Twelfth Night: Stage directions in the dialogue

Shakespeare is notorious for not providing stage directions, save for the sometimes cryptic or comic ([Unveils.] or [Exit, pursued by a bear.]). So the actor/director has to look for little acting/action clues in the dialogue itself. Let’s take Twelfth Night out for a quick spin and see what we find…

The play’s first speech is filled with clues about when the music should be played (“play on” [I.i.1]), what should be repeated (“that strain again” [I.i.4]) and when it should stop (“Enough, no more” [I.i.7]). These are the only musical cues in the scene.

When we meet Maria (or rather when Sir Andrew meets her), her dialogue sets up a bawdy physical joke, with the foolish knight “bring(ing) (his) hand to th’ butt’ry bar and let it drink” (I.iii.65-6), giving her a top-side grope. And within lines, she “let(s) go (his) hand” (I.iii.75) to exit the scene.

When Orsino tells all but Cesario to “stand…awhile aloof” (I.iv.12), those characters do exactly that, leaving Orsino and Cesario, but not leaving the stage; otherwise, his later comment for “four or five (to) attend him” (I.iv.36) would make no sense.

While we get the aforementioned “[Unveils.]” (I.v.224 stage direction), we don’t get a stage direction to put it on. We do, however, get it in the dialogue, as Olivia tells Maria, “Give me my veil; come, throw it o’er my face” (I.v.159).

When Malvolio attempts to give Cesario the ring he supposedly gave to Olivia, we know Cesario doesn’t take it, as Malvolio says, “If it be worth stooping for, there it lies” (II.ii.14-5); Malvolio leaves it (or possibly even throw it) on the ground. Within moments, we get a piece of evidence that informs the actor playing Olivia and the director of some of her physical actions for Act One, Scene Five: Viola remembers,

She made good view of me, indeed so much
That methought her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
  • II.ii.19-21

From Viola’s remembrance, we know exactly how Olivia should behave in that earlier scene.

Sometimes the dialogue clue is less about action and more about actor, and who to cast. In Act One, Scene Five, Viola refers to Maria as Olivia’s “giant” (I.v.197). As we learn later, however, this description is ironic as Sir Toby later says of Maria’s entrance, “Look where the youngest wren of mine comes” (III.ii.61), referencing the small size of a wren. (I know, I know: Viola’s might be the serious statement, and Toby’s the ironic, but I think the irony fits better with Cesario’s “saucy” (I.v.190) character in that scene.)

We get a casting direction of a diminutive Olivia as well, when Malvolio says that “Yes, nightingales answer daws!” (III.iv.32-3). Here, he speaks of how the light-colored bird (alas, not yellow) will answer the daw, a small crow–in other words, a tiny black bird (fitting if Olivia is still dressed in mourning). And while we’re in this scene, I have to wonder if there’s not a little pelvic motion when Malvolio quotes the faked letter: “And some have greatness thrust upon them” (III.iv.42), especially as Olivia’s response is “Heaven restore thee!” (III.iv.43).

Finally, in the last scene, when the twins are reunited, Viola tells her brother,

If nothing lets to make us happy both
But this my masculine usurped attire,
Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola
  • V.i.244-8

She says not to embrace her yet… but does he follow her command?

Like I said, we find little clues, but what we do with them is still the actors’ and director’s decision… tomorrow, more clues–only this time in the verse.

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