Despite being one of the most famous playwrights in the English language, the world doesn’t know for sure what day William Shakespeare was born. Baptized April 26, 1564, his actual birthday remains a mystery. April 23 is often used to celebrate the Bard, who died on the day in 1616. Whichever the day, 2022 marks the 458th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s arrival in this world before he went on to give us some of the most famous tragic heroes, star-crossed lovers, and iconic villains to grace the stage.
Born at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, where the modern-day Royal Shakespeare Company honors his work, Shakespeare has become the focus of much research, yet not much is known about his personal life. Little evidence has survived to conclusively resolve questions scholars have about his religious affiliation, his sexuality, his intentions with certain works, among other debates. Some have even argued that Shakespeare could not have written the plays himself.
His impact can be found in the 1,700 words he contributed to the English language, the continued common use of phrases he invented, and the 37 (or 39...or 40...) plays from Hamlet and Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he wrote. From all of this and more has also come a plethora of décor items featuring out-of-context quotes from the Bard. Here’s hoping that the little girls sleeping in cribs under posters of “Though she be but little, she is fierce” don’t grow up to scratch out the eyes of best friends-turned-frenemies in drug-induced love quadrangles.
In honor of Shakespeare’s work and his lasting influence on theatre audiences and Etsy shop owners alike, Playbill considers some of his best stage directions out-of-context for modern times.
1. For the Sake of Argument
The Situation: The pandemic, with its cabin fever-fueled arguments, may be winding down, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that arguments have disappeared from life. A small difference of opinion can still become a contentious conversation. Perhaps you try to end the discussion gracefully to little success, so you try your next move: leaving the room. The other person, however, really wants the last word.
[Exit, pursued by a bear.]
Original Context: Famously from The Winter’s Tale, this stage direction anticipates the death of Antigonus, an old man who nobly defends his queen’s innocence. Chased out by a bear, the stage direction is a nod to the rather horrifying and common use of bears in entertainment halls and bear-baiting dens across Elizabethan and Jacobean London.
2. A Day at the Beach
The Situation: The sun is out, the temperature is warm, and the day has finally arrived when it’s hot enough to go to the local spot for a dip in the water. With a packed beach bag full of sunscreen and towels and sunglasses on, it’s time to strip down and head for the water. (*Swimsuits are highly recommended when going to public beaches and pools.)
[They fly, leaving their clothes behind.]*
Original Context: In the case of the French in Henry VI, Part 1, it’s quite possible all clothing was left behind as they flee an English attack on their military encampment. Set during the One Hundred Years’ War, these soldiering characters may have sacrificed abiding by public decency laws for safety in this scene.
3. A Night on the Town
The Situation: After three postponements and a long group chat about where to meet, your friends are finally getting together to catch up. Everyone’s finished their latest round, but no one is quite ready to go home. The group’s unofficial leader suggests a move to another watering hole for the next round.
[They advance to another post.]
Original Context: From one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays,’ Antony and Cleopatra, comes this stage direction which isn’t about a bar crawl with friends, but rather the heightened alert and protection of soldiers and watchmen.
4. In Love and War
The Situation: Every single-and-ready-to-mingle could use a little help from Aphrodite and her son Eros, the Greek goddess and god of love. The modern dating world is an interesting place, to say the least. From dating apps to chance meet-cutes at local coffee shops, dangers abound in the form of catfishing, gross pick-up lines, Tinder swindlers, and on and on. The decision to enter the dating arena is often not made lightly, and comes with a certain amount of preparation.
[Enter Eros, with armor.]
Original Context: Also from Antony and Cleopatra, this stage direction sadly does not singnal the arrival of the god of love coming to help out an unfortunate mortal. Rather in the play, Eros is an attendant of Marc Antony’s and helps the title character dress for the coming battle with Rome. It’s a rather unfortunate twist as the play ends the love story of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (spoiler alert: they both die) while the Roman Empire conquers and colonizes Egypt.
5. All Your Born Days
The Situation: So, it’s finally the day of the year many a child waits for—their birthday. It’s the day they get to add another finger to the ones they hold up when asked how old they are, and they’re a year closer to being considered ‘big.’ Playmates have arrived and the birthday party has gone off with laughter and joy. It’s time to sit down and enjoy some cake.
[She puts a paper crown on his head.]
Original Context: Quite the opposite, Henry VI, Part 3 does not feature a birthday party, but rather the horrors of betrayal, family, and war as the play deals with the chaos and realities of the Wars of the Roses. In the scene, Queen Margaret taunts her enemy, the captured York, with a mocking coronation. Needless to say, there wasn’t any cake.