Make a playhouse

Make a playhouse ‘plat' (or ‘plot') for one of the plays studied for this course, and give an account of how you constructed it and what assumptions you made about the function of this kind of document.

The plots that remain from the 1500s are limited and it is very hard to decipher strong patterns in which they were produced, particularly as the methods of the Plotters developed over time and no two plots follow the same rules. The most effective is that of the plot of ‘The Battle of Alcazar', as both the plot and play are still available in a legible state. They were written on paper ‘roughly twelve by sixteen inches' and were ‘more a guide to memory than a thoroughly detailed set of instructions'. (Beckerman, 109)

Bradley says that ‘plots served as call-sheets, or… they served as practical guides to actors, stage- hands, and other employees' (77) which seems very plausible at first glance, for while ‘the plot can give no clear indication of time-sequence', (89) the plots are ‘a skeleton sketch of the action' (76) and so can guide the members of a company through the structure of the play. As companies were in such high rivalry, ‘the safest course for any company was to possess only a single copy of any play' (89) and so plots were convenient for reproduction as it gave away no real details of the play it was connected to.

Some obvious patterns are seen through the comparison of the plots, for example the matching rectangular hole in the centre of the sheet, which suggests ‘that the sheets were hung on a nail or peg', leading ‘to the natural conclusion that they were hung up in some public place, probably the tiring-house, for use either by the cast generally or by the Elizabethan equivalent of a call-boy.' (78) However, this is brought into question by the study of the plot of The First Part of Tamar Cam which describes one actor as a ‘red-faced fellow' (line 109). This would have been highly offensive to the actor in question and it ‘could hardly have remained on display in the tiring-house without becoming at best a standing joke, and would been impossible for use by a call-boy who valued his skin'. Additionally it would have been of limited help to the actors themselves - although the plots often but not always listed casting (particularly helpful in shows with double-casting), they often included long lists of details that made ‘rapid consultation very difficult' (78) Plots included lines on how some characters must stay on stage while others leave, for example in The First Part of Tamar Cam it says ‘exit/ Mango & nobles: manet the rest' (lines 9-10). ‘Manet' was used as a word to ‘keep account of actors remaining on stage when others exit', but as Bradley points out ‘an actor cannot leave the stage [to check the plot] in order to discover whether he is meant to remain on it'. (79)

Therefore it is ‘most unlikely that the Plots were prepared for use by actors or that they could have been of much use to a call-boy, if such a person existed'. (Bradley, 79-80) Even the stage crew would not benefit it, as the Book would be the base for their information. Additionally ‘precise music cues must always have remained under the control of the prompter and were marked in the Book'. However it is considered that the plots could be hung in the music room ‘to serve as rough but convenient readying notes… to prepare for their actual cues'. (Bradley, 83)

It seems more likely that in fact the plots were put together as device for Plotters during rehearsals, as ‘it reads rather more like a note of what the Plotter expects to see or perhaps to hear'. (77) Amendments have been made to various plots which suggest the fluidity that occurs within rehearsals. One example is of the mistake which was left uncorrected in The Battle of Alcazar where it says ‘& a / Captains' (line 75-6) - clearly what must have happened is that only one Captain was originally considered to be needed but after consideration more were brought in to fill out the scene. This would be done early on during rehearsals so I agree with Bradley when he suggests that ‘a Plot was a working document prepared in the process of a ‘run-through' and that ‘the Plotter had his cast about him, calling them on stage as required and making adjustments as he went' (80), showing that the plot ‘embodied a process, not a system of recording.' (Beckerman, 111)

Many of the plots involve actors names to match up with the characters, to allow the ‘fitting of character roles' (83) depending on the availability of cast numbers and to clear any complications with double-casting of the less significant parts between the smaller actors, as ‘the record of the minor doubling roles would have appeared only on the Plot' (Bradley, 88). This would probably have been made easier if the actors were running through the piece as the plot was formed, so any problems could be seen first-hand and noted down immediately, ‘fitting the play to the company and the company to the play'. (Bradley, 84) ‘It was the plotter, whoever he may have been, who selected the character and thereby the actor' (Beckerman, 118) and so the plotter has a large amount of control over the show as a whole. Notably the names of cast seem to be selective, as ‘when speaking is involved… the actors must be named' (Bradley, 87) whereas the mute characters were more flexible and didn't necessarily have to be casted straight away.

