Friday, July 23, 2010

Making Shakespeare Notes: Chapter Five

Early modern plays tended not to employ scenery in the modern sense, and so his actors will often describe the scene. Their descriptions, however, should not be considered as reports of empirical data. Different characters will commonly make differing reports of a given scene (as in The Tempest, where Gonzalo, and Antonio and Sebastian perceive two different extremes on the island), and sometimes the scene is meant to be understood in a broader thematic context, such as the sentries descriptions of "bitter cold" darkness at the top of Hamlet (91-92).

Stage props were used metonymically; a prop crown was not just the signifier for a king's crown, it was also the signifier for the grandeur of a throne room. Stage directions will, in many cases, serve as indicators of which important props were used in this way (94).

Woodcut images in printed books may give us clues to the way in which certain spaces might be symbolized with limited properties. The images contained in printings of Doctor Faustus and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, for example, contain common elements that may have been conventional for the depiction of a scholarly study (99 - 100).

Costumes were used in a similarly metonymical fashion. For example, Actors dressed as sailors on stage would stand in for the scenery of a ship (104).

Doubling characters was a common convention on the early modern stage, but actors tended to double characters of a similar rank and social status, and thus would be dressed similarly (106).

When a character changes their clothes, they usually make a point of telling the audience what they are doing (and perhaps why). Otherwise the audience would confuse the actor as playing a different character (106).

Sometimes a character makes a change of clothing without telling the audience what is happening, as in As You Like It, where Oliver enters in the fourth act a reformed man, and wearing different clothing. Neither the characters nor the audience will recognize him for who he is, and thus the revelation that he is a changed man (literally) comes as a surprise to both (106-107).

Music is also used symbolically. Discordant music, or music that is not played well or properly, connotes something being wrong with the universe. Broken instruments, such as in Taming of the Shrew, can be used to describe a scene lacking harmony. Music from above can likewise be used to connote divine harmony, whether it is heard or not. Pericles, for example, is the only one to hear the music of the spheres when he is reunited with Marina, which indicates that it is not actually played, and applies to him specifically (109-110).

Shakespeare was an innovator in bringing songs into his tragedies, a genre in which they had traditionally not been played (111).


The plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were played on stages that were hardly bare. While naturalist scenery was unknown at the time, audiences understood simple props, set pieces, and musical moments in such a way that created a broader context on the stage. Props, costumes, wall hangings, and songs were all charged with meaning to the early modern playgoer, and could be used to create a landscape in the mind's eye (and ear) of the audience as rich as anything that can be scene on the modern stage.

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