapdoor is where the ghost in Hamlet would likely have entered and from whence the witches in Macbeth came and went. The cosmic symbolism of the playhouse has been noted by scholar David Bevington, who argues that “with painted heavens above and trapdoor (or doors) leading to the underworld below, the main stage could suggest earth itself, the realm of human activity, set in the midst of a cosmic theatrum mundi.” This quote shows the significance of the location that a particular stage direction calls for, but it also highlights the level of inclusiveness of the audience, since they are in the earthly realm with the actors where the stagecraft is taking place.[3]

Yet variations in stage directions did occur from theatre to theatre. In a space like the original Blackfriars in London, which was smaller and narrower than the Globe, appropriate alterations had to be made to stage directions. Interestingly, the style of Shakespeare’s stage directions changes for the different theaters he wrote for over the course of his career. Large-scale battles were not included in plays written for the Blackfriars stage, most likely because the weapons called for in such scenes would endanger audience members sitting directly on the stage on gallant stools. His stage directions are a reflection of a time in which playwrights were writing for specific theatres and not crafting general plays meant to be staged easily in any location.[4] 

Platter’s description also speaks to the fact that audience participation and engagement in early modern theatre was a far more frequent occurrence than it is in modern theaters today. In fact, Elizabethan audiences came to a performance fully prepared to interact with the players on the stage.  For early modern playgoers, there was not a sense of detachment from what was happening onstage often found in a theatre today, but rather a deep, mental connection to the characters and plots presented before them. This actor-audience relationship was further enhanced by the layout of the sixteenth century stage, which was a three-dimensional structure, thrusting out into the audience space. This design meant that the audience surrounded the stage on all sides and all levels, and consequently there was no dividing boundary of a curtain to rise and fall between scenes. Such a layout required that that blocking be concentric; the main speakers would stand in the center (locus), with commentators or supporting figures orbiting around the sides (platea). This, in turn, meant that even when sitting at the very back of a large outdoor theater, an audience member was never more than fifty feet away from the actors. Intimacy with the audience was also established through dramatic devices such as the soliloquy, during which a character addresses the audience, inviting them to consider private thoughts. In this way, through the stage layout and directions, audiences became powerfully invested in the events that were happening before them.[5] 

The Swan theatre, 1596, from a drawing by Johannes de Witt 

Many initial editors of early modern play texts assumed that the majority of stage directions that the plays contained were not original to the playwright, but were added as needed by players, scribes, or printers over the years. Current scholars such as Alan Dessen, however, believe that many of these directions may be attributed to the original author. According to Dessen, most extant stage directions relate to “traffic control” onstage, with the most commonly used directive being “enter.” He further categorizes these directions in several ways. First are those which encompass proper names (“Hamlet,” “Faustus”), titles or professions “(queen,” “bishop”), and generic types or collective nouns (“army,” “citizens,” “servants”). Place is also often specified in stage directions (“above,” “below,” “in a prison”), as well as the condition of the entering character (“bleeding,” “reading,” “disguised”). At the same time, when originally penned, these directions were often left open-ended so that the playhouse professionals could interpret them as they deemed most appropriate for their circumstances. These “coded signals,” as Dessen calls them, allowed the players freedom to provide their own definition of terms like “followers” or “sundry.” The authors of these plays and original directions took into account the expertise of the players; and William Shakespeare, as a playwright and player would have had particular insight into this process. A direction such as “Exit cor[p]se” (Richard III, 1.2.226) is clearly not meant to signify a zombie-like episode in the text. Instead, players would have read this as inclusive of attendants and whatever props were necessary. Therefore, while Shakespeare’s lack of detailed stage directions can be baffling to modern readers, they likely imply an implicit conversation between early modern theatrical professionals.[6]

Two kinds of stage directions appear in Shakespeare’s plays: the explicit stage directions, such as “enter” and “exit;” and internal stage directions, meaning the language of the text implies a certain action needs to occur. Often characters’ actions are stated by other characters in the scene. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the watchman declares, “Here is a friar that trembles, sighs and weeps” (V.iii.184).  It is clear from this line the way that Friar Lawrence is acting without an explicit stage direction needed to state it.  The characters’ lines can also inform the audience about time of day and setting as well. In Hamlet, Bernardo asks “Who’s there?” because he cannot see as it is dark, alerting the audience to the fact that it is the middle of the night (I.i.1).  Often Shakespeare embeds his stage directions in the text so the actors and audience are aware of setting, time and action without needing to be explicitly told.

Links to the ASC 
As a current performer of early modern theatre, American Shakespeare Center actor René Thornton Jr. is aware of these written and unwritten directions in the text. He shares that “at ASC, awareness of stage directions is heightened. [We] make an effort to always follow [them]. [They are] not the first thing to go, as might be in other theatres. Still important though, to ask why there’s a certain stage direction, what’s the reason for it? Have a conversation about them. As an actor, they have lots of input on how stage directions will be interpreted. Sometimes change to directions is ‘merely a practical matter,’ for costume change, doubling, etc. Also change by hardly ever having all the actors exit at the end of a show. Try to keep everyone on stage. Fun, however, that they are vague and thus open to interpretation.”  Since the actors at the ASC are always in shared lighting, their actions are highlighted more than in a modern theatre with controlled spotlights.  

Staging at the Blackfriars playhouse allows for audience interaction in the Elizabethan tradition.  Particularly for those audience members who are seated on stage on the gallant stools, the action is close at hand. The audience is also used as part of the productions as well. For example, the audience was used as the parliament in Richard II. The actors think about how to best accommodate all audience members, since they are on all sides and on two different levels.  If there’s a four-poster bed onstage, actors need to figure out how to act around it so that they are not hidden from the audience. René shares that they “come up with creative solutions. Or in Renaissance season, often stage the frequent battles found in the history plays offstage and utilize sound effects, because of time constraint. Definitely some difficult directions for Blackfriars stage, such as how to draw up Caesar in Anthony and Cleopatra, or how Beatrice and Benedick can hide behind trees in Much Ado about Nothing.”  

The American Shakespeare Center adheres strictly to the explicit stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as remaining sensitive to internal stage directions as well. René points out that they “never go to the extent of re-interpreting stage directions to take them entirely out of context. If there’s a more modern setting, but a fight scene, [we] will not take it so modern that swords would be nonsensical, but won’t compromise and change weapons. [It’s] important to retain [the] feel of Elizabethan style theatre, even if not always literal. High tech would make things easier, but not cleverer. Sometimes [it is] more fun for [the] audience to have to use their imagination to supply missing elements in the space.”

[1] C. Walter Hodges, Enter the Whole Army: A Pictorial Study of Shakespearean Staging, 1576-1616 
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 20. 
[2] Thomas Platter, “A Swiss Tourist in London” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Norton Topics Online),
[3] David Bevington, Action is Eloquence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 99. 
[4] Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 22-30.
[5] Andrew Gurr, The Shakespeare Company: 1594-1642 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 47-48.
[6] Alan C. Dessen, The Elizabethan-Jacobean Script-to-Stage Process: The Playwright, Theatrical Intentions, and Collaboration, STYLE, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2010), 396-398.