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Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2003       Revised in 2006, 2011, 2012, 2018


When editing his plays, Shakespeare (or another member of his acting company) inserted stage directions before each scene or within a scene. A stage direction was a word or group words that informed actors and others who read the script (including those who purchased a published play) about the following:
  • The location of a scene, such as a country, a city, a seacoast, a heath, a battlefield, a palace, a room in a palace, a courtyard, a jail, an alehouse, or an orchard.
  • A sound, such as thunder, music, a ringing bell, the clamor of a crowd, or several characters speaking in unison. The stage direction might have noted the direction from which the sound was comingó right, left, above, below, offstage.
  • An action, such as a character or characters walking, running, sneaking, sleeping, wielding a sword, climbing a ladder, reading a letter, removing a bracelet, singing a song, presenting a gift, or solving a puzzle. Actors used such a stage direction to prepare to carry it out.
  • The appearance of a person, place, or thing. The stage direction might have noted, for example, the type of clothing a person was wearing, such as the apparel of a cook, a beggar, a king, a court jester, a knight, or a princess. It might also have noted that the character was wearing a veil, a disguise, or armor, or that he had blood issuing from a wound.
  • The psychological or emotional state of a character. For example, a stage direction might have indicated that a character was insane, angry, happy, suspicious, fearful, jealous, proud, ambitious, or vengeful.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, publishers of Shakespeare's plays often re-edited the stage directions to clarify an original direction, replace archaic language, or provide additional information.

Shakespeare's stage directions were brief. However, stage directions for some playwrights in the nineteenth century and thereafter were detailed. For example, Shakespeare's stage directions for the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet say,
Verona. A public place.
Enter Sampson and Gregory, armed with swords and bucklers.
By contrast, the stage directions for the opening scene of A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), present the following information:
      A room, comfortably and tastefully, but not expensively, furnished. 
In the back, on the right, a door leads to the hall; on the left 
another door leads to HELMER's study. Between the two doors a
pianoforte. In the middle of the left wall a door, and nearer the
front a window. Near the window a round table with armchairs and a 
small sofa. In the right wall, somewhat to the back, a door, and 
against the same wall, further forward, a porcelain stove; in front of 
it a couple of arm-chairs and a rocking-chair. Between the stove and 
the side-door a small table. Engravings on the walls. A what-not 
with china and bric-a-brac. A small bookcase filled with handsomely
bound books. Carpet. A fire in the stove. It is a winter day.
     A bell rings in the hall outside. Presently the outer door of the 
flat is heard to open. Then NORA enters, humming gaily. She is in
outdoor dress, and carries several parcels, which she lays on the
right-hand table. She leaves the door into the hall open, and a PORTER 
is seen outside, carrying a Christmas-tree and a basket, which he
gives to the MAID-SERVANT who has opened the door. 
In addition to stage directions, playwrights, actors, publishers and critics had to familiarize themselves with certain terms related to Shakespeare's scripts, such as fair copy, foul papers, and dialogue (definitions for which are in the glossary below). 

Glossary of Stage Directions and Drama Terms

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.
Antagonist: A character, situation, feeling, idea, or thing that opposes the main character (protagonist).

Alarum: Stage direction indicating the coming of a battle; a call to arms.
Arras: Tapestry or curtain hung on the stage to conceal someone or something. 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 (the murderer of his father) was behind it, and killed Polonius.
Aside: (1) Words a character speaks to himself only; other characters on the stage cannot hear the words. However, the audience hears everything. (2) Words a character speaks to a nearby character or characters but not to any other characters on the stage. The audience hears everything. 
Balcony: Area above the stage roof used for balcony scenes or for seating musicians or members of the audience.
Burden: Refrain of a song; recurring theme. Burdens occur in two of Ariel's songs in the second act of The Tempest. 

Catchword: In published Shakespeare plays in earlier times, catchword referred to a single word on the bottom of the right side of a 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 1 (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.
Dialogue: What the characters say to one another; conversation.

