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The Anatomy of a Shakespeare Play
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Divisions of the Script      Divisions of the Stage Drama      Glossary of Stage Directions
By Michael J. Cummings...©  2012

Each Shakespeare play has two structures: one for the script (text) and one for the drama as it unfolds.

The Script

The script of each play has the following components:
Title: The name of the comedy, tragedy, or history.
Dramatis Personae: The list of characters. Dramatis personae is Latin for persons of the drama or characters of the drama.
Acts and Scenes: Acts are major divisions of the play. Each Shakespeare play has five acts, and each act has one or more scenes. (See examples below.) Stage directions in brackets accompany each scene to indicate where the action is taking place, when the actors should enter and leave the stage, and when instrumental or vocal music should play. Stage directions also present cues for sound effects such as thunder, as well additional directions for the actors.
Sometimes a script also contains one or more of the following:
A Prologue: A prologue is a speech delivered by an actor introducing a play, a character, or a situation. For example, a prologue precedes Act 1 of Henry VIII, Acts 1 and 2 of Romeo and Juliet, and every act in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
A Chorus: A chorus is an actor who delivers a speech before or after an act. In Henry V, a chorus speaks before every act and again after Act 5.
An Induction: An induction is an introductory element. It can be a (1) prologue or (2) a short episode with characters and scenes, as in The Taming of the Shrew.
An Epilogue: An epilogue is a poem or speech at the end of Act 5. It comments on the action of a play, the result of that action, or the worthiness of the play. Romeo and Juliet, Henry VIII, and  A Midsummer Night's Dream all have epilogues.

The Drama

The stage drama itself contains the following elements:

Setting: The environment in which the action takes place. It includes the time and location of the action, the atmosphere of the surroundings, the customs and traditions of the locale, and the social, political, and other environmental forces that are in effect.
Tone: (1) The attitude of the author toward his subject. It may be mocking and satirical, sympathetic, condescending, cheerful, and so on. Often, Shakespeare does not reveal how he feels toward his subject. (2) The attitude of the characters or the environmental and psychological mood of the play. The atmosphere may be dark, angry, somber, gloomy, cheerful, playful, and so on.
Plot: The sequence of events as the story unfolds. It includes the following:

Exposition: Information that familiarizes audiences and readers with the background of the characters and the circumstances that confront them. Although some literary critics say the exposition occurs only at the beginning of the play, it actually continues through most of the play as it reveals more and more information about the characters and their circumstances.
Conflict: A struggle, battle, or clash. A conflict may develop between one character and another character, between groups of characters, and between characters and their environments. A conflict may also develop within a character. For example, in Henry IV (I and II) the title character struggles with a guilty conscience. A play may have several conflicts.
Complication: A situation that intensifies the conflict. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the conflict between the feuding Montague and Capulet families intensifies when Romeo kills a Capulet relative in a sword fight. A play may have several complications.
Climax: (1) The turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse; or (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Romeo and Juliet, according to the first definition, occurs when Romeo kills Tybalt, causing a turning point that begins with Romeo's banishment. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act, when Romeo, Juliet, and Paris die.
Denouement, or Falling Action: Events after the climax. The denouement may result in a tragic or happy ending or, in a history play, the end of an episode.
Theme(s): The central idea (or ideas) that the author focuses on in a play. A theme may focus on ambition, as in Macbeth; love gone wrong, as in Romeo and Juliet; jealousy, as in Othello; bigotry and revenge, as in The Merchant of Venice; or any other subject.

