What I’m reading: “Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre”

(Wow! Two posts in two weeks. Don’t get spoiled, this is likely to be an anomaly.)

I read a lot, and I mean A LOT. Most of the books I read are primary and secondary texts – not much popular stuff. (I’m a pretty boring conversationalist, unless you’re into early modern drama.) I’ll put up some info on what I’m reading, in case you might have an interest. I don’t intend these posts to be a review by any stretch of the imagination, or a complete recounting of the entire book – just a little taste to whet your appetite. Here’s my latest adventure:


Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre
Eds. Sarah Dustagheer & Gillian Woods
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018

This is an interesting little volume. I was intrigued by the promise of a closer look at stage directions, and it did not disappoint – I learned many things about the seemingly innocuous “stage direction,” and found the various examinations of them to be thorough, expansive, and highly informative. Contributors included Tiffany Stern, Paul Menzer and Jess Hamlet, Emma Smith, Terri Bourus, and Sarah Lewis.

I’ll quickly touch on some of the discussions I found most notable:

Who actually wrote stage directions? Surprisingly enough, the editors argue in their introduction (as does Tiffany Stern in her chapter) stage directions were not always written by the playwright. There is no definite answer offered for the question, but it is posited that they may have been intended for “backstage” personnel such as prompters, and of course, added by subsequent editors (41).

Are stage directions literary? Emma Smith makes a good case for this, citing instances such as Shakespeare’s referring to Othello as “the moor” (rather than by name) in only a handful of directions – and those being ones gesturing to his sexual relationship with Desdemona. These are things spectators of a play would be unaware of, yet the reader finds in them an underlying suggestion of the stereotype of the “sexual or violent” other. (94-95)

Are they for actors or readers? Well, see the example above, for starters. Also, Douglas Bruster finds that often stage directions include descriptive elements that actors would already know, such as family relationships (sister, brother, etc), location information, and elaborate description of attire. He also finds that some directions appear to be carefully worded so as to include puns and homographs (132-33).

When should editors step in and add them? Are they necessary – and aren’t any added directions simply a directorial choice, as we normally have no written record of how a scene is played? We can assume how a scene may have been played, based on the text, but we don’t really know. Terri Bourus addresses this thorny question, and explores why, how, and when editors should make the choice to add them. She also examines stage directions and how they may be affected by spatial placement on the page.

The book has many discussions on dumb shows – the possible reasons for including them, how they relate to stage directions in general (are they the *real* stage directions?), how they should be interpreted. There are also sections on dead bodies on stage – their “discovery” and what it means metaphysically and theatrically. There are chapters focused on The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, and Macbeth. I enjoyed the book, and look forward to reading further on the intricacies and paradoxes that are stage directions. Who knew there could be so much to learn about the staging notes we see scattered throughout a play? Like so much else in early modern drama, there is more to them than meets the eye.


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Shakespeare and early modern drama. MA in English, BA in Liberal Studies. Reader, playgoer, music lover. Twitter: @16thCenturyGirl

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