Playing it like Shakespeare
The bard of literature, Shakespeare, wrote many plays in different genres, mostly comedy, tragedy and history. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet are some of his timeless creations. The performance of these plays in the 16th century sealed Shakespeare’s position as an accomplished playwright, especially favoured by the royals. His plays are performed even today, with new and unique interpretations. Shakespeare himself said about his plays, “My plays are never meant to be read silently. They are meant to be read aloud and acted out.”
What we know about plays today is different from how it was in Shakespeare’s time. You’d hardly have found a glorified cast of actors giving interviews or simultaneous release of plays in book form (like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child today). What they had was an unfurling of the silk theatre flag and blowing of trumpets. The audience comprised a barrage of people—the rich in private galleries, the rest in usual seats and even some “groundlings” on the floor. Let’s revisit theatre as it was in Shakespeare’s era.
Actors of Shakespeare’s plays are known as Elizabethan actors. Actors were not considered ‘superstars’ at that time. Instead, people looked down upon them. In fact, being a playwright wasn’t a celebrated position either. Good for Shakespeare to have shone through it!
Women were not allowed to act, so female roles were played by men wearing make-up and dresses. It meant that Shakespeare’s great female parts, from Lady Macbeth to Romeo’s Juliet, were performed by boys. Each theatre company included six to eight boys, aged 8 to 12, who played the female parts. They were trained to learn female gestures and speech patterns. Their careers were over as soon as their voices matured. The actors wore spectacular costumes, which were often created out of clothes donated by the rich.
To prevent competitors from stealing their ideas, playwrights kept their scripts secret until they were ready to be performed. Actors often got their scripts just before a play was staged. Sometimes, the actors didn’t even get the scripts! They depended on the prompter who was backstage and whispered the lines to the actors. Shakespeare’s first job in the theatre was that of the attendant of a prompter who had to tell the actors when they were needed on the stage.
Shakespeare’s Special Effects
Audiences of Shakespeare’s plays were treated to quite a few special effects on stage. These were designed to astonish the audience and add to their enjoyment of the play. For example, to show blood in a fight, an actor might have had a sponge soaked in sheep’s blood hidden under his arm. In a play like Macbeth, the sound of thunder was created by running a cannonball down a meat trough. To create the sound of firing cannon, the stagehands would fire an actual canon! It doesn’t get more real than that.
All kinds of people loved watching plays. The Globe, the theatre that Shakespeare partly owned, used to be filled with tanners, butchers, millers, seamen shopkeepers and countless other tradesmen, along with the richer patrons. The audience for Shakespeare’s plays could get rowdy at times, but they all were united in their love for plays. The strategically positioned stage, the special effects, and most of all, Shakespeare’s thrilling stories, literally “set the stage” for years of entertainment and popularity.