They haue their Exits and their Entrances,
And one man in his time playes many parts

As You Like It
2.7.139-42 TLN 1118-21

A play-text or script is essentially a score that describes events to be performed on stage. All playwrights know this well enough. But a playwright of William Shakespeare’s ilk would have perhaps felt it somewhat more keenly for his also being one of the principal players of his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s — and, later, the King’s — men. Though we mostly read and imagine his plays in their fictional settings — Hamlet in Elsinore, Twelfe Night in Illyria, or The Winters Tale in Sicily and Bohemia by the sea — Shakespeare, himself, must have first imagined them on his “vnworthy Scaffold”: the Theatre’s, or the Globe’s, or the Blackfriars’ stage. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s fellow players would have also read their parts with an eye on the practical, technical demands of performance. For no matter how self-enclosed a play-world might have been the fact of being onstage in broad daylight almost entirely surrounded by a rowdy and demanding audience must have been foremost in their minds. It is therefore rather likely that the technical performative merits of Shakespeare’s plays were at least as important to him as their literary value.

What we sought to provide here was a perspective or window on how Shakespeare may have envisioned — or, at least, sensed — the overall structure and the logistics of his plays in performance. As such what we wanted to reproduce somewhat resembles a synoptic instrument that the Elizabethan players themselves employed: the plot (or platt). This was the single-sheet summary of a play’s cue to cue presumably posted — as an aide mémoire — backstage on the tyring-house wall during rehearsals or performances. Plots described (quite accurately) a play’s scheme of entrances and (sometimes) exits and thus its basic technical structure. What our graphs reveal, then, is this underlying technical structure of Shakespeare’s plays. In essence, each play-graph represents a virtual “cue to cue” of its respective play by displaying the ENTRANCES and EXITS of characters in their order of appearance along the course of the play’s lineation.

Our thirty-six play-graphs are based on the “true original copies” that Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 provides. In the words of textual historian Charlton Hinman, the Folio is the only edition of the collected works which can reasonably be accepted as a permanent standard (Hinman 1996, p.xxiii). Not only is it the very first collection of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, it is the only one in which — barring the dramatist himself — two of his fellow players, John Heminge and Henry Condell, evidently played a supervisory role. That Hinman’s own “ideal” facsimile edition, The Norton Facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1968, 2nd ed. 1996), was itself chosen as the principal control-text for this venture was largely due to its through-line-numbering system (TLN). Given the complex textual and editorial history of Shakespeare’s plays, Hinman chose not to key his facsimile to any modern edition of Shakespeare’s works but rather to count, in normal reading order, every typographical line “straight through each play” (id. p.xxiii) beginning with Actus primus, Scena prima and ending with the play’s final line. Thus Hinman’s TLN provides a solid series of continuous coordinates enabling us to precisely locate textual and structural events along an axis that is more or less analogous to that of time and performance. Our project is therefore something of an homage to Hinman’s edition and his TLN.

The Example of Metatheatre

as if the Tragedie
Were plaid in iest, by counterfetting Actors

The Third Part of Henry the Sixt
2.3.27-8 TLN 1087-8

An added feature of our play-graphs, which serves perhaps to provide relief or contour (as well as an illustration of how such graphs may be utilized in the course of specific analyses), lies in their also highlighting scenic and textual occurrences of Shakespeare’s metatheatre. Ever since Lionel Abel coined the term (Metatheatre: a New View of Dramatic Form, 1963), most scholars and practitioners would agree that “metatheatricality ruled” over Shakespeare’s theatre (Gurr and Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare's Theatre, 2000, p.13). Indeed, plays-within-the-play, disguised characters, and sudden surprising utterances as that of Fabian’s in Twelfe Night, If this were plaid upon the stage now, I could condemne it as an improbable fiction (3.4.127/TLN 1649) are all deemed fairly characteristic of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. And yet in spite of such notable studies as that of Anne [Righter] Barton on the play-metaphor (Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, 1962), or of James Calderwood on Shakespearean Metadrama (1971), nowhere has it really been comprehensively ascertained just how much Shakespeare resorted to these devices and therefore the degree to which his theatre was self-reflexive or metatheatrical. Thus our graphic formal outlines are employed to further contextualize and to quantify occurrences of Shakespeare’s metatheatre in order, perhaps, to better inform the performance and the study of his works as to the importance of this theme.

Our hope is that these “at a glance” graphic analyses — or this view of Shakespeare from 30,000 feet — may provide a pragmatic window on the working evolution of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, as well as a further perspective on his performer’s sense of theatre.

Stéphane Zarov
with the invaluable assistance
of Stéphane Volet

Technical Key


Characters are listed on each play-graph’s vertical- axis, from top to bottom and in their order of appearance. A cross (†) marks when a character is deceased.

Entrances & exits

Entrances & exits are displayed along the horizontal-axis of each play’s full TLN. The TLN lineation therefore stands, analogously, for stage time.

Act Breaks

Play-graphs indicate act breaks but not scene breaks. For though an act is often a relevant structural unit, it is — more often than not — invisible onstage, whereas a scene is as visually self-evident here as it is in performance (i.e. the stage is cleared). When the Folio gives the act break, its line is solid. When it provides none, we’ve either relied on contemporaneous quarto editions or on modern editions such as the Riverside (1974, 2nd ed. 1997) or Norton Shakespeare (1997) to establish its location, but the act line is then broken.

Metatheatrical Key

Plays-Within-The-Play & Disguises

Plays-within-the-play appear as vertical inset-frames, while Disguises appear as horizontal frames surrounding the individual characters concerned. Both devices are colour-coded according to types suggested by Frederick Boas (“The Play Within The Play”, The Shakespeare Association, 1927) and Georges Forestier (Esthétique de l’identité, 1988):

Plays in plays


Lexical Fields of Theatre & Art

Everyone knows that Shakespeare fairly early got onto the master metaphor of life as drama and used it extensively to illuminate the experiences of his characters. The big set-piece speeches like Jacques’s “All the world’s a stage” and Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” are familiar but less common than the transient appearances of such terms as act, play the part, counterfeit, shadow, stage, cast, plot, quality, scene, and pageant, each of which momentarily sets the world in the focus of art.
James Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (1971), p.5.

In our play-graphs, the exact TLN location of a spoken term that is explicitly THEATRICAL is shown as a RED point along the graph’s horizontal-axis; whereas a term of ART or IMITATION — that is more implicitly related to mimetic representation — is shown as a BLUE point. The principal terms surveyed were the following: