Stage directions in the dialogue – King Lear edition

Shakespeare is notoriously stingy with his stage direction (or, as I pondered last weekend, at times problematic). King Lear is no different than the other plays in this respect. Sure, we get some atypically descriptive ones like “Cornwall puts out one of Gloucester’s eyes” (III.vii.69 stage direction … or its twin, “He puts out Gloucester’s other eye” [III.vii.82 s.d.]), but mostly it’s confined to “enter,” “exit,” “exeunt” (multiple exit), and the odd “they fight” and “dies.”

But actors just don’t stand around on stage, stock-still and empty-handed. And that’s where the dialogue can help the would-be actor or director find some business for the the actor to do (or in some cases, for a designer to create).

Here are but a handful from King Lear… (most are pretty obvious)

  • Gloucester to Edmund:“Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?” (I.ii.28)
    Edmund needs to make an exaggerated effort to put away the faked letter.
  • Kent in soliloquy: “For which I razed my likeness” (I.iv.4)
    The change in Kent’s appearance needs to be a cutting of hair and/or shaving of his beard.
  • Lear to the disguised Kent: “There’s earnest of thy service” (I.iv.94)
    Lear pays Kent for his actions against Oswald.
  • The Fool to Goneril: “I will hold my tongue; so your face bids me, though you say nothing” (I.iv.178)
    Obviously, Goneril has to be giving the Fool the evil eye.
  • Kent to Cornwall about Oswald: “That such a slave as this should wear a sword” (II.ii.71)
    Oswald wears a sword.
  • Lear to Regan (about her and Goneril): “O Regan, will you take her by the hand?” (II.iv.186)
    The sisters greet each other physically.
  • Goneril to Edmund: “This kiss” (IV.ii.22)
    Goneril kisses Edmund.
  • Disguised Edgar to his blind father Gloucester: “You’re much deceived: in nothing am I changed // But in my garments” (IV.v.9-10)
    Edgar has to be slipping up in his assumed accent or diction.
  • Oswald to Edgar about Gloucester: “Let go his arm” (IV.v.232)
    Edgar is leading Gloucester by the arm.
  • Edgar about Oswald: “Let’s see these pockets.” (IV.v.253)
    Edgar needs to rifle through dead Oswald’s pockets and find the note from Goneril to Edmund.
  • Cordelia about her father, Lear: “He wakes. Speak to him.” (
    Lear wakes.
  • Edgar to Captain: “Take thou this note” (V.iii.27)
    Edgar must hand the Captain a paper.

All these are pretty obvious and straightforward. Here are two that are a little more subtle:

  • Lear to Gloucester: “Read thou this challenge. Mark but the penning of it.” (IV.v.136-37)
    Lear could have a paper to show to the blind man. But given Lear’s mental state at this point in the play, does the note even exist? Perhaps he mimes the act.
  • Lear to Cordelia: “Do not laugh at me” (
    Lear asks Cordelia not to laugh at him. If she has turned her back on him, so that he cannot see her cry, then the heaving of her shoulders that Lear interprets as laughter could actually be sobbing. Even her grimace of sadness could be interpreted as laughter’s contorted face.

A deep dive into the dialogue can give an actor, director or designer more information that paragraphs of modern written stage direction.

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