One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.
This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.
The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.
Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story
Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.
I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.
I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.
Part II: The women take wing
During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.
TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by
Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.
Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:
Tomorrow is the first session of my course on Shakespeaere’s tragedies! I’m so excited to teach this great group whom I’ve worked with before. To mark this occasion, I present this silly, catchy, and informative song about the tragic fates of Cleopatra, Juliet, Hamlet, and others.
If you want to sign up for this course or request a private session, you can do so at http://www.outschool.com, or by scanning the QR code below:
Today I’ll be tracing the recurring themes and motifs that evolved from Shakespeare’s last solo play, “The Tempest,” and chart a course that explains the evolution of this play into the beloved Star Trek franchise.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is based on a real story. As I said before, the story might have come from a traveler’s story about visiting the island of Bermuda in the early 1600s. The idea of Europeans going to an uncharted island, meeting the strange inhabitants, and ‘civilizing’ them, might have inspired Shakespeare to write the story of Prospero.
In addition to the Bermuda story, the age of English colonization had firmly begun at this time. The first English colony in America, Jamestown was settled in 1607, and The Tempest came out 1611.
At the same time, The King was worried about magic and trying to marry his daughter off to a prince.
Shakespeare wasn’t allowed to comment on contemporary issues, so instead of setting the play in England or even contemporary Europe, he set it on a fantastical island with spirits Prospero can control. His control becomes a metaphor for colonization. At the same time, we see a fantasy version of James’ daughter’s marriage in the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. The motifs of discovering strange new worlds and encountering new races of people form the core of Star Trek and space-based science fiction in general, and an adaptation of The Tempest in the 1950s would set the template that the Enterprise and her crew would be built on.
“Forbidden planet”- The Tempest goes Sci-Fi
Forbidden Planet is a story about a dashing, adventurous captain, a curmudgeonly doctor, and a science officer who are from a United group of planets that peacefully searches for “brave new worlds,” and the people in them. Obviously, these characters are very similar to Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Spok, so clearly Star Trek owes its initial creation to the success of Forbidden Planet, which was a Sci-fi adaptation of the Tempest. The question then is if there is there more that we can say about the connection between Shakespeare and Star Trek.
Star Trek’s relationship with Shakespeare
The main connective tissue of Star Trek and The Tempest is the use of exotic locations and alien cultures to explore issues that were close to home. When people in 1600 went to see Hamlet Prince of Denmark they didn’t see an ancient legend of a Viking Prince as the original Amleth, written by Saxo Grammaticus; what they saw was a thoroughly modern story of a Renaissance Prince tackling theological issues that had only just been dreamt of by the English protestants; issues of predestination, issues of Calvinism, issues of the questions about the issue the existence of purgatory, etc. That would have been unheard of to the original audience of Prince Hamlet. The appeal was seeing a different place and time to retell an ancient legend that at the same time spoke to the present time of the 17th century. Star Trek does the same thing only looking to the future instead of the past.
Like Star Trek, Shakespeare used exotic locations to examine issues that were universal, (no pun intended), issues that were very much for the consumption of his audience. Look at Star Trek; every alien race the Enterprise encounters is an allegory for some culture or idea on Earth, like the two-toned alien Lokai and Bele that represent segregation and racism, or the Klingons who represented the Soviet Union, or the Borg, who represent imperialism and authoritarianism, cults, and to a certain extent fascism,
In Star Trek, space-age technology was always secondary to character; it was always about fragmenting the human condition into different recognizable alien species. Through the characters of Dr. McCoy, Captain Kir, and Mr. Spok, Star Trek examines humanity through 3 distinct points of view; that of Kirk the wide-eyed Explorer, McCoy, the cynical doctor with a heart of gold, and the cold and logical Mr. Spock. As the series went on, the allegories to contemporary affairs grew more nuanced, like how in Star Trek 6, the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons represents the final days of the Soviet Union, and the fear on both sides of what a post-Cold War world would be like.
Star Trek The Next Generation: The Tempest, Reformed.
