Why do they seem alien? Well, it has a lot to do with our modern understanding of how a theatre should look. Because, of course, Shakespeare’s theatres, whether outdoor, like The Globe, or indoor, like Blackfriars, were vastly different from the proscenium arch theatres that are the ‘norm’ for us.
What Did Shakespeare's Globe Look Like?
So, before we take a look at some of Shakespeare’s most commonly used stage direction terms, let’s have a quick gander at The Globe’s stage.
|A Sketch of the Interior of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre|
As you can see, the theatre is open-air, with the exception of the small portion of roof, supported by two columns, which covers the stage. If necessary, actors could be lowered onto the stage from this roof, which was known as the ‘heavens’, with the help of a harnesses and some ropes.
At the back of the stage, there are three doors (used for exits and entrances) and, above, is a balcony - this was usually home to the musicians, but could also be used by the actors.
Finally, it’s handy to note that the stage itself was approximately 5ft in height and the ‘groundlings’ (those who paid just a penny to frequent the theatre) would be crammed onto the floor space around it, perhaps even leaning on the edge of the stage. If the mood took them, it would be quite possible for them to grasp the legs of King Lear or Macbeth.
|The Interior of the Rebuilt Globe Theatre|
Shakespearean Stage Directions
Some of the most common terms in Shakespeare’s stage directions are:
Above - This is exactly what it suggests. Any action that takes place ‘above’, is performed on the balcony above the stage. This is used (unimaginatively enough) as a balcony, for Juliet or the grumpy, half-asleep Brabantio. However, it could also be used to represent city walls. And, sometimes, it’s a convenient location for those who are overhearing conversations that are being had on the main stage.
Alarum - You may be able to discern that this is where the word ‘alarm’ comes from. And it has a similar meaning, except ‘alarum’, specifically, refers to a call to arms. In Shakespearean theatrical terms, it meant a fight, brawl, scuffle - what you will. Often, fight sequences would use every available inch of the stage and may even have gone down into the audience.
Below - Because the stage was 5ft high, it obviously had considerable space beneath, which was accessible by a trap door. This space was known as ‘Hell’ by the theatre lovies and would often represent a grave, dungeon or even the underworld. Shakespeare’s gravediggers use ‘Hell’ in Hamlet and it would have also been used, aptly enough, as Malvolio’s cell in Twelfth Night.
Discovered - As you may be able to see in the sketch of Shakespeare’s Globe, there is a section of the stage (in the centre), which can be covered with a curtain. This is known as the ‘discovery’ space and would be used for a private room, such as Gertrude’s closet in Hamlet or Desdemona’s bedchamber in Othello.
Dumbshow - Pretty self-explanatorily, a dumbshow is a sequence of performance with no words. Even by Shakespeare’s time, this was considered to be a pretty outdated and hokey form of drama, which tells us something about Hamlet’s players.
Flourish - Quite simply, a flourish was a fanfare of cornets, often to announce the entrance of a king, lord or emperor. As mentioned above, the musicians would usually be positioned on the balcony.
Severally - When a group of actors is instructed to reach the stage ‘severally’, it means that they should come in using different entrances. The word translates as ‘separately’ and, as the characters are using different doors to enter, it suggests that they are approaching from different locations.
And there you have it, Shakespearean stage directions explained. If you are not fortunate enough to be able to see a play in performance, it’s tremendously helpful to be able to envisage exactly what Shakespeare had in mind.
If there are any other terms in Shakespearean stage directions that you would like clarified, just let me know in the comments below.