It's well known that Shakespeare had no part in publishing the text of his own plays - indeed, many of them were only published posthumously. I've read that a significant proportion of his plays came to press by way of actors in his company, hoping to earn a little extra money, stealing copies of his scripts and smuggling them out to publishers.

I've also read that the only parts of the scripts published today which were actually written by Shakespeare are the lines - not the stage directions, nor the setting descriptions. Unfortunately, I don't have a reliable source for this claim. Is it true?

Do any of the stage directions in modern publications of Shakespeare plays originate from the man himself?

1 Answer 1


Actually, yes! Shakespeare wrote a number of stage directions, though they were never exactly... thorough. For example, at the opening of Hamlet, Shakespeare writes:

FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO.

Stage directions written by Shakespeare are usually like this: short, sweet, and to the point, if present at all. The reason for this is pretty simple: he didn't really need to write down stage directions when he himself was the director! Most of the time, they appear to be more... notes, or reminders.

This actually puts a number of... stranger and odder stage directions into a more interesting light. There are stage directions like:

Exit pursued by a bear (A Winter's Tale)
Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand (Titus Andronius)

However, it appears that much of the time, the company itself wrote in stage directions:

After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. The two versions had special names: the original manuscript was the "foul papers" because of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a fair copy. It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as a prompt copy, which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.).

It appears that Shakespeare wrote in some small (and often humorous) stage directions as reminders, and then the remainder of the stage directions were filled in by the publisher before being passed to the actors for memorization.

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    It might be worth mentioning that, from the "fair copy" were made "cue scripts" given to the actors, which only had a bit of the preceding line and then their line or stage direction. It was in part an anti-theft device (no actor had the entire script), in part cost-cutting (actors weren't using paper and ink on lines they didn't need), in part a way to enforce focus and training to automatically respond with the correct line. Jan 18, 2017 at 19:06
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    Is there any information on which of the stage directions were written in by the man himself and which by the company? Were things like "exit, pursued by a bear" written by Shakespeare and all the boring enter/exit stuff by the company?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 18, 2017 at 19:30
  • I would put money on "exit, pursued by a bear" coming from the Bard's pen. He probably had a good giggle over it even then. Jan 18, 2017 at 19:40
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    @Rand As far as I know, and can find, I don't think that information was preserved. I've also asked a couple people who are pretty knowledgeable about this sort of stuff, and they kinda just... shrugged. I'm not confident enough in it to put it into an answer, though.
    – user80
    Jan 18, 2017 at 20:03

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