Why did the creators of Star Trek cast Patrick Stewart, the foremost Shakespearean actor of his time, to play the captain of the Enterprise? I would say it is because Shakespeare is a writer who follows some of the same tropes that Star Trek would later use, so the creators needed a Shakespearean actor to communicate these ideas to the audience.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation first came out in the mid-1980s; the lens through which we saw alien cultures changed significantly: Picard sees humanity and the universe through a sentimental lens; viewing all cultures with no concept of superiority or paternalism. Like Shakespeare, Picard sees these cultures as his own and all worthy of respect. That’s why these cultures are often drawn to him and embrace him as one of their own, such as in the episode where he literally lives the life of a man named Kamin on the now-dead planet of Katan, and becomes the only living man to pass on their stories:
Picard’s greatest antagonist Q is a warped mirror of Picard; somebody who sees humanity as a plaything but nonetheless is intrigued and fascinated by human nature:
Taken together, Picard and Q are like the two sides of Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest. Simmilar to how Dr. Morbius represents Prospero’s ego in Forbidden Planet, Picard represents the superego- the part devoted to improving the lives of his crew and the aliens he helps, and who looks at each “brave new world,” he encounters with awe and respect.
Q however, is Prospero’s Id- a malevolent, cynical, vengeful man, (who like Prospero in the episode Deja Q, is actually banished from his rightful place in the Q Continuum). He torments and enslaves creatures for his own amusement and his curiosity about humanity is more morbid and sadistic than scientific or philosophical. With this in mind, it makes sense that Q has been such an enduring part of the Star Trek series since he is an essential component of the series’ psychological makeup.
Science fiction in general is about possibilities- looking at where we came from and where we are and asking questions about where we are going. Generally speaking, Shakespeare looked more to the past than the future, but his conclusions were pretty much the same- he saw “What a piece of work man is,” but also feared greatly for his survival. Star Trek takes these concepts and projects them out to the far future. Even though in the 24rth century humans have mastered space travel, eliminated poverty, and put aside petty prejudice, people are still people and the conflicts they have don’t change. What’s great about Star Trek is how well both choose to tell the eternal story of the human condition, looking before and after and making some truly profound discourse on what it means to be human. Perhaps the real final frontier is the same as the first- the human heart.
“Upon Such Sacrifices: King Lear and the Binding of Isaac”
I’ve compared King Learto a fairy tale in the past, but i haven’t compared it to a story from the King James Bible, even though Shakespeare, in all likelihood wrote and performed it for James himself. This article form the Jewish Review of Books is a comparison between Lear and the Old Testament Bible. First, the author has a tantalizing historical tidbit that might explain why Shakespeare chose to write Lear for King James:
Before ascending to the English throne, James VI of Scotland wrote a political guide, Basilikon Doron, for his eldest son advising him never to divide his kingdom (as Lear does) but “make your eldest son Isaac, leaving him all your kingdoms.”
The article also draws some fascinating parallels between Lear and other Biblical patriarchs especially the sacrifice of Isaac, which takes place in Genesis 22, or as it’s known in Jewish tradition, the akeda.
The akedah prompts different questions than King Lear does, not of how so much tragedy could have sprung from a foolish love test, but how the God of all creation could have put his faithful servant to such an unconscionable test in the first place. And so there is a long interpretive tradition that labors to elide that fact in increasingly creative ways. Surely God never intended Isaac to be a sacrifice—the boy was merely to be present at the sacrifice! How could Abraham have thought otherwise, when God had already sworn that it was through Isaac that his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled? Or, alternatively, surely Abraham never doubted that God was merely testing him—after all, Abraham tells Isaac himself that God would provide a lamb to substitute!
It’s interesting to see the parallels between Lear and an Old Testament patriarch. He constantly asks his gods for help and swears by them when he pronounces his doom, yet arguably he has no real faith in his gods or his daughters, which is why his foolish love test in Act I, serves as the catalyst that corrodes and destroys his kingdom and his life. However, maybe Lear sees himself this way, as a king appointed by God, with the authority to test his daughters’ love as God tested Abraham. Ian McKellen seems to share this view and sees Lear as a priest who is unwilling to give up his “special relationship with his gods.”
The actor playing Lear can benefit from studying the sort of old-fashioned patriarchs presented in the Bible because they help shape his worldview. In addition, the concept of faith and how it is tested is another big theme in Lear and contrasting how men in the Bible keep their faith while Lear loses it is an illuminating way to contextualize both works. Was Shakespeare trying to write a parable for kings? Perhaps, but he certainly encapsulates very well the struggles and anxieties of keeping power, and the desire for divine intervention when a kingdom bleeds.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is an age old tale. Like Cinderella it has been reinterpreted throughout time and in many different cultures. Here are a few interesting highlights in the old legend and how it got to Shakespeare in the 1600s.
