When you pull a Shakespeare play off the shelf, you see a number of stage directions interspersed throughout the dialogue. Did Shakespeare write those? Many of them may be in square brackets - why?
Shakespeare's plays were originally printed with relatively few stage directions, most of which concern entrances and exits. Shakespeare worked closely with actors he knew well; presumably he did not need to write out for them the kinds of instructions we have come to expect in a playscript. Since the eighteenth century, editors have added stage directions to guide the reader. These stage directions call attention to actions the characters are taking, often in the middle of a scene. The intention is to help readers quickly understand and visualize a scene.
But How Does An Editor Know What A Character Is Doing?
What impels an editor to add a word or phrase explaining an action?
In fact, the words the characters speak provide an abundance of evidence about actions. This is the evidence editors draw on when adding stage directions.
Page vs. Stage
Stage directions are where the play as a performance text meets the play as a print text. Each of Shakespeare’s plays offers a wealth of information about what we should see and hear when we read the play. Thinking about stage directions helps us think like actors or directors about that information. It also helps us recognize that every modern edition of a Shakespeare play has been painstakingly constructed by an editor and looks very different than the earliest copies of these plays.
Using This Website
The learning tool in the "Passages" section encourages you to read a set of scenes closely, looking for the information editors, actors, and directors use when creating an edition or mounting a production. It allows you to explore the questions and problems they face in bringing a Shakespeare play to life once again, whether on the page or the stage. It helps you read these plays with attention to the dynamic, suggestive language that has such an enduring hold on us.
Go to the Passages section to get started.The passage from Richard II is a good one to start with to get a feel for how this learning tool works.