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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 5. Historic importance of stage directions

The stage directions are of importance, as illustrating the way in which these early dramas were produced. In Horestes, the action oscillates at first between Mycene and Crete, shifts to Athens and ends at Mycene; but, throughout, the back of the stage is, apparently, occupied by something representing the wall of Mycene. After much marching about the stage, the Herald approaches this object, and, in answer to his challenge, Clytemnestra speaks “over the wal,” refusing to surrender. Then we have the direction:

  • Go and make your lively battel and let it be longe, eare you can win the Citie, and when you have won it, let Horestes bringe out his mother by the armes, and let the droum sease playing and the trumpet also, when she is taken; let her knele downe and speake.
  • After more fighting, Egistus is taken and hanged, apparently from the same wall. “Fling him of the lader and then let on bringe in his mother Clytemnestra; but let her loke wher Egistus hangeth.… Take downe Egistus and bear him out.” The same realistic method of presentation is to be noted in Apius and Virginia: “Here tye a handcarcher aboute hir eyes, and then strike of hir heade.” In Cambises, when execution is done on Sisamnes, the stage direction reads: “Smite him in the neck with a sword to signify his death,” and the dialogue continues:
  • PRAXASPES. Behold (O king), how he doth bleed,
  • Being of life bereft.
  • KING. In this wise he shall not yet be left.
  • Pull his skin over his ears,
  • … “Flays him with a false skin.” The deaths of Smirdis (“A little bladder of vinegar pricked” to represent his blood) and of Cambises, who enters “without a grown, a sword thrust up into his side bleeding,” further illustrate this point. Our early playwrights were troubled by no scruples as to the interpretation of the precepts about deaths on the stage, elaborated by the Italian critics from Aristotle and Horace, which Giraldi discusses with much learning and ingenuity in his Discorso. They accepted the tradition of the miracle-plays, and handed on to the early theatres a custom which was evidently in accord with popular taste.