It’s a commonplace that Shakespeare’s plays don’t have many stage directions in them. Our view is that there are many, many stage directions but they are not labelled as such. Instead, the writer buries his stage instructions in the language of the play. Cues; midline switches; rhetorical devices; short lines; rhyming couplets; switches between verse and prose; all of these incorporate stage directions into the play.
Why does the writer adopt these techniques? The Elizabethan actor did not have the luxury of a few weeks of rehearsal, or a complete script. When he was given his part, he was given his lines, and the cues for each speech When he had learnt his lines, there would be minimal rehearsal before the first performance. And so it became important that he learnt as much as possible about the play and his interactions with the other characters during the process of learning his lines.
The first scene in which a character appears can be very revealing about the character, so that the actor (and the audience) can get a feel for the character as quickly as possible.
Let’s explore these ideas, using Macbeth‘s first scene (A1S3). Imagine, if you will, that you’re Richard Burbage, and you’ve just been handed the part of Macbeth for the first time for a performance in a few days time, and here’s a link to the first page from the Parts and Cues script you’ve been handed (Click on the link below to open up that page in a new tab on your browser):
Now still remembering you are Richard Burbage, and nobody knows anything about the play Macbeth, because it has never been played, imagine what you’re going to do with this script. Of course, you’re going to learn the lines, but don’t you think you’d also be examining your script for any clues there might be as to what is going on, who the other characters are, and how you interact with them.
Let’s look at the cues first – they’re all you have of what others say in the play. Here they are:
Melted as breath into the Wind.’; ‘This supernatural soliciting’; and all this leading to the most revealing of Macbeth‘s speeches in this scene:
Cannot be ill; cannot be good: –
If ill, why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a Truth? I am Thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid Image doth unfix my Hair,
And make my seated Heart knock at my Ribs,
Against the use of Nature? Present Fears
Are less than horrible Imaginings.
My Thought, whose Murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of Man,
That Function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not.