The Princess Who Loved Her Father More Than Salt
This is an old folktale from my favorite podcast, Journey With Story, which starts with the Cordelia/ Lear plot of a foolish king who banishes his honest daughter. Then through extraordinary circumstances it becomes a Cinderella story. I think at some point these two stories were one and the same until they diverged and one became a story about an absent father and a wicked stepmother, while the other became about a wicked father and a dead mother.
The ancient ballad of King Leir, which helped inspire Shakespeare. It serves as a cautionary tale against flattery, and it places equal blame on Lear and his daughters:
And calling to remembrance then His youngest daughters words, That said the duty of a child Was all that love affords: But doubting to repair to her, Whom he had banish'd so, Grew frantick mad; for in his mind He bore the wounds of woe:
Which made him rend his milk-white locks, And tresses from his head, And all with blood bestain his cheeks, With age and honour spread. To hills and woods and watry founts He made his hourly moan, Till hills and woods and sensless things, Did seem to sigh and groan.
Even thus possest with discontents, He passed o're to France, In hopes from fair Cordelia there, To find some gentler chance; Most virtuous dame! which when she heard, Of this her father's grief, As duty bound, she quickly sent Him comfort and relief
The characters of Gloucester and his children, Kent, and the Fool are absent in this ballad, but unlike the fairy tale above, both Lear and Cordelia die in each other’s arms.
The Annonymous History of King Leir, (first published c. 1594)
This play was written for Shakespeare’s rival acting company The Queen’s Men around 1590). Since the Queen was patronizing the company, most of their plays were government-funded propeganda. For instance, it was the Queen’s men who first did a tragedy of the wicked King Richard III.
If you watch the first 20 minutes of the documentary above, you will see that Wood and many other scholars believe Shakespeare must have worked for the Queen’s men, or at least performed their scripts, since they did their own versions of King Lear, Richard III, King John, and Henry V.
However Shakespeare got a hold of The Queen’s Men’s scripts, he didn’t adhere to them rigidly. Their King Lear follows the fairy-tale / history format of having Cordelia be banished, disguise herself as a peasant (like Cap ‘O Rushes in the earlier version), and eventually she is restored to her rightful place. Shakespeare’s version must have been a MASSIVE shock to anyone who read these old tales and ballads. In Shakespeare’s version, everyone dies and there is no guarantee that the kingdom will survive. Every other tragedy ends with a new king or emperor to take over the kingdom but Lear leaves the audience with a sense of apocolypse; that Lear’s madness and Edmund’s machinations have doomed England and all these characters’ lives will be erased by Time.
As pessimistic as Shakespeare’s Lear is, it does seem more true to life than the previous versions. Perhaps this is because of a legal case from 1603 that might have inspired Shakespear to adapt the story: In 1603, two daughters tried to have their father declared insane. By an astonishing coincidence, the third daughter, who protested, happened to be named Cordelia! Perhaps Shakespeare, (who had three children and was preparing to retire), might have been inspired by this case and worried he might suffer the same fate.
Slings And Arrows is a Canadian sitcom about a theater festival loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Its hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), in addition to dealing with the seemingly endless problems (or should I say, “Slings and Arrows?”) mounting a Shakespeare play, is also worried he’s going mad, since he keeps seeing the ghost of his old mentor/ director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette). For a recap of Season One and Two, click here to read my review.
I describe this show as a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!
Season 3 Retrospective: The Promised End?
Before settling in to write this review, I went back and read some of your comments on the whole of the series, and if there was a common thread to them, it was the idea that season three is almost too painful to bear by the end, that watching these last three episodes where everything we’ve come to love so much utterly falls apart is something like ripping off a Band Aid. I can see that. I usually watch season three all in one gulp, and having to delay my viewings every week became almost torturous, both because of the plot momentum the show builds up and because I had a week to let the things happening at New Burbage stew away in my brain. What makes it even worse is that nobody here is a bad person.
To succinctly summarize this season, it’s a bad season with a good finale. This season is the show at its most raw, and frankly most of it I can’t bear to rewatch. Accordingly, this won’t be a review of the season, so much as a review of one great episode; the series finale, “The Promised End”. But first, I’ll talk about the characters and tropes that got us there.
William Hutt as Charles Kingman
The majority of the drama around season three revolves around Charles Kingman (William Hutt). Mr. Hutt was a distinguished Shakespearean actor and while he was working on this season, Hutt was struggling with leukemia. The final episode aired on August 28, 2006, and Mr. Hutt died peacefully in his sleep on June 27, 2007.
