Michael J. Cummings...©
filmmakers use dazzling special effects to enhance realism or create fantasy
worlds. Using computers and other gadgetry, they make volcanoes erupt,
ships sink, pigs talk, and dragons swoop–or rebuild ancient cities and
stage intergalactic warfare.
Shakespeare wrote plays, all the action took place on a small stage with
little more than a painted wall to suggest the setting. If a scene called
for thunder, stagehands pounded a drum or rippled sheet metal. If a scene
required a ghost or a god, stagehands lowered him
on a winch line or sent him up through a trap door. A character wounded
in a sword fight clapped a hand to his chest, bursting a pouch beneath
his shirt to release blood–or a facsimile thereof. On occasion, the acting
company fired a cannon to salute a royal personage or set off fireworks
to suggest an omen. Productions often included vocal and instrumental music,
especially in plays performed on special occasions before royalty. Minor
characters usually sang the vocal selections. Instruments used included
the trumpet, the oboe–called an hautboy or hautbois (pronounced O bwa)–and
stringed devices such as the viol and the lute.
the most part, though, the acting company staged its plays without visual
or aural hoopla. Characters recited lines and gestured. That was about
all, except for occasional swordplay, dancing, and singing.
lack of sophisticated devices to create illusions forced Shakespeare to
use his writing genius to describe what the audience was supposed to see.
In Outlines of Shakepseare’s Plays, Homer A. Watt and Karl J. Holzknecht
point out that this lack of special effects helped motivate Shakespeare
to galvanize his writing genius:
place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them
could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic
effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it
is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the
exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare.–Watt, Homer A., and Karl J.
Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947
(Page 8). .......Shakespeare
was well aware of the challenge he faced in attempting to present on a
tiny stage a whole world of characters–a whole world of love and hatred,
revenge and remorse, peace and war. But he was also well aware of the power
of his pen, and the power of the audience’s imagination, to create such
a world. In the prologue to Henry V, he called upon the muse–as
ancient Greek and Roman writers did so many times before him–to inspire
for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
he called upon the audience to go to war with Henry:
brightest heaven of invention,
kingdom for a stage, princes to act
monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
within the girdle of these walls
so, on a stage that became the world, swords hacked, horses reared, a thousand
arrows found their mark, and Henry led his vastly outnumbered army to victory.
The special effects were Shakespeare’s words. They made the metal ring,
the smoke rise, the hoofs beat. And the audience heard and saw everything.
now confined two mighty monarchies,
high upreared and abutting fronts
perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
out our imperfections with your thoughts;
a thousand parts divide on man,
make imaginary puissance;
when we talk of horses, that you see them
their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
them here and there; jumping o'er times,
the accomplishment of many years
an hour-glass: for the which supply.
Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare used this same kind of magic–the
magic of words–to conjure up Cleopatra arriving at Tarsus on the Cydnus
barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
limitations of the Shakespearean stage notwithstanding, there were times
when the construction of the Globe Theatre (and other theatres similarly
constructed) allowed Shakespeare and his fellow thespians to do what modern
filmmakers cannot do: Bring nature indoors. The center of the Globe was
open to the sky, admitting sunlight, butterflies, or rain during a performance.
No doubt there were occasions when such natural effects made Shakespeare’s
lines even more powerful. For example, imagine sun rays, birdsong, and
the fragrance of flowers invading the Globe when actors presented the following
on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
the sails, and so perfumed that
winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
water which they beat to follow faster,
amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
beggar'd all description: she did lie
her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
that Venus where we see
fancy outwork nature: on each side her
pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
what they undid did.
Domitius Enobarbus, Act II, Scene II, Lines 199-213)
was a lover and his lass,
the effect of gloomy skies when an actor recited this passage in which
a mother mourns the loss of her child:
a hey and a ho, and a hey nonino,
o'er the green corn-field did pass,
the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
lovers love the spring.
As You Like It, Act V, Scene III, Lines 18-23)
look, the morn in russet mantle clad,
o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill.
Hamlet, Act I, Scene I)
fills the room up of my absent child,
in his bed, walks up and down with me,
on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
me of all his gracious parts,
out his vacant garments with his form.
King John: Act III, Scene IV, Lines 93-97)
now the very witching time of night,
or without the help of nature–and with or without artificial effects–Shakespeare
managed to write what was right for the moment. And, of course, there were
occasions when special effects would have been out of place. As Shakespeare
wrote in King John:
churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
to this world.
alone on the stage, Hamlet: Act III, Scene
II, Lines 413-415)
gild refined gold, to paint the lilly,
filmmakers can take a lesson from these lines.
throw a perfume on the violet,
smooth the ice, or add another hue
the rainbow, or with taper-light
seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
wasteful and ridiculous excess.
King John, Act IV, Scene II, Lines 11-16)