In Elizabethan times, being an actor - or what was then called a “player” – was completely different to actors nowadays. This was mainly because of the style of Elizabethan theatre. But it also depended upon 16th Century society. Creating sounds however, was used in a similar way to modern day times. The stage and its characteristics are, however, completely different to a typical western theatre and forced the actors to improvise in ways rarely explored in 21st Century western theatre.
In the 16th Century, actors were often considered mischievous by the authorities and were not respected as much as they are nowadays. They were rarely wealthy. Mostly their only source of income was from what the audience placed in a hat passed around at the end of each performance. So the quality or enthusiasm of an actor’s performance sometimes depended on how empty their stomach was. The Elizabethan stage was open to the elements. The main part of the stage and the space where the groundlings stood was vulnerable to rain showers. This meant that the audience could become agitated as well as the acting space becoming more difficult to work with (because of the water on stage). This is why the majority of plays were presented during warmer months. The part of the stage that was covered by a roof was thatched. This area was known as the heavens or the shadow. Actors had to be careful of the roof because it was typical for it to catch fire. For example, the Globe burnt down in 1613 when a canon spark used in a performance lit up the straw. In the 21st Century, it is normal to hand out or sell a programme before the performance to explain the plot to the audience. This was not always possible in Elizabethan times and often a “Dumb Show” preceded the main performance to give a brief synopsis of the story. This was however, less common in Shakespeare’s plays.
One aspect of Elizabethan theatre which still remains today is the use of sound. The stage was hollow, so actors often used the resonance of their feet on the ground to create sounds. Other actors also climbed up into the heavens (the roof) and created appropriate noises – for example, thundering noises in a thunder storm. Music and sounds were often played from behind the stage or underneath the stage to add effect and create more suspense.
One of the few characteristics of the Elizabethan stage – sounds aside – that mirrors today’s stage are the separate areas. The balcony, for example, was used for Juliet’s bedroom in Romeo and Juliet. There was always a trapdoor underneath the stage and this was often used for multiple purposes, one example is as Ophelia’s grave. The thrust part of the stage was a lot more intimate than stages of late. Soliloquies could be delivered more confidently and naturally due to the close proximity to the audience. Stage asides were a lot more personal and served a better purpose than they do today. The set was very simplistic and rarely contained any extravagant features and did not use the computer technology that is often used today. Shakespeare frequently incorporated scene setting into his script. This can be seen in Troilus and Cressida when Achilles says:
“Look Hector, how the Sun begins to set”.
Because of the apron stage and its lack of curtain it also became impossible to open or close a play or scene. Since it was open air and performances were during the day, the stage could not be hidden in complete darkness. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy the mutilated body of the protagonist was often sprawled upon the stage. To remove the body whilst the audience was slowly leaving would ruin the illusion. Therefore, Shakespeare often incorporated the removal or hiding of the body into the script. Lodovico delivers the lines:
“Look on the tragic loading of this bed,
This is thy work; - the object poisons sight;
Let it be hid.”
in Shakespeare’s Othello so as to hide Othello’s body from the departing audience. This is not really the case in modern western theatre however since it is custom for the entire cast to go out of character – or partially out of character – and show gratitude to the audience by bowing.
In conclusion, I believe that Elizabethan theatre is a large contrast to modern day western theatre. How the actors are treated – and even titled (as players) – is very different and what I would consider disrespectful seeing as it is not easy to perform in front of a large crowd. The stage characteristics could sometimes transform the script and the weather may also alter the performance. Some things, however, have remained the same, such as the sound. But putting everything into perspective, even an experienced actor or actress of today would find the Elizabethan theatre a challenge to perform in.
OnlineShakespeare.com, "Shakespeare Online." Online Shakespeare. 2003 . Solonica Web Design. 27 Oct 2007 <http://www.onlineshakespeare.com/index2.htm>.
Gray, Terry A.. "Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet." Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet. 09 Aug 2007. Solonica Web Design. 27 Oct 2007 <http://shakespeare.palomar.edu/Default.htm>.
Langley, Andrew. Shakespeare's Theatre. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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