Time in drama can be considered from a variety of angles. One can, for example, look at time as part of the play: How are references to time made in the characters’ speech, the setting, stage directions, etc.? What is the overall time span of the story? On the other hand, time is also a crucial factor in the performance of a play: How long does the performance actually take? Needless to say that the audiences’ perception of time can also vary. Another question one can ask in this context is: Which general concepts of time are expressed in and by a play?

Succession and Simultaneity

One of the first distinctions one can make is the one between succession and simultaneity. Events and actions can take place in one of two ways: either one after another (successively) or all at the same time (simultaneously). When these events are performed on stage, their presentation in scenes will inevitably be successive while they may well be simultaneous according to the internal time frame of the play.

Consider, for example, the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Given the fact that the events happening in the play are supposed to take only three hours, one must presume that the various subplots presenting the different groups of people dispersed over the island must take place roughly at the same time: e.g., Caliban’s encounter with Trinculo and Stephano in Act II, scene 1 and continued in III, 2 is likely to take place at the same time as Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s conversation in III, 1, etc. A sense of simultaneity is created here exactly because different plot-lines alternate without being presented separately in strings of immediately successive scenes. On the other hand, if no other indication of divergent time frames is given in the text, viewers normally automatically assume that the events and actions presented in subsequent scenes are also successive in their temporal order.

Presentation of Temporal Frames

There are a number of possibilities to create a temporal frame in drama. Allusions to time can be made in the characters’ conversations; the exact time of a scene can be provided in the stage directions; or certain stage props like clocks and calendars or auditory devices such as church bells ringing in the background can give the audience a clue about what time it is. At the beginning of Hamlet, for example, when the guards see the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the time is given in the guard’s account of the same apparition during the previous night:

Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole,
Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one –
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, 1: 38-42)

While in this instance, the exact time is expressed verbally by one of the characters, the crowing of a cock offstage indicates the approaching daylight later in that scene and causes the apparition to disappear. In scene 4 of the same act, Hamlet himself is on guard in order to meet the ghost, and the scene begins with the following short exchange between Hamlet and Horatio:

HAM. The air bites shrewdly, it is very cold.
HOR. It is a nipping and an eager air.
HAM. What hour now?
HOR. I think it lacks of twelve.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, 4: 1-4)

This short dialogue not only conveys to the audience the time of night but it also uses word painting to describe the weather conditions and the overall atmosphere (“air bites”, “very cold”, “nipping”). Word painting means that actors describe the scenery vividly and thus create or ‘paint’ a picture in the viewers’ minds.

The third possibility of presenting time in the stage directions is used in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, for example. The introductory author commentary to each of the three acts in the secondary text gives very short instructions concerning the time of the subsequent scenes: “Early evening. April” (I, 1), “Two weeks later. Evening” (II,1), “The following evening” (II, 2), “Several months later. A Sunday evening” (III, 1), “It is a few minutes later” (III, 2). While a reading audience is thus fully informed about the timing of the scenes, theatre goers have to infer it from the context created through the characters’ interactions. The temporal gap between acts two and three, for example, has to be inferred from the fact that things have changed in Jimmy’s and Alison’s flat after Alison left, most noticeably that Helena has taken up Alison’s place and is now the woman in the house.



temporal frame
word painting