How did Shakespeare overcome not having any set in his stage? How did Shakespeare’s actors use his words to understand how to act? How does this compare to modern performances of Shakespeare?
Setting the scene through language.
In the opening prologue of Henry V Shakespeare asks us, his audience, to imagine the theatre as the battle ground of Agincourt and to imagine that “when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;”.
Shakespeare used no set in his performances and the stage was largely left empty with the exception of the odd chair or table. However, whatever was brought on stage had to be removed easily and in front of the audience. So audiences of the time were asked to imagine the location that the play took place in. The actors had no horses but asked the audience to imagine that they had horses instead. Shakespeare used language to set the scene, the time of day, the weather and the location.
The Tempest: “Blow till thou burst thy wind…”
Much Ado About Nothing: “I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina”
Hamlet: “Tis now struck twelve, get thee to bed…”
Like Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare set the majority of his plays in far flung places like Italy, Denmark, France or Egypt. Places that the population of London at the time might have been familiar with in name but probably hadn’t been there. Those that had would have been traders and merchants who would return with fantastical, almost mythical, stories and tales to be told in the pubs and bawdy houses of London. Shakespeare set them in these locations because they were exotic to the audiences of the time. For the majority of the audience the locations were so far removed from their real lives in London that they were exciting and different. It helped draw the audience into the plays and to escape from their own lives outside of the theatre.
Helping Elizabethan Actors
The language also helped the actors understand what they were acting. Often actors would only get their lines of the script, or at most small sections of the script, and the references to time, place, weather etc… would give the actors ideas of how to act. If it was set in Messina, they would act as if it were hot, at midnight they’d act as if it were dark and they couldn’t see much etc…
Making comparisons to today
When you think about the last piece of Shakespeare you went to see, how did the director communicate the location to their audience? Did they leave it to the language, as Shakespeare did, or did they do with through the set. Did they have a lavish set that indicated immediately the location or did they have a minimalist set?
Did the director keep the original location as the play, or did they move it to another location, time (or both)? If they did move location and/or time, what effect did that have on the audience? Did it change any of the context of the play? Was it easier or harder to read as an audience? Did they change it to become more relevant to todays social, cultural and political contexts, and how? If the director chose to keep it in it’s original time and location, did the play still connect to you as an audience? Was it still relevant to todays social, cultural and political contexts, and how?