Consequently, to reproduce a plot for a play of Shakespeare's we must try to translate the language and style of the original documents, ‘which are functional and cryptic in character'. (Bradley, 76) From my studies it seems that the plots are much more concerned with entrances rather than exits, although almost each scene in Tamar Cam finish with ‘exit' or ‘exeunt', so I will take this into account when producing my own plot.

Plots are observed as being laid out usually in two columns, split into acts and scenes by running a line across the page between the directions, which support the idea that the scene was acknowledged in Elizabethan times and not a later addition. ‘Only the plot of The Dead Man's Fortune has any other sign of division, rows of crosses that seem to designate act endings' (Beckerman, 110), which I may use in my own plot. As it ‘might also give sound cues and list properties' (109), these are listed in The Battle of Alcazar down the left hand side of the main action lines and so I will include these, but where notes on properties are limited in the original documents, I will aim to include as many as possible to create a more detailed final plot.

I have chosen to not include the names of actors in my plot, as without a set cast it would be hard to do, with a whole range of actors available in my imaginary production. Additionally it has been pointed out through Bradley's work that ‘plays regularly performed would be regularly revised' and so ‘a new plot would have to be made out if the old company had changed in membership' (91-94). As there is such variation in how actor's names are used even through the last existing plots, I see no problem in following the plot of The Dead Man's Fortune and omitting actor's names from my own produced plot.

An interesting note that Beckerman points out is that it is rare that the plots give guidance towards which door the actors should use. As ‘in a typical two-week period of eleven performances, a company would play about eight different plays, making a total of sixty to eighty entrances for a journeyman actor.' (112) Therefore some kind of system had to be in process to deal with these highly complicated sequences, and Beckerman suggests that there was a convention of door usage.

‘Perhaps it was a matter of indifference to the company which door was used, and so there was no need to mark it down… Perhaps… it was understood that entrances were made at one conventionally designated door and exits at the other unless the actor was specifically instructed otherwise' (115)

I like the idea of this as it does seem to justify the limited details that Plotters gave in these original pieces. However there are exceptions made, for example when ‘the use of two doors objectifies the envious conflict between the brothers' in The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins (114) and so in special circumstances the doors can be used to symbolise dramatic moments within a piece. I think that I will use this system in my plot as it makes sense and prevents excessive over-detailing of door entrance and keeps the plot simpler and easier to read through. ‘Such a system, if it did exist, facilitated rapid mounting of a play and erased the pressures on actors who might have to juggle upwards of fifty roles during a single “season”.' (115) Additionally, the curtain at the centre back of the stage would act as another entrance as well as a discovery area or hiding place, as seen in The Seven Deadly Sins. (116)

As the plot is produced as ‘an active interchange between player and playwright' (Beckerman, 122-123) it is important in my own creation of a plot that I keep it as close to the text while still editing it to make it possible on a stage with two doors and a curtain. I can also add trap doors or entrances from above as indicated within the text but I aim to make my plot fit an original Elizabethan style of stage.

For my plot I have chosen to do Hamlet as there is an interesting range of staging options within the piece. From here I will comment on the structure and the choices I make throughout. I have chosen to use The Battle of Alcazar as my template for how to lay the piece out. This has the scene numbers down the edges of either side of the page, and the column to the left of the main action description lies the details on properties and sound cues.

On the first line I used the phrase ‘to them', which was used in the original plots to mean that the next people enter with the last people still being on stage. As Marcellus exits he would leave through the door he did not enter through, therefore naturally making use of the two door system. The ghost would enter and exit from one door to the other, but possibly bring himself to the front of the stage without acknowledging the rest of the characters on stage. I chose to include the description of the armour as I felt that it was important to the detail of the scene. As the plots do not worry about exits of characters within scenes, when the ghost reappears I chose to write ‘exit then enter again' as seen on line 12 of the plot of The Seven Deadly Sins, particularly as the re-entering is very soon after the exit. I ended the scene as usual with the regular ‘exeunt' as often seen, then drew a line underneath to show the start of a new scene.

In Scene Two of my version of the play stated that there was a ‘flourish', which I took to be trumpets and so added it to the sound cue column. The large amounts of people entering the stage are listed straight away but where the script said ‘enter….council including Voltemand, Cornelius, Polonius' I chose to just put ‘enter council' in addition to the last section of ‘the others', as these three actors plus more should know that they are a part of the council and so must enter. In this scene twice is Hamlet left alone so I took this opportunity to use the word ‘manet' as seen and explained earlier. Even though the difference seems only slight, this is a much simpler and quicker way of saying ‘except for'.

