A. Date of the play's composition. No matter when the date of the play's action, it is always a sound idea to examine the time when the play was actually written. In some cases, as with some of Shakespeare's plays, this date may be unknown or disputed. Still, no matter when an author sets the action of his play, some of his own time will undoubtedly creep into the fabric of the text; it is well to pinpoint that time as exactly as possible.
B. Date of the play's action. This date, along with the above, gives the designer a specific period of time around which all his research will center. In many instances, an author, wanting to treat a contemporary problem, will choose a time with similarities to his own so that he may call attention to some topical point or thesis. Shakespeare, in his defense of and allegiance to the monarchy of his own age, used examples of corrupt governments and rulers from the past, both foreign and domestic, to demonstrate how fortunate his contemporary countrymen were to have the rule they had. (And to prove a point he is not above maligning unfairly men or groups who differed with him in opinion. Witness the unfair treatment he gives the characters Richard III and Joan of Arc.) A careful study of both dates, while these alone will not provide the only dates he will need, will give the designer an excellent starting clue for his further research.
The period is a deceptive concept; periods don't actually exist. To assign a name and inclusive dates to a period of time is dangerous in that it leads to thinking that the past does divide itself into convenient compartments of time, which is not true, and is dangerous also in that the inhabitants of any particular period become stereotyped images rather than living people. More is always left out of this stereotype than is included; sometimes very important things are omitted simply because they don't "fit" the stereotype. Still, many books and articles have been written and visual materials compiled on the assumption that a span of time can be separated from others and given an appropriate name and character. But the designer should never be misled into thinking he can get all his material in one source or from one period only. To understand the romantic era, for instance, it is imperative to examine the eighteenth-century culture against which it revolted. Cer