Last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a grand jumble sale in Stratford-upon-Avon, offering about 10,000 unwanted stage properties. It was an imaginative way of funding the restoration of the theatre’s new costume department, A Stitch in Time, since patrons and theatregoers could actually buy a little piece of the Company, or of the actor who wore it, as their own personal souvenir. It was a roaring success and queues built up through the day for a chance to rake through the huge variety of uniforms, jewellery, shoes, hats and costumes used in former productions.
We are used these days to seeing all manner of sophisticated and realistic stage properties in the theatre. Sets, lighting and stage effects may vary from the sparse to the elaborate, according to the vision of the director: the variety of styles stimulates and engages an audience, besides keeping theatre critics in work. The idea still persists, however, that Elizabethan theatre was very close to what might be called minimalist: a bare stage, no scenery, very basic props if any, and actors performing in the dress of the period. Some critics have claimed that the early stage was occupied predominantly by the playwright’s language. The simplicity of the Wooden ‘O’, empty of visual ornament, was thought to appeal mainly to the mind. So, people went to ‘hear’ a play rather than to ‘see’ it: it was something to be considered rationally rather than engaging all the senses. But, the Elizabethan theatre used more sophisticated props and stage effects than is often assumed.
That the early stage involved visual spectacle is borne out by the eye-witness accounts of contemporary theatre goers. The astrologer and herbalist Simon Forman, who was a member of Shakespeare’s circle, left a number of manuscripts, one of which – the ‘Book of Plaies’- records descriptions of the productions he saw between 1610-11. He comments with fascination on the action around Macbeth’s chair – a very solid and visible chair – in the banquet scene.
‘the ghost of Banquo came in and sat down in his (Macbeth’s) chair behind him, and turning about to sit down again,(he) saw the ghost: which affronted him so that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury’
He also mentions the bracelet in Cymbeline, the chest or trunk in which Iachimo, and Autolycus’ ‘pedlar packe’ in The Winter’s Tale.
We are fortunate to have the so-called Peacham drawing, now in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat. It appears to depict a scene from Titus Andronicus where vigorous gesturing and several props and costume give a vivid impression of Elizabethan acting.
That the public stage was known for the presence on-stage of a number of eye-catching objects, is attested by Philip Henslowe, the leading theatre proprietor and manager of The Admiral’s Men. Henslowe’s extensive 1598 inventory of the company’s props describes articles from the fairly functional ‘paire of rough gloves’, ‘one plain crown’ and ‘one snake’, to articles designed to impress and boggle the eye: a golden sceptre, one Hell’s mouth’ one ‘tree of golden apples,’ ‘the cloth of the sun and moon’ and – most impressive –‘the city of Rome.’
‘Props’ – theatrical slang for properties – first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary of 1841 and so Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have used the shortened word. Props include all the moveable, physical objects of the stage: costumes, furniture and stage hangings. But we have no record of the props used by Shakespeare’s Company. How did they create the Capulet family vault, into which Romeo breaks with ‘a torch, a mattock, and a crow of iron’ How too, were Caesar’s Rome, the Forest of Arden and The Tempest’s peacock-drawn flying chariot realised on stage?
Inevitably, Henry V comes to mind, where attention is drawn to the theatre’s inability to create a wholly realistic scene. ‘Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?’ asks the Chorus. And then comes the suggestion that the audience should employ its ‘imaginary forces’, and ‘piece out imperfections [with] its thoughts,’ so creating France and England for itself.
Shakespeare’s audience would have had no difficulty in understanding visual clues and metaphors. A cloak would signify outdoors, while riding boots a suggested a journey or a traveller. We see this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the Mechanicals use ‘lime and rough-cast’ to create a wall and a ‘lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn’ to represent the moon. There must, in order to portray Bottom’s ‘translation’ have been a comical ass’s head too.
Stage directions give us considerable information about props: ‘ Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand’ and ‘Enter the Clown with a basket, and two pigeons in it.’ Elsewhere, detailed and precise descriptions conjure up visual images. Shakespeare’s Company might well have had an object which signified Titania’s ‘mossy bank’ but it took Shakespeare’s words to dress it with flowers. Shakespeare himself must have responded strongly when he read – and virtually copied – Petrach’s description of Cleopatra’s barge. The image is multi-sensory: perfumed sails, flute music and a vessel so decked with gold that it ‘burns’, almost making the hearer blink.
Dress signified social status and the centuries-old Sumptuary laws forbade ordinary people to wear certain colours and costly fabric but theatre companies got round the difficulty by purchasing a licence from the monarch. For ordinary parts, players used their own clothes but Henslowe’s inventory lists clothes made in the silks, cloth-of-gold, satins and velvets reserved for gentry. These would be worn to play kings and nobles. Such costumes were often left to actors by fellow thespians, or high-ranking citizen bequeathed luxurious clothing to servants who in turn sold them on to theatre companies.
Stage hangings served as places of concealment for spying and hiding, as in the scene in Hamlet where Polonius is stabbed through the arras. Small spaces such as a cell, study or bedroom would be disclosed when hangings were drawn back; or a spectacular object hidden until the moment came for the Grand Reveal. The fabric of the theatre was a prop in itself: a trap door in the stage might be a grave, a pit, or the mouth of Hell, sometimes emitting smoke and fireworks. The upper gallery of the playhouse served as Juliet’s balcony or Cleopatra’s monument, or might become the wall of a city or a castle. Pillars supporting the canopy or roof set the scene for Greek temples or Roman palaces.
Other smaller props also played their part. Rings appear in no fewer than 15 plays of Shakespeare. They are often love-tokens and are given as symbols of binding emotional commitment and fidelity. Juliet sends a ring to Romeo to indicate her continuing love, despite the fact that he has killed her kinsman. But rings can often go astray; may be lost, stolen, sold or mistakenly given to the wrong person. Much confusion, either tragic or comic results. In an attempt to guide its audience through the vagaries of the plot and it is amusing to note that 2009 production of All’s Well had its actors wear rings with stones the size of golf balls which lit up in different colours.
We know that many Elizabethans kept skulls on their desks as a memento mori, in an age where violent death and epidemics of disease were a fact of life. Some critics believe Hamlet to be the first play in which a skull is used as a prop. The gravedigger’s scene allows both Hamlet and the audience to contemplate mortality, at first objectively, and then subjectively when the skull of Yorick is identified.
Severed heads and limbs, blood and gore, the plucking out of eyes and tongue….. There was a long way to go before Kensington Gore, the generic term for stage blood, achieved a convincing colour and viscosity in our own era. Shakespeare had to be satisfied with a bladder of pig’s blood to achieve his shock effects.
So much for a bare stage and the notion that plays were only to be heard. Shakespearean productions were fairly crowded with props – 572 at the last count. The images are embedded in our culture: the politics, skulduggery and drama surrounding coronets and crowns, Antigonus pursued by a bear, Desdemona’s handkerchief, swords, spears and foils, digging tools, paper as letters or maps, Ophelia’s herbs and Titania’s bower. Add to these, the music of trumpets, drums, viols and citterns and, occasionally, even the reek of cordite as Jupiter in The Tempest descended, astride an eagle, throwing thunderbolts. I call that a complete theatre experience.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant