On the page

Playscripts follow certain conventions. One of them is to have the speaker’s name in the left hand margin, next to the words they are due to speak. This helps keep track of who you need on stage.

The plays themselves are divided into scenes – a unit of action that takes place in one place at one time. Scenes are grouped into acts. Shakespeare followed Latin playwrights in using a five act structure, although this is made clearer in modern printed texts than it would have been on the Elizabethan stage.

Because Shakespeare wrote in blank verse, the plays are laid out on the page in verse rather than in prose. Each line is five feet or about ten syllables. Usually a single line will all be spoken by the same person. However, sometimes the rhythm of the line is split between more than one person, which is shown on the page like this:

Macbeth's line positioned to the left, Lady Macbeth's positioned to the right.Macbeth's line positioned to the left, Lady Macbeth's line positioned underneath and to the right.

Lady Macbeth is completing the rhythm of the line, so the playscript will make it clear that she is speaking the second half of the same line. If you see this it suggests very rapid banter between characters, or two very close characters.

Did you know?

  • Theatres wouldn’t put on a run of the same play in Elizabethan times. In two weeks they might perform ten different plays. This meant the audience could come again the next night. It also made it hard for the actors to learn lines – they might need someone whispering their cues from the side!
  • Actors didn't have individual copies of the script in case rival theatre companies stole them. Sometimes rival actors would attempt to memorise the play during a performance and write it down after – which probably made for very inaccurate copies.
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