Reading Shakespeare’s original scripts can sometimes throw up issues around understanding – not just understanding the words of the characters, but also understanding Shakespeare stage directions. This article explains what stage directions are, and provides a “translation” of Shakespeare’s most common stage directions.

Stage directions are simply directions to the company performing a play as to what’s happening around the drama, who’s on the stage and who isn’t, when they arrive, when they leave, where they are on the stage, when music should be played, bugles sounded, and so on.

Here is a list of the main stage directions Shakespeare used, along with an explanation:

Alarum: Indication of the coming of a battle – a bugle call to arms
Aside: Words an actor speaks to the audience which other actors on the stage cannot hear.
Enter: Indicates the entrance on to the stage of a character or characters.
Epilogue: Last words after the conclusion of a play.
Excursion: Indication that a military attack is taking place.
Exeunt: Indicates the departure of two or more characters from the stage.
Exit: Indicates the departure of a character from the stage.
Flourish: Music usually introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important person. It’s usually a short trumpet piece.
Hautboys: Indicates that the characters entering are playing hautboys, which are Elizabethan oboes.
Prologue: Introduction of a play where someone comes on and tells the audience something important about the play that’s about to be performed.
Sennet: Trumpet flourish to introduce the entrance of a character, such as a king.
Solus: Indicates that a character is alone on the stage.
Torches: Indicates that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Within: Indicates that a person speaking or being spoken to is somewhere offstage.

The most famous and intriguing of all Shakespeare’s stage directions is ‘exit pursued by a bear,’ in The Winter’s Tale. We find it extremely funny and strange, even though it results in the death of the person being pursued: It would not be funny if you were being pursued by a bear. But to the Elizabethans, bringing a real bear on to the stage wouldn’t be anything to bat an eye about. The two most popular activities in Jacobean London, vying with each other for popularity, were theatregoing and bearbaiting. As the Globe Theatre was right next door to a bearbaiting arena, bears and their handlers were readily available, and what better way was there of getting rid of a character who had fulfilled his function, without making a big drama of it?!