Stage directions appear formatted on the right side of the page in italics. In modern editions stage directions are also placed in brackets, like this:
[Exit, pursued by a bear.]
The purpose of a stage direction is for the playwright to tell actors what they should be doing onstage. Stage directions can be instructions pertaining to placement, movement, lighting, or tone of voice. However, depending on your edition, Shakespeare may not have written all or any of the stage directions. Most stage directions we see in modern play editions are written by editors, not by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare wrote very few stage directions.
Shakespeare's stage directions are very light. When he writes them at all, he sticks to exits and entrances of characters. He did write the famous “exit pursued by a bear” stage direction, which is characteristically short and to the point.
Shakespeare was such a brilliant writer that he mostly didn’t need stage directions. A professor of mine once said that if you have to write a stage direction, your writing might not be good enough. His actors knew what to do, where to go, and got everything else they needed from the play text itself— Because Shakespeare’s stage directions are embedded in the writing. Here’s an example from a scene in Henry IV part one, to which I have added a fake stage direction to make a point. My fake stage direction is in purple.
'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried
neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! O
for breath to utter what is like thee! you
tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile
[Falstaff, out of breath.]
Well, breathe awhile, and then to it again: and
when thou hast tired thyself in base comparisons,
hear me speak but this [...]
See how Shakespeare’s writing makes my direction obsolete? In Hal’s retort he tells Falstaff “well breathe awhile” before you get back to insulting me. So we know that Falstaff (who is enormously fat) is out of breath and Hal is making fun of him (for being fat).
So the actor playing Falstaff knows he’s supposed to be running out of breath during his string of insults in order to make Hal’s retort funny. If Falstaff isn’t breathless at the end of those lines, Hal’s joke isn’t set up properly.
Shakespeare plants the seed even earlier, to remind the actor playing Falstaff in real time that he’s supposed to be running out of breath. When he says
“oh for breath to utter what is like thee!” By mentioning breath Shakespeare reminds the actor playing Falstaff to set up Hal for his joke.
So, remember as you read:
You can't automatically assume that a stage direction was written by Shakespeare. If you have questions about a stage direction, delve into the passage
yourself and see what you can get out of deep reading Shakespeare's lines. What are Shakespeare's cues embedded in the text? Do the surrounding lines support the position of that stage
direction? Decide for yourself.
Odds are that any stage direction you read is only a scholar's interpretation of what's going on in the text. Most likely it's the interpretation of a Shakespearean with much more experience than you— but still human, and fallible. The next blog post will give you some great reasons to never take a stage direction for granted.