What Kind of Scenery & Props Were Used by Shakespeare?
Each of William Shakespeare's plays, produced during the Elizabethan era, involved props that correlated with events in the story. The props included small movable objects and larger furnishings. Shakespearean audiences sat in front of the stage and on both sides, making it difficult to hide, remove or introduce large-scale scenery and heavy fixtures once the play started.
Shakespearean male actors -- women weren't permitted to act onstage during the Elizabethan era -- often carried hand-held props onto the stage. They incorporated swords, daggers, goblets, breastplates, suits of armor, candles, animal skins, crowns, chairs and flowers into the scenes, suggests Thomas Larque, Shakespeare theater critic, lecturer and editor of the Shakespeare and His Critics website. A "prop man" ensured that all props were kept in order and were available when actors needed them during the performance.
Large Props, Scenery and Lighting
Larger props, such as tables, benches, full-sized trees, thrones, cannons, custom-designed dragons and simulated caves were used in some of Shakespeare's productions. Shakespeare's productions didn't involve fixed scenery or painted backdrops, says Larque. Heavy, cumbersome furnishings remained in place throughout the entire play, even when the actors no longer needed them for specific scenes. Traveling actors didn't invest in large props and often used existing inns as temporary stage houses. Balconies, pillars and ornate stage entrances were often constructed in permanent, immovable playhouses. Shakespearean productions were primarily performed during day hours to avoid lighting and visibility issues. Actors would wear night clothes and carry torches to signify nighttime, according to Sean McEvoy in his book, "Shakespeare: The Basics".
The stage crew and prop man often created a "discovery space" -- an area on the stage that was covered with curtains -- to hide part of the set, says Kenneth Muir in his book "A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies." That way, they could pull back the curtains to introduce a new scene, adding mystery and suspense to the play. The audience would anxiously await the big reveal. Sometimes, an actor might already be in the discovery space, ready to perform, when the curtains are drawn, says English literature teacher Warren King on his website No Sweat Shakespeare.
Shakespeare captured his audience's attention by incorporating sound into his plays, such as fireworks, drumming and powder-loaded cannons, suggests Larque. He also used special effects, such as trap doors, flying entrances and false ceilings to make his plays more visually appealing, according to PlayShakespeare.com. Actors were harnessed to wires and ropes so they could be lifted onstage -- or ushered offstage -- in dramatic fashion. Some of Shakespeare's plays were violent, intended for adult audiences only, so the props included animal blood, animal bones, fake human heads and animal intestines. The objective was to incorporate gruesome, yet realistic, elements into the play.
- Shakespeare and His Critics: A Lecture on Elizabethan Theater; Thomas Larque
- Shakespeare: The Basics; Sean McEvoy; 2006
- No Sweat Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Theatrical Props
- Eric Hart's Prop Agenda: Shakespeare's Props
- A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies; Kenneth Muir
- PlayShakespeare.com: Elizabethan Theaters -- The Globe Theater
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