Hutt delivers a great performance as Lear and Charles, and you’d never know he was dying with all the incredible energy and skill he delivers. However, once you know he’s dying, the arc of his character and the way Charles talks about age and death is heartbreakingly poignant:
Stephen Oimette as Oliver Wells
I’ve avoided talking about Oliver because he’s honestly more of a comic relief or a Shakespearean fool for most of the series. In this season, however, he becomes a real character as this clip shows. Geoffrey finally goes to therapy, (which Oliver twists into a ghost couple’s counseling session). It’s wonderful to see them finally address their love-hate relationship and I think it carries over into Geoffrey’s arc (more on that later).
Again, Darren Nichols is mostly comic relief, but he actually becomes a full-fledged antagonist in Season 3. In Seasons 1-2 he was a character foil- a director who hates theater, except as a vehicle for himself. In Season 1 he’s literally a foil for Geoffry, (in that he clashes with Geoffrey with literal fencing foils). In addition, he crams his production of Hamlet with pointless spectacle. In Season 2 Darren is a foil to Sarah in Romeo and Juliet– he loves being clever and cynical and wages war on the sentimentality of the love story. In this season, first Daren is a foil to Richard- mocking the sentimental storytelling of musical theatre, (as you can see in the clip above). Next, he becomes Richard’s pawn; taking credit for Richard’s skill as a director and propelling himself to become the new Artistic Director. He’s basically Edmund in King Lear- a narcissist and a cynic who loves to mock and tear down institutions.
Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet
Geoffrey has a very dynamic arc this season, but to achieve it, he actually regresses a lot. In the first few episodes, Geoffrey seems to hate being at this theater even after his Macbeth became a great success. He starts crying randomly, which I interpret to mean he’s horrified at the possibility that he might have to be in this theater for another year. In essence, after a full year of growth, Geoffrey has regressed to the selfish, obsessive jerk he was in Season One. As you’ll see later, this regression was necessary in order to justify his arc, but I find it nearly unbearable to watch.
That said, it’s nice to see that Geoffrey isn’t a perfect person, and he still hasn’t addressed the source of his pain- his breakdown, Oliver’s betrayal, losing Ellen, and losing his job as an actor. The only glimmer of hope in this bleak season is that Geoffrey finally confronts his pain and learns to make peace with himself, with Ellen, and Olliver.
King Lear tropes in Season 3
Trope 1: a kingdom divided
Shakespeare wrote King Lear at the same time that King James was trying to unite England and Scotland, which is why a big theme of the play is how foolish it is to divide a kingdom. In Season three of Slings and Arrows, the Lear production has to share the theater with a new musical about addiction (loosely inspired by Rent). As you can see in this clip; while they rehearse this corny, ridiculous musical, Charles is telling the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Often in theater rehearsals, actors will tell the story of the play from their character’s perspective. What’s brilliant about this clip is that, while the musical demonstrates a paper-thin understanding of addiction, dramatic storytelling, or even good musical theater, Charles is conveniently leaving out Lear’s cruelty to his daughters, his failure to see their flattery, and his insane clinging to power when he has already given it away. Charles’ inability to see Lear’s flaws also mirrors his inability to see his own, which brings me to my next trope:
Trope 2: Love, or enabling addiction?
Like I said earlier, Charles understands the positive aspects of Lear, but fails to see the negative, which is why he also fails to see them it in himself. Lear is not just a dear old man who was betrayed for no reason; he’s a selfish deluded violent old narcissist who cares about no one but himself. That is why he goes mad- he defines himself by power and when he loses it he loses his identity.
What’s really great about this season is that it doesn’t just show the dark and light aspects of Lear, it also questions the ethics of Kent and Cordelia, the heroes of the play who try to save him. Geoffrey eventually plays Kent in the final episode, and it’s quite obvious that he mirrors Kent’s arc; sacrificing everything to help Charles play Lear one last time. He and Anna (who is basically Cordelia in this season), even get Charles drugs to help him with the pain of cancer. Charles’ desire to play Lear mirrors Lear’s desire to play the king; they are both addicted to something that is ultimately killing them.
But as you look at the season as a whole, you have to ask, was it worth it? Was it worth it for Geoffrey to lose his job and his theatre, get a bunch of other people fired, and eventually lose the festival as we know it just for one man?
Episode Six: The Promised End
Just like in Season two, we get a beautifully directed, beautifully shot condensed version of “King Lear” in the final episode, but the tone is completely changed. Everyone has been told that if they do this show, they will be fired, and they do it anyway meaning that onstage and on screen for the actors and characters this is a bittersweet last-ride for everyone.
