4. PERFORMANCES

So much, then, for what the stage looked like. The uses of this multiple stage are, in many ways, obvious. The main action took place on the main stage and, because it was surrounded on three sides by the audience, the apron stage made for an intimacy we do not get today on the conventional stage with a proscenium arch; soliloquies could appear to be spoken confidentially to the audience and on the large stage 'asides ' were less artificial than they often are today. The curtained recess at the back would be used, for instance, for the Capulets' tomb in Romeo and Juliet or for Desdemona's bedroom; the balcony, for Juliet's bedroom; and a trapdoor to the space below the stage would be Ophelia's grave.

There was no scenery or scene painting as such, but plenty of stage properties, some simple, some considerably more elaborate. There were realistic noises off, sometimes from the 'heavens' - for example, in the storm in King Lear. Lear's words: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" would be accompanied by appropriate noises of thunder from above; in other plays, the sounds of battle would be heard from behind the stage and from under the stage would come such sounds as the music 'Under the earth' in Antony and Cleopatra or the Ghost in Hamlet saying "Swear!"

Costumes were elaborate and lavish but it appears that there was little attempt to present historical accuracy. I generally grumble today about the performance of Shakespeare in modern dress but I suspect that Shakespeare himself would have no objection. The whole canon of Shakespeare's plays in his own day, whatever the geographical setting and whatever the chronological period, would present Elizabethan England.

This page is part of Dr. Hilda Spear's Lecture on The Elizabethan Theatre