Acts and Scenes: Examples From the Plays

Antony and Cleopatra

Act I
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Scene IV
Scene V
Scene VI
Scene VII
Act II
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Scene IV
Act III
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Scene IV
Scene V
Scene VI
Act IV
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Act V
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Scene IV
Scene V
Scene VI
..........Scene VII
The Tempest
Act I
Scene I
Scene II
Act II
Scene I
Scene II
Act III
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Act IV
Scene I
Act V
Scene I
Epilogue

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Glossary of Stage Directions and Related Terms
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Act: One of the main divisions of a play. Shakespeare's plays each have five acts. Each act is subdivided into scenes. An act generally focuses on one major aspect of the plot or theme. Between acts, stagehands may change scenery, and the setting may shift to another locale. 
Alarum: Stage direction indicating the coming of a battle; a call to arms.
Arras: Tapestry hung on the stage to conceal scenery until the right moment. In Hamlet, an arras played a crucial role. Polonius hid behind one to eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. When Hamlet saw the tapestry move, he stabbed at it, thinking King Claudius was behind it, and killed Polonius.
Aside: Words an actor speaks to the audience which other actors on the stage cannot hear. Sometimes the actor cups his mouth toward the audience or turns away from the other actors. An aside serves to reveal a character's thoughts or concerns to the audience without revealing them to other characters in a play. Near the end of Hamlet, Queen Gertrude raises a cup of wine to her lips during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. King Claudius had poisoned the wine and intended it for Hamlet. In an aside, Claudius—unwilling to warn Gertrude in an effort to preserve his innocence—says, "It is the poison'd cup: it is too late." 
Catchword: In published Shakespeare plays in earlier times, a single word on the bottom of the right side of every page. This word was the first word appearing on the next page.
Chorus: The chorus was a single person who recited a prologue before Act I (and sometimes a passage between acts) in Henry V, Henry VIII, Troilus and Cressida, and Romeo and Juliet. Generally, the chorus informed the audience of action offstage or outside the time frame of the play.
Dramatis Personae: List of the characters in a play. Such a list is found at the beginning of each Shakespeare play. 
Enter: Stage direction indicating the entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Epilogue: Short address spoken by an actor at the end of a play that comments on the meaning of the events in the play or looks ahead to expected events; an afterword in any literary work.
Excursion: Stage direction indicating that a military attack is taking place. The opening of Scene II in Act III of King John contains such a stage direction. 
Exeunt: Stage direction indicating the departure of two or more characters from the stage.
Exit: Stage direction indicating the departure of a character from the stage.
Flourish: Music usually introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important person. The music may consist of a short trumpet passage. 
Fair Copy: Play manuscript after it has been edited. 
Foul Papers: Original manuscript of a playwright which was later edited.
Gallery: Roofed seating area of a theatre, such as the Globe, that resembled the grandstand of a baseball park. The Globe had three galleries that could accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 playgoers.
Hautboys: Stage direction indicating that entering characters are playing hautboys (OH bwah), which are Elizabethan oboes 
Induction: Preface or prelude to a play. The Taming of the Shrew contains an induction that precedes the main plot. 
Master of Revels: Government censor who examined all plays for offensive material
Prologue: Introduction of a play. In Henry V, a chorus (one person) speaks a prologue that encourages the audience members to use their imaginations to create what an Elizabethan stage cannot: battlefields, clashing swords, the might of warriors. Shakespeare writes, "Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth."
Promptbook or Prompt Copy: Edited version of a play in which an acting company inserted stage directions.
Re-Enter: Stage direction indicating the re-entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Scene: (1) Time and place of the action in a play; (2) part of an act in a play that usually takes place in one location.
Sennet: Trumpet flourish to introduce the entrance of a character, such as King Lear (Act 1).
Soliloquy: Long passage in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other characters. Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" speech is an example.
Solus: Stage direction indicating a character is alone on the stage.
Stationers' Register: Book in which the English government required printers to register the title of a play before the play was published. The full official name of the Stationers' Register was the Hall Book of the Worshipful Company of Stationers.
Tiring House: Dressing rooms of actors behind a wall at the back of the stage. To tire means to dress—that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege.
Torches: Stage direction indicating that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Within: Stage direction indicating that a person speaking or being spoken to is behind a door or inside a room.