Scene three of Act One is very simple as it only involves three characters who come and go once or twice. In Scene four I saw that Horatio and Marcellus followed after Hamlet and the ghost, but as they would have used the same doors for exiting naturally, I chose not to mark it as it may have led to confusion for the actors in over-explanation, leading them to think too hard and question their actions. In scene five I chose to include the exit of the ghost to ensure that Horatio and Marcellus do not enter before the ghost has left so as to ensure Hamlet has his moment alone on stage. The voice of the ghost from offstage Is marked in the play as coming from different places in the theatre but I felt that this detail did not need to be on the plot.

The plot of The Dead Man's Fortune not only leaves a break between acts by adding crosses across the column, but also by the addition of music in the break, which I have chosen to include in mine, as I feel that the audience should know this pause. In doing this I have assumed that the Act breaks are the correct and accepted versions and so the flow is designed to halt in this moment.

In Act Two Scene One, I decided to add the money and notes that Polonius has to the main text section rather than place them in the props column, as on study of the original plots the props usually put in this column are of the larger or higher status, such as in The Battle of Alcazar ‘raw flesh' (line 43) and ‘dead men's heads' (line 94) go in the special column but the army entering on line 78 enters with a drum, or ‘drom', marked only as part of the character list. I think that this pattern reflects that when a prop is assigned specifically to a character it can be put in the main text, just like the chair that people bring in on line 66, whereas a prop that is just necessary for the scene or stage can be put in the special column for something that is not assigned to a particular person.

When the players enter in this scene it is unclear how many there are, and as only one speaks it is not even clear that there is a minimum. However for a performing company it would be easy to imagine that there were at least several to this group, laden with props and costumes and so on, which would provide quite a rowdy scene. in contrast, it could be that they were very simple actors with minimal items who were very calm and allowed the leader of the group to speak for all while they stood back and remained attentive.

In Act Three Scene One we find the first use of the centre curtain as a hiding place for the King and Polonius to listen in on Ophelia and Hamlet. By using the curtain, the audience would acknowledge the difference between that and of exiting through a door, which would be much more final in declaring that they were no longer on stage and not a part this scene. By using the curtain the audience are still aware that there are other characters involved in the scene being played out, causing dramatic irony through the fact that the other actors on stage are often oblivious to this. As Hamlet arrives on stage after they are hidden, Hamlet would be fully unaware of their presence so would not consider them in what he was saying, but whether he acknowledges Ophelia on stage is questionable but likely, as on a small stage such as the ones that Shakespeare was performed on, another character would not be easily missed and the audience would roll their eyes at such forced ignorance.

Next, in Scene Two, my version of the play states in the notes (page 151) that three actors are present with Hamlet. As this is not mentioned in the text and still only one person speaks, I am unsure of where this number has come from, which is why I chose to continue with not determining a set number of players for this scene either. For the dumb show I chose to treat it as The Battle of Alcazar does, by separating the action with a line to define the moment then to lay out the actions as usual. The trouble with this version is that by saying ‘enter King' it would suggest that Claudius' character should enter, but he is already on stage. As a result the players' characters have quote marks around them to define the difference between the characters. Additionally I have decided that the players should use just one door for entrance and exit, as then can the audience section of characters fill on behalf of the stage while the actors have full use of the other half. To employ both doors would make through the doors look like simply a way of getting from one door to another, so by using one door we eliminate this distracting pattern and allow the door used by the actors to represent their own backstage area.

The fourth scene of this act provides another opportunity for the use of the centre curtain, as Polonius hides behind it to spy on Hamlet and his mother. When the curtain is lifted there should be nothing else behind to prevent distraction from the accidental murder. At the end of the Scene the Queen is left on stage to provide the plotter with the opportunity to start Act Four Scene One with the phrase ‘to her', marking the Queen already on stage having stayed there.

The army with Fortinbras would be interesting to stage in 4.4. as for the crowd to look like an army not only would the costumes be effective but there would need to be a lot of actors to play the parts of soldiers, suggesting that Hamlet is in need of a large cast. When they leave I have decided to get Hamlet and the others to enter from the door they exited from, as it would look dubious if Hamlet appeared from the other door representing a completely different place and comment on the army even though he had not experienced them on the stage during the scene, so a double-usage of door would suggest that their paths had crossed and so the questioning would then be understandable.

From here the system of the plot is fairly straightforward and simple to justify. Therefore I will simply conclude in the fact that while at first glance the plot and creation of another seems daunting at first, but when it comes to close analysis of the texts, plots can be produced quickly and easy to a person with those skills and the knowledge of the plots that have gone before.