The truly heartbreaking moments are with Geoffrey, Oliver, and Charles. We see how amazingly good Charles is, once he accepts his age and mortality. In essence, making this everyone’s last performance made it better all around.
“A Higher Purpose”
In a great twist of fate, Geoffrey has to fill in for Jerry as the Earl of Kent. He’s horrified since the last time he acted he had a nervous breakdown. This has been a problem the whole series for Geoffrey- he blames Oliver for his breakdown and he hates the New Burbage theater because it reminds him of his breakdown. But now, he must confront his fears and get back onstage and who helps him? Oliver. He coaxes Geoffrey through his stage fright by getting Geoffrey to focus on Charles. This, by the way, is how all actors deal with it- we find an objective and spend 2-3 hours fighting for it so we don’t have time for fretting about the audience.
It’s truly lovely to watch Oliver coaching Geoffrey- not only does it mirror Geoffrey doing the same thing for Jack in season one, but we see the story of Lear from Kent’s perspective- a man trying to serve his king. This puts Geoffrey’s arc through the season into sharp focus as well- he was trying to save Charles, not Lear- Charles.
“What are we doing here?” “Putting on a play.”
Like I said before, Geoffrey starts this season with a real self-destructive streak and it’s telling that in therapy he admits that he has no work-life balance. He defines himself by making art. Through playing Kent and doing something outside the theater, Geoffrey finds meaning in his life offstage. This is why I can bear to watch this episode instead of the others- yes the theater is gone, yes Darren and Richard win and all the characters I care about have been fired, but at least Geoffrey, Ellen, Oliver, and Charles finally grow and get to move on. Charles can die in peace now that he gets to do one last performance, (without letting it drive him mad). Geoffrey gains a new perspective on his life, and thus he doesn’t need Oliver anymore. I now have reason to hope that he and Ellen can now make a life together and not mess it up like they did the last time.
In conclusion, Season Three is not fun or cheerful, and there’s no satisfying conclusion for most of the characters. That said, this might be the best-written, most amazingly performed, and most heartrending sign off for a series I’ve ever seen, and if it took so much toil and pain to get here, so be it. It’s also a tremendous tribute to a great actor, William Hutt; I feel privileged to see his final performance on this show, and rejoice that at least one more time, I got to see the king bow:
When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes. Who alone suffers suffers most i’ th’ mind, Leaving free things and happy shows behind; But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship. How light and portable my pain seems now, When that which makes me bend makes the King bow
Edgar, Act III, Scene vi.
Play ME OUT CYRILL!
Shameless plug! If you’re here for more Lear, I’ll actually be playing Kent in an online radio play this Saturday, October 22nd, at 1PM EST. Here’s a link to the Youtube channel where it will be broadcast:
Lear at its core is a play about growing older, and not just for its title character. Goneril and Regan learn their father is a lousy dad and learn to stand up to him. Edgar learns about the cruelty of the world and how to deceive his enemies.
Lear, a king in pre-Christian England, is too old to rule, so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He then tells them he will give the the kingdom to the one who loves him most.
Lear’ youngest daughter Cordelia, refuses to flatter her father, so she banishes her. He also banishes the Earl of Kent, who warns the king that his actions are foolish and rash. Finally, Lear demands that, although he resigns his kingdom, his daughters call him king and agree to house him and his knights in their castle.
Lear is not the only rash old man who is blind to his true danger. His friend the Duke of Gloucester has a bastard son named Edmund, who schemes to usurp his father’s lands and marry into Lear’s family. Edmund frames his legitamite brother Edgar which forces him to disguise himself as the mad beggar Poor Tom
After his daughters refuse to house him and his knights, Lear goes stark-raving mad. He runs out into a storm on the heath, wishing the Earth were struck flat and all mankind was destroyed. He is soon cared for by his Fool, and Kent, disguised as a commoner named Caius.
Stagecraft has a fascinating and interesting history. The way we portray spectacle on stage has changed a lot since the advent of television and movies, which utilize computers and animatronics, etc. to create impossible things that could never be is shown live. In a way, the pre-recorded nature of film and TV gives theater practitioners an advantage because the more clever they are with their stagecraft, the more impressive it is for the simple fact that it is live- happening right now in front of an audience.
What I want to do with this post is to speculate whether, with the technology of the time, if Shakespeare could have used some kind of visual spectacle to portray otherworldly creatures, such as the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth
The conventional wisdom
Most books I’ve read on Elizabethan stagecraft say that the theaters of this era were very minimalistic in design. They had trap doors, they had galleries, they had a primitive flying rig, and they had music and some simple sound effects, but most of the experience was watching the actors, their costumes, their bodies, and hearing their voices hence ‘audience’- audio, “To hear.”
