Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Shakespeare’s Use of Stage Directions

Did Shakespeare Write Any Stage
Compared with modern plays, the majority of Shakespeare’s work is somewhat light on the stage direction front.

However, when he does use them, they can be comical, impractical and, sometimes, downright bizarre.

Why Wasn’t Shakespeare a Big Fan of Stage Directions?

If we compare Shakespeare’s plays with those of George Bernard Shaw, you will notice a distinct disparity in the length and content of the playwrights’ stage directions. For example, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession begins:

Summer afternoon in a cottage garden on the eastern slope of a hill a little south of Haslemere in Surrey. Looking up the hill, the cottage is seen in the left hand corner of the garden, with its thatched roof and porch, and a large latticed window to the left of the porch. A paling completely shuts in the garden, except for a gate on the right. The common rises uphill beyond the paling to the sky line. Some folded canvas garden chairs are leaning against the side bench in the porch. A lady's bicycle is propped against the wall, under the window. A little to the right of the porch a hammock is slung from two posts. A big canvas umbrella, stuck in the ground, keeps the sun off the hammock, in which a young lady is reading and making notes, her head towards the cottage and her feet towards the gate. In front of the hammock, and within reach of her hand, is a common kitchen chair, with a pile of serious-looking books and a supply of writing paper on it.

A gentleman walking on the common comes into sight from behind the cottage. He is hardly past middle age, with something of the artist about him, unconventionally but carefully dressed, and clean-shaven except for a moustache, with an eager susceptible face and very amiable and considerate manners. He has silky black hair, with waves of grey and white in it. His eyebrows are white, his moustache black. He seems not certain of his way. He looks over the palings; takes stock of the place; and sees the young lady.

Yes, that’s all before a word of dialogue has been spoken. Now, let’s compare this with the opening of Hamlet:

FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO

It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s to the point. So, can we deduce anything from this comparison, other than the fact that Shaw is a pernickety windbag?* Well, all we really need do is think about the purpose of stage directions. They are there to tell the actors and the director what the writer has in his or her mind’s eye.

Shakespeare was a Director as
Well as a Playwright
A large part of the reason that Shakespeare does not need to tell us whether or not Francisco has a moustache or ‘something of the artist about him’, is because he was directing most of his work himself. While writing, old Shakey probably had actors from his company already in mind for specific roles. And, I suspect, he did not have the foresight to realise that, 400 years after his death, people would still be producing his plays. Subsequently, stage directions were largely unnecessary for Shakespeare.

In fact, because many of Shakespeare’s works were published from various sources after his death, we can’t even be sure that the stage directions we now read were written by him in the first place. There is no way of distinguishing between the directions that Shakespeare penned and those that have been added subsequently.

Of course, from an actor’s or director’s point of view, this opens a world of opportunities. We can quite freely interpret Shakespeare’s work, in the knowledge that no one can really know what the playwright had in mind. The same cannot be said of the likes of Samuel Beckett, who had incredibly strict rules about the way in which his works could be performed.

When Shakespeare Does Use Stage Directions

Even on the odd occasions that Shakespeare does use stage directions, they are much more concise than George Bernard Shaw’s. However, it seems to have been something he was more keen on during the early part of his career. Possibly, this is because he did not have as much of an active role in the rehearsals and production of the early plays. And, up until the Chamberlain’s Men gained exclusive rights to perform his work, companies he was not directly associated with may have been producing his plays.

Consequently, we have the likes of this: “The Tomb of the ANDRONICI appearing; the Tribunes and Senators aloft. Enter, below, from one side, SATURNINUS and his Followers; and, from the other side, BASSIANUS and his Followers; with drum and colours, in the opening of Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s Most Bizarre Stage Directions

Of course, Shakespeare makes up for the low quantity of stage directions with the quality of the ones he does use. As mentioned above, Shakespeare puts the ‘direct’ in stage direction.

For instance, in Othello, “He stifles her.” We don’t need to know that Othello’s head was ‘towards the cottage’ while his feet are ‘toward the gate’. We just get straight down to brass tacks.

Now, of course, there are times when stage directions can provide an element of humour. However, whether the following bizarre stage directions are intended to be funny is open to interpretation.

Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand Titus Andronicus

Poor old Antigonus: Exit Pursued by a Bear
Exit pursued by a bearA Winter’s Tale

On the one hand, these scenes are both meant to be serious and tragic. However, both could easily be twisted for comic effect…and they wouldn’t have to be twisted much.

And I suppose that’s the beauty of Shakespeare’s stage directions - just like every other aspect of his plays, we are free to interpret them as we like. We can put our own stamps on the plays.

In a way, we can make them our own. Which, for my money, is part of the reason that Shakespeare is so treasured.

* I am actually very fond of GBS and he is neither pernickety nor a windbag.


  1. dose not help thy ateth all

  2. Lack of enters and exits?

    1. Hi there,

      I'm not entirely sure what you're asking. Shakespeare does indeed use 'enters' and 'exits', but often that's about as much as he gives in terms of direction. If there's something specific you're confused about, let me know and I'll help if I can.

  3. April 2016 at 14:45

    So, when Polonious asks Hamlet "What do you read my Lord? is Hamlet actually holding a book in his hand? If he is, then the verb form is wrong by modern standards, Polonius should have asked "what are you reading",that is to say, Plonius is asking what Hamlet is reading NOW. We would nowadays take Polonius's question to mean "What sort of matter do you read GENERALLY or USUALLY? Verb forms changed about this time, in Bible English you could say "I go to Jerusalem" or "I go not to Jerusalem", but you couldn't say that nowadays, you would have to say "I am going to Jerusalem" or "I am not going to Jerusalem" or "I go to Jerusalem" (in a more restricted sense than earlier or "I do not go to Jerusalem". The whole conjugation has been split in two. Was Shakespeare aware of it?

    1. Hello Michael,

      Yes, I think Hamlet very likely does have a book in his hand. And, you're right, nowadays we would say 'What are you reading?'. What's odd about the funny, old English language is that wouldn't necessarily be true of all verbs, though. For instance, if you were staring at something, I'd be more likely to ask, 'what do you see?' rather than, 'what are you seeing?' - although, neither would be wrong.

      For as long as the English language has been used, it's been incredibly malleable. It is, let's be honest, a bit of a bastardisation of a host of other languages. And then we've gone and made words up wholesale; Shakespeare did it often and we still do it today. Shakespeare was certainly working in a time when there were very few 'rules'. There wasn't even any consensus on spelling. So it was a fast and loose kind of time.

      Shakespeare was writing with only two concerns, I think: Either dialogue that sounded natural for the era - as is the case with 'What do you read, my lord?'. Or dialogue that sounded beautiful - as is the case with much of the rest of his work. I would be inclined to say grammar wasn't on his radar...but then, there weren't any grammar rules to be near a radar anyway. It was just a case of what was in vogue at the time. And 'reading' wasn't.

      Hope that sort of answers your question. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Shakespeare provides very little stage direction so how does he use various story elements (plot diagram, character development, how he chooses to order his scenes in terms of which characters are involved) to move the story along? How do these choices affect the overall impact of the story

    1. Great question! Without being able to ask him, I wouldn't be able to give you a definite answer, though. Is this an essay question? If so, it's a case of forming an opinion and providing evidence to back it up, so it's about what you think rather than what I think.

      Good luck!

  5. Interesting article. I have provided a link from my latest piece for my IGCSE students to this piece as well as recommending the site in general. I think they will get a lot out of it. Thanks.