Dramatis Personae
(DRAH muh teese, DRAH muh tiss) (pair SOHN ay, pair SOHN i): Latin term for the list of 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 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.
Excursion: Stage direction indicating that a military attack is taking place. The opening of the second scene in Act 3 of King John contains such a stage direction.
Exeunt (EX e unt): 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.
Fair Copy: Play manuscript after it has been edited. See also promptbook.
Flourish: Music usually introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important person. The music may consist of a short trumpet passage. 
Foul Papers: Original manuscript of a playwright; working copy of a playwright. The author may have crossed out words, written notes in the margin, or made other changes. After the foul papers of a play were edited, they became a fair copy.
Foil:  (1) A secondary character whose personality and qualities may be compared or contrasted with those of the main character in order to set off or highlight the personality and qualities of the latter. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Laertes is a foil of Hamlet. Like Hamlet, he is a young man who has just lost his father. Unlike Hamlet, he does not dally in deciding to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet, on the other hand, is slow to act; he ruminates, stalls, postpones. In Macbeth, Banquo is a foil of the main character. Like Macbeth, he is a heroic warrior whom the witches predict is destined for glory. But unlike Macbeth, he lacks the ambition and depravity to scheme and connive to achieve glory. (2) Fencing sword.
Gallery: Roofed seating area of a theater, such as the Globe, that resembled the grandstand of a baseball park. The Globe had three galleries that could accommodate perhaps 2,000 playgoers.
Hautboys: (pronounced OH bwa): Stage direction indicating that entering characters are playing hautboys, which are Elizabethan oboes.
Heavens: Ceiling of the stage roof, which rested on columns. An opening in the ceiling allowed actors to enter a scene on a rope or another device. Above the ceiling was a balcony.
Hell: Area beneath the stage floor. Stagehands could create sound effects in this area. In addition, actors beneath the stage could enter a scene through a trap door built into the floor.
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.
Monologue: Long speech. The character may speak the monologue to one character or several characters. If the speaker is alone on the stage, he usually delivers his monolgue as if he is talking to himself. In reality, he is addressing the audience. Probably the most famous monologue in Shakespeare is the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, beginning at 3.1.66.
Passes Over: Stage direction indicating that a character is walking across the stage while other characters are conversing. Such a direction occurs several times in the second scene of Act 1 of Troilus and Cressida. Following is the script of part of this scene.
AENEAS passes over the stage.
PANDARUS:  Thatís Aeneas: is not that a brave man? heís one of the flowers of Troy, I can tell you: but mark Troilus; you shall see anon.   
ANTENOR passes over.
CRESSIDA:  Whoís that?   
PANDARUS:  Thatís Antenor: he has a shrewd wit, I can tell you; and heís a man good enough: heís one oí the soundest judgments in Troy,  whosoever, and a proper man of person. When comes Troilus? Iíll show you Troilus anon: if he see me, you shall see him nod at me.           
CRESSIDA:  Will he give you the nod?   
PANDARUS:  You shall see.   
CRESSIDA:  If he do, the rich shall have more.
HECTOR passes over.
PANDARUS:  Thatís Hector, that, that, look you, that; thereís a fellow! Go thy way, Hector! Thereís a brave man, niece. O brave Hector! Look how he looks! thereís a countenance! Is ít not a brave man?          
CRESSIDA:  O! a brave man.   
PANDARUS:  Is aí not? It does a manís heart good. Look you what hacks are on his helmet! look you yonder, do you see? look you there: thereís no jesting; thereís laying on, take ít off who will, as they say: there be hacks!   
CRESSIDA:  Be those with swords?   
PANDARUS:  Swords? any thing, he cares not; an the devil come to him, itís all one: by Godís lid, it does oneís heart good. Yonder comes Paris, yonder comes Paris.

: 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."
Protagonist: Main character.

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 in a section of an act; (2) part of an act that 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.
Stage Directions: Information in the script of a play that instructs the director, the actors, and others involved with the production (including musicians and stagehands who generate special effects) on gestures, sound effects, emotional responses of characters, the geographical location of a scene, the moment when a character should enter or leave a scene, the way a character should recite a line, and so on. The stage directions are usually enclosed in brackets.

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.
Thrust Stage: Stage of a Shakespeare-era theater, so called because it thrust forward into the audience.

Tiring House: Dressing rooms of actors behind a wall at the back of the stage. To tire means to dressóthat is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege.
Trap Door: A hinged wooden flap in the floor of a stage. It could act as an entrance or exit for ghosts and witches. It could also serve as the entrance to a tomb.

Torches: Stage direction indicating that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Tucket: Stage direction indicating a trumpet flourish.

Within: Stage direction indicating that a person speaking or being spoken to (or something making a noise) is behind a door, inside a room, outside a house, or anywhere else that is not on the stage.