Elizabethan Theatres, Stages, Set and Props

The Swan Playhouse

This is only surviving image made during the 16th Century and the kind of theatres that Shakespeare would have been familiar with and writing for. They had thrust stages with audience stood around the three sides of the stage for one penny. For more money, audience sat in any of the three galleries around the outside of the space or even at the back of the stage. The performance were, as we remember, performed outside during the afternoon and in daylight.

The stage was fairly small in comparison to a stage in a modern theatre. Actors made their entrances either through one of the two doors at the back of the stage or through the trap door. Actors did have the additional facility of hiding behind one of the two pillars or behind the tapestry normally hanging from the back of the stage.

You may have noticed that Shakespeare’s plays do not have many props in them. There are several reasons for this. The first is a simple financial one, the accumulation of props and set was expensive to acquire as well as being expensive to keep and maintain. Secondly, Shakespeare also knew that he had to be flexible because his plays could be performed in a number of locations, including the Royal Court, so the ability to travel light was important. He would have seen many travelling players coming to Stratford-Upon-Avon as a child and would have been inspired by their minimal use of props to tell a story.

Something that you will might have noticed is that the props that the does employ in his performances are not always referred to in the stage instructions but also sometimes simply in the dialogue. For example in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Quince says (A1 S2) “Here is the scroll of every man’s name” but there is no stage instruction indicating this or that he is reading from it.

The use of staging is similar to that of props, both time and location were indicated through the use of words in the first few lines. For example Quince later on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says (A3 S1) “This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn brake our tiring house…” The information is told to the audience instead of having physical stage set and the audience are asked to imagine themselves to be in these locations rather than recreating them for the audience to see.


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