According to many sources that I've searched, it seems that the in-line citations for dramatic works, such as Shakeaspearean plays, are cited in the following form: act.scene.line(s). So for example, Act I Scene I lines 20-22 would be cited like so:

"some quote in here," (I.i.20-22).

But my question is the following: what constitutes a line? Do the narrator's lines count as lines? For example, I want to cite Hamlet Act I Scene I, and it begins like so:

Act I

SCENE I. Elsinore . A platform before the castle.

FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO

BERNARDO Who's there?

FRANCISCO Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

BERNARDO Long live the king!

So if I were to cite Bernardo's first line ("Who's there?"), which of the following would I count as line 1?

  • "Act I"
  • "SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle."
  • "FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO"
  • I think when an actor says I forgot my line, it's normally a reference to one continuous speech within the play/film (uninterrupted by utterances by other characters). Which could be multiple sentences taking up several "lines" in the written version (a variable number of lines, since usually nothing in the "original" text dictates where the line-breaks should occur). Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 14:38
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    @FumbleFingers: in Shakespeare's plays, the original text is generally iambic pentameter, and breaks naturally into lines. There are some parts of some plays written in prose, and I don't know whether the line counts are consistent across different editions there. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 14:40
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    Stage directions are not a "narrator". These lines are not spoken on stage.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 14:40
  • @Peter: Probably most of the "great quotable speeches" we tend to focus on are indeed iambic pentameter, but off the top of my head I'd have thought it's unlikely most of the total text of all Shakespeare's output conforms to that constraint (esp if we exclude the sonnets). Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 14:43
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    @FumbleFingers: it looks like the majority of most of Shakespeare plays are iambic pentameter, but there are only five that are entirely iambic pentameter, and Hamlet is 72% iambic pentameter. Statistics from here. So the line numbers in print editions vary, depending on the column width. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 15:05

3 Answers 3


Each edition of Shakespeare's plays has its own numbering of lines (or in some cases, lacks line numbering). So when you cite a line you need to:

  1. Cite the edition of the play you are using. (Unless you're doing some kind of comparative study, you aren't going to change edition halfway through your essay, so you only need to mention the edition once, not once for each citation.)

  2. Use the line number from the edition you are using. Typically these are printed in the margin. If you're using an edition without line numbers, then don't make them up, just use the act and scene numbers.

  3. If you need to refer to a stage direction, and your edition doesn't number the stage directions, then you cite it using the line before the stage direction. For example, "Enter Rosencrantz. (IV.3.11 s.d.)" In these editions the stage direction at the start of the scene has no line number, so just give the act and scene numbers, for example, "A platform before the castle. (I.1 s.d.)"

Why do different editions have different numbering? Well:

  1. There are editorial decisions as to exactly what material to include. For example, Hamlet has three sources (the "first quarto", "second quarto" and "first folio" editions) that each contains material missing from the other two, and the modern editor has to decide how to combine them.

  2. The edition can decide to number the stage directions or not.

  3. When dialogue is in the form of prose rather than verse, the division into lines depends on the width of the page and the size of the type.

  • The reason I chose your response as the selected is because my edition actually doesn't use numbering, which is what concerned me the most. Thanks to everyone else who contributed as well. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 15:20

The edition you're using will typically have line numbers on the page. The editions I've used (e.g. The Arden Shakespeare series) do not typically count stage directions as lines in verse sections. Verse lines shared between characters count as a single line.

  • Thank you! I wish I could accept both your post and Gareth Rees'. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 15:22

Most print editions count only spoken lines in numbering lines within a scene, and start afresh with each scene. (MLA uses Hindu-Arabic numerals exclusively, separated by periods, for citations by act and scene or by act, scene, and line.) The line numbering in various editions will be consistent in the case of an all-verse play, such as Richard II, but will vary in scenes that contain some prose, since different column widths and typefaces will determine where line breaks fall in prose. Even verse passages that follow prose ones within the same scene will thus be line-numbered differently from one edition to the next.

The only entirely reliable system for citing loci in Shakespeare’s plays involves specifying an early printing (Q2 or F, say, for the second quarto or [first] folio text of Hamlet) and a line number that counts all the printed lines in that printed text from first to last, including stage directions and everything—what is called TLN (Through Line Numbering).

In dealing with the early printings, which serious Shakespeareans in both academe and the theater tend to do, be prepared for very minimal stage directions. Also, the quartos printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime generally did not divide a play at all; it was only the posthumous 1623 first folio that divided the plays into five acts each and in some cases subdivided each act into numbered scenes as well. Notations regarding where each scene is set, plus lists of Dramatis Personae, were contributed only by later editors, starting with Nicholas Rowe.

On-line access to exact transcriptions of the early printings, with TLN, can be had via the Internet Shakespeare Editions site, hosted by the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). Complete facsimile images of many of the early printings are also available there.

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