Is it any surprise that in the play with arguably the most famous stage direction ever, we find a down-tick in dialogue-based stage direction? Of course, nothing about The Winter’s Tale surprises me now…
The Winter’s Tale has, arguably, the most famous stage direction in history: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Now, I wasn’t around in Shakespeare’s day, but legend has it that bear-baiting bears were used, or possibly a man in one of the deceased bear-baiting animal skins. Now, in a film, you could actually have him pursued by a bear (though that BBC version opts for the man-in-a-bear-suit route…with one of the most ridiculously fake bear suits I’ve ever seen). But in a theater? With real-life audience members (who you would like not to become late audience members)?
Now, as part of a BBC Radio show, actor David Tennant discussed the problem for “Just a Minute”…pretty entertaining and a great summing up of the issue:
But the question remains, how do you stage it?
With every play, toward the end of the discussion cycle, I like to address a subject that rocks my world, but probably bores the socks off you. Well, since it’s my blog, I get to do what I want. And I want to talk about stage directions hidden in plain sight within the dialog. While these later plays do tend to have more stage directions than before (like the bizarre war correspondency that opens Act Five, Scene Two; or the truly truly bizarre directions around the dream of Posthumus Leonatus), there are still some hidden nuggets. And what are Cymbeline’s nuggets? (that sounded like it belonged to our discussion of bawdy)
Well, let’s see…
OK, last week, I looked at Martius’ big speech (and we’ve already taken a look at the homo-erotic response to it, the longest speech by Aufidius) from Coriolanus. Today, let’s take a look at the longest speech of the play, this one by dear ol’ mum, Volumnia. There’s some pretty interesting stuff going on in the scansion (as well as a stage direction or two).
It’s Act Five, Scene Three, in the Volscian camp on the outskirts of Rome, where Martius and Aufidius ready their armies for the attack. Martius has already turned away Menenius (who seemed like a father-figure to him), and Martius has admitted doing so “cracked” (V.iii.9) his heart.
So who should walk in at this moment?
I’ve been noticing that as we near the end of the Canon, we’re getting more and more stage direction from ol’ Willy Shakes (or at least from those who wrote this stuff down). I find it interesting that not only are we getting more direct stage direction, we’re also getting less indirect direction. In other words, there seems to be less stage direction embedded in the dialogue. And Pericles seems to maintain that trend.
Throughout the project, I’ve always searched in the dialogue for hidden stage direction (explicit ones which are usually few and far between…I say usually because as we get nearer the end of his career, I’m finding more explicit directions). Timon of Athens is no different.
But in this case, for me, it was like digging for roots and finding…not gold.
With every play, I like to take a look at the stage direction that are hidden in the dialogue. Shakespeare’s (in)famous for a dearth of explicit stage directions, forcing the enterprising actor/director to plumb the dialogue lines in search of some helpful nuggets. And thus my occasional sojourns into script studies. Antony and Cleopatra is no different.
Only it is.
Back when I was doing the plot synopsis for Act Three in Antony and Cleopatra, I mentioned the strange opening stage direction for Act Three, Scene Ten: “Canidius marcheth with his land army one way over the stage, and Taurus the lieutenant of Caesar the other way. After their going in is heard the noise of a sea fight” (III.x.opening s.d.).
How do you stage that?
In most plays, I find a whole lot of stage direction within the lines, be they soliloquies or dialogues. But in Macbeth, a play where some real stage direction was later filled in with the work of other playwrights, I’m finding less.
Yesterday, I tossed around a few ideas and questions about the witches–er, Weird Sisters–in Macbeth. We meet those three, as well as their boss(?) Hecate, an additional three singing witches (“spirits” in my text–and as per usual, I’m using the Pelican Shakespeare edition, edited by Stephen Orgel) and some “apparitions.”
And the edition here actually is important.
It’s not like Macbeth is the only supernatural play. The Tempest’s magic. Midsummer’s fairies. The Winter’s Tale and whatever it is that happens at the end. And, of course, ghosts in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Richard III (am I leaving some out?).
But how do you stage the ghost of Banquo?
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)
Every month, I like to delve into the text to find the non-stage direction found in the dialogue. Shakespeare is famous (or notorious, depending on your view) for a relative lack of explicit stage direction. But it’s there; he just hides it in the dialogue of his characters. We’ve already discussed what Othello’s fit should look like. Let me provide a just few examples of other spoken stage direction from Othello (just a few…but don’t feel short-changed: I’ve got something else today–whoo hoo, two entries for one day!).
In Act Four, Scene One of Othello, in the midst of his conversation with Iago, the Moor falls into what Iago calls “an epilepsy” (IV.i.50).
But how to portray this on stage? A fainting? Spasms? Or do we go full-fit and foam at the mouth (like Hoskins did in the BBC version)?
A little dip into the Oxford English Dictionary can give us some options…
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.