There is little doubt that the theatre of the time influenced contemporary drama in many ways, so let us consider some of them:

  1. Where today elaborate scenery provides the settings, Shakespeare had to do it by the words in his play; if the setting is important, the audience learns about it through the characters' speeches:

    Why should I war without the walls of Troy
    That find such cruel battle here within?

    asks Troilus at the beginning of Troilus and Cressida, simultaneously telling us where the play is taking place and describing to us Troilus's mental state.

  2. Again, the outdoor theatre performances always took place in the light, so Shakespeare had to establish different times of day and night by the words of the play. For example, "The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve" from A Midsummer Night 's Dream or "The moon shines bright" from A Merchant of Venice, or once again from Troilus and Cressida, when Achilles is about to kill Hector he exclaims,

    Look Hector, how the Sun begins to set;
    How ugly night comes breathing at his heels,
    Even with the vail and darking of the Sun,
    To close the day up, Hector's life is done.

    Here we see how in this slightly later play Shakespeare uses his Time statement to reinforce the action, using the factual time statement on one level and employing it as imagery on another.

    Duration of Time is also effectively conveyed through the words of the play and we are frequently urged through a considerable period of time in a matter of minutes by constant time references. Take for instance, the murder of Duncan in Macbeth Act II, scene i; it begins with a discussion between Banquo and Fleance:

    B. How goes the night, boy?
    F. The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
    B. And she goes down at Twelve.
    F. I take't 'tis later, sir.

    The scene then progresses through, "the king's a-bed" . . . "Good repose", to the knocking on the door and Macduff and Lennox greeting Macbeth with "Good-morrow, noble sir!" I suppose the best example of this way of dealing with time is to be found in Marlowe's Dr Faustus where, in the last scene over a period of some ten minutes, the audience is taken through the last agonising hour of Faustus's life from the moment he exclaims,

    Ah, Faustus!
    Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
    And then thou must be damned eternally,
    to the closing moments of his life when he is dragged away by devils.

  3. Everything had to be conveyed to the audience through the words and there is little doubt that the audience had better memories and probably higher powers of attention than we do today, so that they took in and retained the information given to them. Most people could not read so they had to rely on word of mouth and on memory; this is apparent in Romeo and Juliet when the Servant is sent to bid the Capulet's guests to dinner. He can't read the list he has been given and he asks Romeo to read it through to him; he hears it read once and then goes off to find the guests; yet, there are thirteen people on the list to say nothing of sisters, wives, daughters, nieces and so on.

    There were no programmes so plays were often preceded by a 'Dumb Show' which was in effect a sort of synopsis of the action. Though there is no evidence that Shakespeare's own plays had such a preliminary, we see him making use of this convention in " The Mousetrap" in Hamlet.

  4. Entrances and Exits. Perhaps the most significant influence upon the plays was the nature of the Elizabethan stage. Being an apron stage it was not possible to draw curtains across it and, since it was essentially an open air stage it was never possible to hide it in darkness. As a result, Shakespeare could not open or close plays - or even scenes - with a set scene or a great dramatic gesture. Remember - it took half an hour to get the audience in or out and they could all the time see anything that was going on on the stage. Thus, Shakespeare would start his plays perhaps with a procession or with two characters walking on, talking to each other; later scenes often start with such words as, "Look where he comes" or some such introductory words. More of a problem was getting the dead off the stage at the end of a tragedy. A modern playwright would be able to swallow up the end of Hamlet in darkness or draw curtains across the front of the stage. But the Elizabethan audience could see the stage as they slowly made their way out of the theatre. How the illusion would be spoilt, the spell broken, if the mutilated bodies should rise and walk off the stage! So Shakespeare had to find methods to remove the dead:
    Let four captains
    Bear Hamlet like a Soldier to the stage
    cries Fortinbras, or Octavius Caesar says of Cleopatra,
    Take up her bed
    And bear her women from the monument.

    It was the exigencies of his theatre that forced Shakespeare to end his tragedies with the tension lowered, the forces of evil losing hold and normality gaining control, He is often praised for his psychological understanding of his audience - not allowing them to rush out into the streets when emotion was at its height, but calming them down, sending them out quietly. He certainly understood the power at his command, for he shows in Julius Caesar how Antony rouses the crowd and what the results of sending an audience away in a highly tense and emotional state can be. Nevertheless, I believe that, had he been able to end his tragedies at the high point he would have done so.

    I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee - no way but this
    Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
    Othello falls dead upon Desdemona's bed, the audience is tense, horrified, the drama at its height and down comes the curtain. What actually happens, of course, is that Lodovico turns upon Iago with,
    Look on the tragic loading of this bed,
    This is thy work; - the object poisons sight;
    Let it be hid.

    The bed is inside the recess of the inner stage and the curtain is drawn across before the remaining Players go out but Othello and Desdemona may remain hidden until the audience has dispersed.

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