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Shakespeare & Beyond

“According to the scrip”: Shakespeare’s text from cue scripts to promptbooks and beyond

“But, masters, here are your parts, and I am to entreat you, request you, and desire you to con them by tomorrow night…” – Peter Quince, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1, Scene 2

I crouch on the floor, script in my hand. I am Juliet, waiting to be my lady mother’s help. I listen carefully since the only clue for my speech is a cluster of three words: “…not be forsworn.”

It’s the end of the line that immediately precedes mine, but I don’t know who will speak the words or what action they’ll take. I’ve never been more aware of the other actors around me. It’s stressful. It’s exhilarating. It’s Shakespearean.

When we think of a rehearsal script today, we picture something like a book—the complete play bound together or handed over as the stack of freshly printed pages we’re used to hole punching to place in a notebook. For Shakespeare’s works, you may think of the Folger editions with their notes, notations, and numbered lines. But the rehearsal scripts of Shakespeare’s time were far closer to the one I held as Juliet, my cue script.

In his book Shakespeare on Toast, Ben Crystal describes this aspect of the original practices—the methods and techniques Shakespeare and his fellow actors would’ve used in their time. This includes things like not using a director, performing a different play every day, and rehearsing their shows a few hours beforehand with cue scripts. He goes on to define cue scripts as rolls or scrolls of paper with an individual actor’s lines written out along with the three “cue words” that are spoken before them. Unfortunately, none of these cue scripts for Shakespeare’s plays survived the ravages of time.

Performing the text in this manner is an incredible exercise in awareness and active listening. It’s an exercise you can, and should, try yourself. Let’s use Romeo and Juliet. Here is what this portion of Juliet’s lines from the iconic balcony scene would look like in a cue script:

…these fruit-tree tops

O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her [circled] orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

…I swear by

Do not swear at all.
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee. 

…heart’s dear love

Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.

If you look at the complete text, you’ll see that while the lines—Romeo’s—that fall before and between Juliet’s aren’t substantial, they’re much longer than the three words you’re given. Grab a partner and speak this small portion aloud. Notate the other lines in the scene similarly. How does this new formatting affect your awareness and understanding of this moment? Have you learned anything new about the interaction? Even if you’ve noticed no change in your perception you’ve just performed Juliet as an apprentice of the King’s Men might have. Congratulations!

In contrast with the cue script, the prompt script would contain all of the cuts or changes as made in performance or requested by the Master of the Revels—the agent of the monarch charged with approving the content of each play for public performance. We know that the surviving versions of Shakespeare’s texts famously do not contain many stage directions. Prompt scripts eventually evolved to contain more detailed stage directions and acting notes from individual performers. This one from a 1763 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—nearly 150 years after Shakespeare’s death—contains script cuts and notations alongside and over the printed text.

This marked-up script is more recognizable to a modern actor. It better matches what we’re used to handling in our rehearsals—the complete text of the play in a single document. It gives us clues as to how this particular production was done. It’s an incredible record from a time before cameras and production photos. Later prompt scripts, such as this 1909 Hamlet prompt book belonging to famed actor Edwin Booth, even have notes for gestures and line delivery.

In Chapter 8 of my historical fantasy novel, That Self-Same Metal, James—an apprentice with the King’s Men and the main character’s twin brother—gets a set of papers stolen from his bag by a band of mischievous pixies. He becomes desperate to get them back. Why? They’re his cue script for the company’s next performance and without them, he’d have no way to rehearse his lines. Now armed with your knowledge of cue scripts, prompt scripts, and the like, I’m sure his panic strikes a new chord. Perhaps you’d be this desperate, too.

For readers in Washington, DC

Loyalty Books is hosting a conversation with Brittany N. Williams and Emma Poltrack, the Folger’s Community and Audience Engagement Program Manager, on Thursday, April 25, to celebrate the release of Saint-Seducing Gold, the second book in Brittany N. Williams’s YA historical fantasy trilogy—the Forge & Fracture Saga.