From Page to Stage: Shakespeare in Performance – Part 2

In the first part of this summer school session, we looked at the difference directors’ choices make to a play in performance and researched two productions. In the second part, we will look at the contributions of designers and actors. You’ll also get to put your knowledge into practice by directing your own scene virtually.

Stage design

The stage design – or scenography – can have a big impact on how we interpret a play, sometimes without us even realising it.

For example, the modern Shakespeare’s Globe was built on London’s Southbank in the 1990s. They wanted it to be as accurate as possible a reproduction of the Globe in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. That Globe burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, when a badly aimed cannon caused the thatched roof to catch fire! You can go on a virtual tour of the Globe theatre here.

The architecture of the Globe Theatre allows the audience to experience what it would have been like to watch a play in Shakespeare’s time – in the open air, in daylight and, if you were a groundling with a cheaper ticket, standing up! The stage design, with the audience in the round also means that there are very few props and very little scenery. Instead, directors and designers tend to rely on the words spoken by the actors to conjure up scenery in the audience’s imaginations.

The Prologue to Henry V is a good example of this. The actor delivering the speech confesses the limitations of theatre as a medium for representing such a big topic as the war with France. He/she then asks the audience to help by imagining two armies, many soldiers where there is only one actor, and horses. ‘Scaffold’, ‘cockpit’ and ‘wooden O’ are all references to the architecture of the Globe.

Read the Prologue through a couple of times. Don’t worry if there are words in it that you don’t understand. What are the key images that jump out at you?


Enter Chorus


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.


Now watch Mark Rylance performing the Prologue below. How does he make the speech come alive and what does he emphasise?

If you would like a modern English ‘translation’ of the speech, you can read one here.

Of course, not all productions of Shakespeare plays have to be performed in the round. For Michael Boyd’s 2007 production of Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company, designer Tom Piper created a very different design. A massive, industrial style tower dominated the stage. Look at the pictures in the Design Gallery to see how his design evolved and the models he made. Do you prefer it when a designer indicates a clear setting for a play or being left to imagine it yourself? 


How actors choose to develop their characters and deliver their lines can also make a big difference to the audience’s interpretation of a play. One of the most famous speeches in Henry V takes place in Act 3, scene 1, beginning ‘Once more unto the breach’. King Henry is urging on his soldiers, who are launching an attack on the walls of the French city of Harfleur. ‘Once more unto the breach’ means ‘let us try again one more time’.

Watch these two actors’ performances of the speech:

Alex Hassell in Henry V, directed by Gregory Doran (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2015)

Jamie Parker in Henry V, directed by Dominic Dromgoole (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2013)

What are the different choices they have made? How do their choices impact the meaning of the speech? Which performance would you choose if you were the director?

In the first video, Henry runs on in the midst of battle, runs off, then runs back on again. The audience laugh, suggesting the potential for comedy in the scene. Time seems to stop for a moment to let him deliver his motivational speech, before rushing back in with the sound effects of war. Alex Hassell as Henry is alone on the stage, which could make him seem contemplative or even isolated as a character.

In the second video, Henry is on stage with soldiers. Jamie Parker seems to give a more traditionally heroic interpretation of the character, who has blood trickling down his face and carries a sword. He delivers the speech directly to the audience as if they are his soldiers, making the speech a patriotic rallying cry. His final shouts are echoed by the actors, suggesting the speech has worked to motivate them. 

Direct your own scene

The Globe Theatre’s Staging It resource allows anyone to experience being a theatre director. Follow the link and choose a scene to direct – from the options of Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Much Ado About Nothing. (It doesn’t matter whether you’ve studied or read the play before). You can then select how the actor delivers the speech from a variety of different emotional states and drag the clips into a storyboard. How do the different versions of the performance impact the meaning of the scene? Once you’re happy with your choices, you can export your scene as a short film – with your name as the director!


Send a copy of your film to the Inspire email address or share on social media and tag us @sjc_access to be entered into the prize draw! Please only include your first name on the credits to the film.

Further resources

Shakespeare’s First Folio, printed in 1623 (7 years after Shakespeare died), is the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays. 235 copies in the world survive today, so it is now a rare book. Discover the Bodleian library’s copy here.

Resource written by Dr Hannah Greenstreet for the St John’s Inspire Programme Summer School.


Dr Hannah Greenstreet completed her PhD in contemporary feminist theatre and realism at Jesus College, Oxford in 2021. She holds a Master of Studies in English: 1830-1914 from Oxford and a BA in English from the University of Cambridge. She has taught literature and drama at the University of Oxford, Pacific Lutheran University and CMRS-Middlebury College. She is also a theatre critic for Exeunt Magazine and a playwright. She is Project Support Officer for the SJC Inspire Programme.

Share with us!

We would love to see any examples of work that you do during your Inspire Summer School. This can be a photo of something you have made, a picture you have drawn, some written work (e.g. the start of a speech, or the answer to a question we asked), or some thoughts you have about what you have learnt! Submit your work to us through this form.

All pupils who share their work with us by August 31 2021 will receive a certificate of participation in the summer school and will be entered into a prize draw! A £10 Amazon voucher will be awarded to each winning entry, selected randomly from all submissions. If you give us permission, your entry may be shared on Inspire Digital and our social media alongside your first name.