Measure for Measure: Dialogue-hidden stage directions

I’ve discussed in the past the lack of stage directions in the Shakespearean texts (or at least the relative lack compared what we are used to now). So, as I like to do with every play, let’s take a look at how Shakespeare has sprinkled stage direction within the dialogue of Measure for Measure.

Sometimes the dialogue gives you an idea of the physicality of a character. A limp on the part of Mistress Overdone can be inferred by a comment made by the First Gentleman in the second scene: “How now, which of your hips has the most profound sciatica?” (I.ii.56-7). Or the silence of a character, like Elbow as described by Angelo, “Go to. What quality are they of? … Why dost thou not speak, Elbow?” (II.i.57-8).

When Isabella and Angelo meet in Act Two, Scene Two, Angelo begins to exit the scene, prompting Isabella to say, “Gentle my lord, turn back” (II.ii.143), meaning at this point he has his back turned to her (if he’s still on stage at all).

Sometimes, the dialogue gives a sense of props, like letters: In the prison scene of Act Four, Scene Two, the duke in the guise of the friar tells the provost, “Look you, sir, here is the hand and seal of the Duke. You know the character, I doubt not, and the signet is not strange to you” (IV.ii.187-9). In the next scene, the provost has a prop of his own: the decapitated head of the executed prisoner Ragozine: “Here is the head. I’ll carry it myself” (IV.iii.101). Or later in the same scene, the duke shows Isabella another letter: “This letter, then, to Friar Peter give” (IV.iii.137).

Mostly, however, they are references physical acts, movements or positions:

  • Duke to Isabella: “Dry your eyes” (IV.iii.127-9)
  • Mariana: “I will not show my face // Until my husband bid me” (V.i.170-1)
  • Mariana: “Let me in safety raise me from my knees, // Or else forever be confixèd here // A marble monument” (V.i.232-4)
  • Duke to (and about) Lucio: “Sneak not away, sir, for the friar and you // Must have a word anon.—Lay hold on him” (V.i.356-7)
  • Duke to Mariana: “Your suit’s unprofitable. Stand up, I say” (V.i.453)

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