Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Commonly Used Terms in Shakespeare’s Stage Directions

In my last post, I took a quick look at the lack of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. However, within the few directions that the Bard does give, there are some commonly used phrases, which may seem rather alien.

Why do they seem alien? Well, it has a lot to do with our modern understanding of how a theatre should look. Because, of course, Shakespeare’s theatres, whether outdoor, like The Globe, or indoor, like Blackfriars, were vastly different from the proscenium arch theatres that are the ‘norm’ for us.

What Did Shakespeare's Globe Look Like?

So, before we take a look at some of Shakespeare’s most commonly used stage direction terms, let’s have a quick gander at The Globe’s stage.

A Sketch of the Interior of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

As you can see, the theatre is open-air, with the exception of the small portion of roof, supported by two columns, which covers the stage. If necessary, actors could be lowered onto the stage from this roof, which was known as the ‘heavens’, with the help of a harnesses and some ropes.

At the back of the stage, there are three doors (used for exits and entrances) and, above, is a balcony - this was usually home to the musicians, but could also be used by the actors.

Finally, it’s handy to note that the stage itself was approximately 5ft in height and the ‘groundlings’ (those who paid just a penny to frequent the theatre) would be crammed onto the floor space around it, perhaps even leaning on the edge of the stage. If the mood took them, it would be quite possible for them to grasp the legs of King Lear or Macbeth.

The Interior of the Rebuilt Globe Theatre

Shakespearean Stage Directions

Some of the most common terms in Shakespeare’s stage directions are:

Above - This is exactly what it suggests. Any action that takes place ‘above’, is performed on the balcony above the stage. This is used (unimaginatively enough) as a balcony, for Juliet or the grumpy, half-asleep Brabantio. However, it could also be used to represent city walls. And, sometimes, it’s a convenient location for those who are overhearing conversations that are being had on the main stage.

Alarum - You may be able to discern that this is where the word ‘alarm’ comes from. And it has a similar meaning, except ‘alarum’, specifically, refers to a call to arms. In Shakespearean theatrical terms, it meant a fight, brawl, scuffle - what you will. Often, fight sequences would use every available inch of the stage and may even have gone down into the audience.

Below - Because the stage was 5ft high, it obviously had considerable space beneath, which was accessible by a trap door. This space was known as ‘Hell’ by the theatre lovies and would often represent a grave, dungeon or even the underworld. Shakespeare’s gravediggers use ‘Hell’ in Hamlet and it would have also been used, aptly enough, as Malvolio’s cell in Twelfth Night.

Discovered - As you may be able to see in the sketch of Shakespeare’s Globe, there is a section of the stage (in the centre), which can be covered with a curtain. This is known as the ‘discovery’ space and would be used for a private room, such as Gertrude’s closet in Hamlet or Desdemona’s bedchamber in Othello.

Dumbshow - Pretty self-explanatorily, a dumbshow is a sequence of performance with no words. Even by Shakespeare’s time, this was considered to be a pretty outdated and hokey form of drama, which tells us something about Hamlet’s players.

Flourish - Quite simply, a flourish was a fanfare of cornets, often to announce the entrance of a king, lord or emperor. As mentioned above, the musicians would usually be positioned on the balcony.

Severally - When a group of actors is instructed to reach the stage ‘severally’, it means that they should come in using different entrances. The word translates as ‘separately’ and, as the characters are using different doors to enter, it suggests that they are approaching from different locations.

And there you have it, Shakespearean stage directions explained. If you are not fortunate enough to be able to see a play in performance, it’s tremendously helpful to be able to envisage exactly what Shakespeare had in mind.

If there are any other terms in Shakespearean stage directions that you would like clarified, just let me know in the comments below.


  1. What were the Shakespearean equivalents of "Action" and "Cut", when the director was rehearsing a scene?

  2. Hello, Atrox.

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

    'Action' and 'cut', really go with the likes of 'rolling' and 'check the gate' - they're used in the realm of filming. I've certainly never heard the word 'action' used in theatrical circumstances, but perhaps there are those beret-wearing theatre directors who do. I would venture, though, that those phrases were not used until the birth of film.

