limitless productions

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Highlighted are three of Shakespeare’s most famous (and bizarre) stage directions- from The Tempest, Titus Andronicus and The Winter’s Tale. Such is the notoriety of these directions that it is often assumed that Shakespeare was at it all the time, frequently providing scripted (if somewhat strange) instructions for his actors to follow.

In fact, the truth of the matter is that- on the whole- Shakespeare generally provided very little by way of instruction. Aside from rather terse notations of entrances and exits, the rest is left to the actors and directors (unless there happens to be a bear involved- then, frankly, whatever the bear says goes). 

Some more modern stage directions are like novels in themselves, showing the actor exactly where they ought to stand, what they should be feeling at that moment, what their character had for breakfast yesterday… While, on the surface, this might be seen as helpful, from a creative perspective it’s highly restrictive.

With Shakespeare, however, the possibilities are limitless and no two productions are the same. Tom Stoppard often tells the story of a production of The Tempest he saw at Oxford. At the play’s end, he watched as Ariel turned and ran across a lawn, into a lake and over the water “until the gloom enveloped him and he disappeared from your view. As he did so, from the further shore, a firework rocket was ignited, and it went whoosh into the air, and high up there it burst into lots of sparks, and all the sparks went out, and he had gone.”

What were the directions that had led to this dramatic display? Stoppard looked them up. The script said simply: “Exit Ariel.”

NOTE TO ANYONE REBLOGGING THIS: I know that the stage directions above mean, and that are justified by their contexts, but those contexts in themselves are very much out of the ordinary. It is distinctly peculiar to have a scene where someone enters were some severed limbs or is told to be ‘invisible’. 

Given the strange nature of some of Shakespeare’s plays, one might expect such directions to be peppered all over the scripts- but they are not. The point of this post wasn’t to expose the directions as being odd- these are famous examples- but rather to show how surprisingly rare they are, given the content of the plays.