Space is an important element in drama since the stage itself also represents a space where action is presented. One must of course not forget that types of stage have changed in the history of the theatre and that this has also influenced the way plays were performed (see Types of Stage). The analysis of places and settings in plays can help one get a better feel for characters and their behaviour but also for the overall atmosphere. Plays can differ significantly with regard to how space is presented and how much information about space is offered. While in George Bernard Shaw's plays the secondary text provides detailed spatio-temporal descriptions, one finds hardly anything in the way of secondary text in Shakespeare (see Gurr/Ichikawa 2000)

The stage set quite literally ‘sets the scene’ for a play in that it already conveys a certain tone, e.g., one of desolation and poverty or mystery and secrecy. The fact that the description of the stage sets in the secondary text are sometimes very detailed and sometimes hardly worth mentioning is another crucial starting point for further analysis since that can tell us something about more general functions of settings.

Actual productions of a play frequently invent their own set, independent of the information provided in the text. Thus, a very detailed set with lots of stage props may simply be used to show off theatrical equipment. In Victorian melodrama, for example, even horses were brought on stage in order to make the ‘show’ more appealing but also to demonstrate a theatre’s wealth and ability to provide expensive costumes, background paintings, etc. A more detailed stage set also aims at creating an illusion of realism, i.e., the scene presented on stage is meant to be as true-to-life as possible and the audience is expected to succumb to that illusion. At the same time, a detailed set draws attention to problems of an individual’s milieu, for example, or background in general. This was particularly important in naturalist writing, which was premised on the idea that a person’s character and behaviour are largely determined by his or her social context.

By contrast, if detail is missing in the presentation of the setting, whether in the text or in production, that obviously also has a reason. Sometimes, plays do not employ detailed settings because they do not aim at presenting an individualised, personal background but a general scenario that could be placed anywhere and affect anyone. The stage set in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for example, is really bare: “A country road. A tree.” One can argue that this minimal set highlights the characters' uprootedness and underlines the play’s focus on human existence in general.

Word Scenery

Since drama is multimedial, the visual aspect inevitably plays an important role. The layout/overall appearance of the set is usually described in stage directions or descriptions at the beginning of acts or scenes. Thus, all the necessary stage props (i.e., properties used on stage such as furniture, accessories, etc.) and possibly stage painting can be presented verbally in secondary texts, which is then translated into an actual visualisation on stage. One must not forget that directors are of course free to interpret secondary texts in different ways and thus to create innovative renditions of plays. An example is Richard Loncraine’s 1996 film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the play is set in the 1930s.

The set or, more precisely, what it is supposed to represent, can also be conveyed in the characters’ speech. In Elizabethan times, for example, where the set was rather bare with little stage props and no background scenery, the spatio-temporal framework of a scene had to be provided by characters’ references to it. The jester Trinculo in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for example, gives the following description of the island and the weather:

Here’s neither bush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all, and another storm brewing; I hear it sing i’ the wind. Yond same black cloud, yond huge one, looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor. If it should thunder as it did before I know not where to hide my head, yond same cloud cannot choose but fall by pailfuls.
(Shakespeare, The Tempest, II, 2: 19-23)

While Elizabethan theatre goers could not actually ‘see’ a cloud on stage, they were invited to imagine it in their mind’s eye. The setting was thus created rhetorically, as word scenery, rather than by means of painted canvas, stage props and artificial lighting (which was not common practice until the Restoration period).

Setting and Characterisation

The setting can be used as a means of indirect characterisation. Thus, the anonymity and unloving atmosphere among the characters in Edward Bond’s play Saved is anticipated by and mirrored in the barrenness of the stage set, where only the most necessary pieces of furniture are presented but nothing that would give Pam’s parents’ flat a more personal touch. The characters in William Congreve’s The Way of the World, by comparison, are implicitly characterised as high society because they meet in coffee-houses, St. James’ Park and posh private salons. A close look at the setting can thus contribute to a better understanding of the characters and their behaviour.

Symbolic Space

Another important factor to consider in this context is the interrelatedness of setting and plot. Obviously, the plot of a play is never presented in a vacuum but always against the background of a specific scenery and often the setting corresponds with what is going on in the storyworld. Thus, the storm at the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Tempest not only starts off the play and functions as an effective background to the action but it also reflects the ‘disorder’ in which the characters find themselves at the beginning: Antonio unlawfully holds the position of his brother, Prospero; Sebastian is willing to get rid of his brother, King Alonso, in order to take his place; and the savage and deformed slave Caliban broods on revenge against his self-appointed master, Prospero. The lack of peace and order in the social world is thus analogous to chaos and destruction in the natural world. Likewise, a storm signifies disorder in Shakespeare's King Lear, when King Lear's daughters Gonerill and Regan turn their father out of doors although they had vowed their affection for him and had received their share of the kingdom in return. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the secretive and highly sexual atmosphere is underlined by the dark forest at midnight, in which fog and darkness partly support but also thwart the characters’ secret plans and actions. One can say that rather than only functioning as a background or creating a certain atmosphere, these spaces become symbolic spaces as they point towards other levels of meaning in the text. The setting can thus support the expression of the world view current at a certain time or general philosophical, ethical or moral questions.


stage set
naturalistic writing
stage props
word scenery
symbolic space