    Actually, if cameras had been invented sooner, I dare say Shakespeare would have been a film maker. But, as for what he said when he wanted his actors to start or stop on stage, who knows. "We'll go from your line, John." And "No, you cretin, it's 'creeps in this PETTY pace', not pretty pace." Perhaps?

  3. Thanks for your response. Now that film is becoming passe in cinema, I wonder what terms might be used in the digital future to replace "roll film" and "cut"? Although obsolete terms can hang around a long time (at least used by old-timers). I still go to the icebox for margarine. At least I no longer have to open the little package of yellow dye to make the margarine look like butter... (None of your students will catch that reference)

  4. Haha! Good point. I'm not sure what will happen to film terms, when actual film is a distant memory. I think, you're right, they'll certainly stick around for a generation or two and then someone will wonder where these 'bizarre' and, seemingly, meaningless expressions come from! Such is the way of the world. They’ll eventually go the same way as many Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical terms.

  5. does the direction "enter speaking" appear in any of the plays

    1. Hello there,

      Thanks for the question. I don't believe so, but I'd have to check through all the plays to be 100% sure. Typically, the 'enter' directions are just a straightforward "Enter so-and-so", but, of course, many characters do enter speaking.

      There are a few interesting variations on the 'enter' directions, like "Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues" from the opening of Henry IV Part 2. And "Enter a Clown, with a basket, and two pigeons in it" from Titus. Well, what's a self-respecting clown without a basket and a couple of pigeons?

      Thanks again.

  6. I have recently come across a stage direction of [air] from 'Much Ado About Nothing'. What does this mean?

    1. Hello Julie,

      The air in Much Ado About Nothing refers to the musical type of 'air' (the most popular example being Bach's Air on the G String), which is just a song-like piece either for voice or instruments. In the play, it could be a short ditty for a lute, because lute airs were particularly popular at the time, but as Shakespeare doesn't get any more specific, that's just a guess.

      Hope that helps.

    2. Thank you - Will be reading with some High School kids, and knew it would come up!

    3. It's a pleasure. Hope the kids enjoy it; it's a play that can be a lot of fun!

  7. Hi I'm currently working on a paper about the tragic figure and I'd like to know if you consider Iago a tragic figure and why?

    1. Hello there Hcg,

      Thanks very much for the question. I must say, I try to take a sympathetic view with all of Shakespeare's characters, even the villains (and, with most of them, that's actually not too hard). Iago, however, does push my capacity for sympathy too far. To be honest, I think he's the closest we get to pure evil in any Shakespeare play. He, unlike every other Shakespearean villain, doesn't have even a hint of conscience. He's pretty much a psychopath.

      And his reasons for wanting to destroy Othello are so thin. I wrote a piece about that, if you're interested. What's Iago's Beef? His anger against the world, unlike someone like Richard III or Edmund in King Lear for example, simply isn't justified - for me anyway.

      Lastly, I'd have to say, he doesn't fit with any of the hallmarks of a 'tragic figure', at least in the Aristotelian sense. He's not an essentially good man; someone we can look up to. He doesn't possess a tragic flaw...not really. And the crimes he commits are not accidental or unforeseen. He very much knows what he's doing.

      That's all just my tuppence worth. What do you think, though? Do you feel there is something sympathetic in him or that his path can be viewed as tragic?

      Thanks again for the interesting question!
      Best wishes,

  8. The sketch near the top of the page does NOT depict the Globe Theatre. Sketches or other renderings of the Globe do not exist. Apparently you copied a drawing of another theatre, probably the Swan. For accurate information on Shakespeare, see

    1. Hi, MJ.

      How lovely of you to pop by and take the time to comment. I don't for one moment suppose (or, more importantly, suggest) that the image is a contemporary sketch of the inside of The Globe - more of an artist's impression drawn after the fact.

      Given the current Globe is as faithful a reproduction as it's possible to make, I'd say the drawing is a fairly accurate rendering of what Shakespeare's Globe would have looked like. I, therefore, don't quite see what you have your knickers in a twist over.

      But thanks so much again for stopping by.