I remain dubious about the use of the doors, as I feel that it does not satisfy the needs of some of the entrances and exits, not only within Shakespeare but also with writers who wrote smiliar plays. There must be some significant crossovers where the two doors do not satisfy the needs of everyone coming and going in a certain way. I do appreciate the idea of a routine to prevent people from going the wrong way in entrances and exits, but the visual experience from the audience will suffer due to the automatic assumption that all the characters are entering and exiting to the same room.

Nevertheless this study into plots has given me greater awareness of my surrounding skills other than just the usual drama selection such as analysis of a speech. It is a great shame that there has been no more found as it is clear that we missed out on a lot of the past and more evidence to compare against one another to see the trends. However even in just one plot, in particular the Battle of Alcazar, so much information can be gained from the olden days techniques that we simply wouldn't have know about otherwise.


Beckerman, Bernard, “Theatrical Plots and Elizabethan Stage Practise”, Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition, Edited by W.R. Elton and William B. Long. Newark, University of Delaware Press. 1989, pp. 109-124.

Bradley, David, From Text to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Durband, Alan, Shakespeare Made Easy: Hamlet, Barron's, New York, 1986

Greg, W.W., Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses: Stage Plots, Actors' Parts, Prompt Books, Volume 2: Reproductions and Transcripts, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1931

Enter Claudius, Gertrude, council members, Laertes, Hamlet, and others. Exeunt manet Hamlet. Enter Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo. Exeunt manet Hamlet. Exit Hamlet.

Enter Hamlet. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Exeunt.

Enter King and several Lords. Enter Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and others. Enter Hamlet and Guards. Exeunt manet the King. Exit King.

Enter Laertes and Ophelia. Enter Polonius. Exeunt.

Enter Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus. Enter ghost as before. Exeunt manet Horatio and Marcellus. Exeunt.

Enter Fortinbras with army. Exeunt manet the Captain. Enter through same door Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and others. Exeunt manet Hamlet.

Enter Hamlet and Ghost. Exit ghost. Enter Horatio and Marcellus. Exeunt.

Enter Queen, Horatio and a Gentleman. Enter Ophelia. Enter King. Enter messenger.

Enter Laertes and followers. Ophelia sings offstage. Enter Ophelia. Ophelia exits. Exeunt.

Enter Polonius with money and notes and Reynaldo. Exit Reynaldo as Ophelia enters. Exeunt.

Enter Horatio and a Servant. Enter Sailors with letter. Exeunt.

Enter King, Queen, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and attendants. Enter Polonius. Enter again with Cornelius and Voltemand with a paper. Exit Cornelius and Voltemand manet the rest. Enter Hamlet with a book. Exeunt manet Polonius and Hamlet. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Polonius. Enter the players. Exeunt manet Hamlet. Hamlet exits.

Enter the King and Laertes. Enter a messenger with letters. Enter Queen. Exit Laertes. Exeunt.

Enter Clowns, digging. To him enter Hamlet and Horatio. Enter Priest, King, Queen, Laertes and Lords. Exeunt.

Enter Hamlet and Horatio. Enter Osric. Enter a Lord. Enter the King, Queen, Laertes, Osric, the state and attendants with fencing gear. Enter servants with wine. Queen dies, then Osric exits. King and Laertes die. Enter Osric. Enter Fortinbras and English Ambassadors with drum and colours.

Exeunt to dead march.

Enter King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Exit King and Polonius to the curtain. Enter Hamlet. Exit Hamlet. King and Polonius return from curtain. Exeunt.

Enter Hamlet and Players. Exeunt manet Hamlet. Enter Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Horatio. Enter King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Lords, attendants, and royal Guard carrying torches.

Dumb Show.

Enter ‘King' and ‘Queen'. Enter ‘Man' with poison. Enter ‘Queen' again. Enter again ‘Man' with three or four others and gifts. Players exeunt the same way.

Enter Prologue. Enter ‘King' and ‘Queen'. Enter ‘Lucianus' with poison. Exeunt all manet Hamlet and Horatio. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter players with recorders. Enter Polonius. Exeunt manet Hamlet.

Enter King, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Polonius. Enter Hamlet with sword. Hamlet exits. King exits.

Enter Queen and Polonius. Polonius hides behind the curtain. Enter Hamlet. Hamlet stabs through curtain, lifts curtain, Polonius discovered. Enter Ghost. Exit Hamlet dragging body of Polonius, manet the Queen.

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