We are told there wasn’t much visual representation of spectacle and fantasy on Shakespeare’s stage, which which is is odd because there are some pretty fantastical elements in his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, where the former calls for a ghost and the latter calls for a ghost, witches, and a literal goddess to appear on stage. How may one ask, was this achieved back in Shakespeare’s day, the late 1590s and the early 1600s? The conventional wisdom is that the ghosts in Hamlet and the ghost in Macbeth came through a trap door in the stage known as Hell.
If you’re you go to the Globe now you can see this actual trap door being used. It used a primitive pully system to open up in the middle of the floor. The ghost would ascend to the stage through a small step ladder. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is described as wearing a suit of armor and being very pale. Banquo’s ghost is described as having long hair dappled with blood.
Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet in Macbeth’s honor. Based on this hypothesis it’s likely that a banqueting table was brought out into the middle of a stage to conceal the ghost, to make it more of a surprise when it ascends onstage through the trap door, but the effect to modern taste would be rather dull. However impressive the performance, this cannot stand up to the stunning nature of visual effects using computer technology, motion capture, et cetera. I wanted to see if there are any Elizabethan theatrical illusions that would still have been accessible to Shakespeare back in the 1590s.
Idea #1: A Smoke-monster ghost?
My research began with this video from the YouTube History Channel Atun-Shei Films, where the author traces the history of film, (both as photography and film as a projection). He cites at the start, an incident in 1536 where a supposed necromancer appeared to conjure a ghost for an unsuspecting rube. According to The Lives Of the Necromancers, the solution was achieved by creating huge clouds of smoke within the theater space, (which was the Colosseum) and then using a primitive camera obscure to project a frightening image Into this space.
Camera Obscura is a term is it Latin for dark chamber the principal had been discovered for century had existed for centuries bit is for centuries but only in the 1530s this was the 1st recorded example of it being used to create a theatrical illusion.
The question is, could Shakespeare’s company have performed the same illusion with the technology of the day? Honestly, I find it rather unlikely that Shakespeare’s audience would’ve put up with huge clouds of smoke in a wooden amphitheater. Still, the fact remains that primitive projection technology existed back in Shakespeare’s day, which means a director could reasonably implement it in a production of Hamlet or Macbeth, even under the constraints of Original Practices.
So the question remains, is there a visually striking way to represent the ghosts that could actually work in Shakespeare’s theater. My first idea is…
Idea 1: Glow In the Dark Paint
Glow-in-the-dark paint wasn’t invented until 1908, but there are some rocks that naturally glow such as hackmanite and phosphorus.
Theoretically, Shakespeare’s company could have crushed this rock into a powder and made it into a paint that glowed onstage. There is precedent for this- in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the terrifying ghost-hound is merely a large dog painted with phosphorescent paint:
In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.
“Phosphorus,” I said.
“A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead animal.
Doyle, Part IV.
Though this paint would potentially make a terrifying effect, this would be impossible at an outdoor theater during the day. This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare used glow-in-the-dark paint at the Globe, as most of the performances took place in the afternoon. That said, both Hamlet and were written just at the point in which Shakespeare’s company was in the process of acquiring an indoor theater, the Blackfriars.
The Blackfriars and Shakespeare’s stagecraft
Almost all of these ideas would depend on Shakespeare having access to a theatre in which he could control the lighting. As you can see, the Blackfriars was lit with candles and its indoor nature meant that performances weren’t dependent on sunlight. Greg Doran, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has theorized in the past that maybe while his company was preparing to move into the Blackfriars, Shakespeare was changing his material to make it both literally and figuratively darker.
In the reconstructed Blackfriars, (where I studied and interned for three years), there is a trap-door and flying rig like the Globe, so the conventional trap-door ghost can and has been utilized there. I would also argue that in the Blackfriars unlike the Globe, there was a chance for more variety of theatrical illusions- perhaps a smoke projection, magic lantern, or even…
Idea 3: A Pepper’s ghost
A Peppers Ghost is a stage illusion that dates back to the 19th century. It uses the principle of refracted light to project the image of a ghost on top of a piece of glass. This image will appear translucent and could be very impressive to an audience at the Blackfriars! As you can see in the diagram below, the actor could be under the stage in the trap door standing in front of a mirror, and the glass sheet could be used to project his image to the audience. The only concern would be that this could limit the blocking of the other actors, and it might not make the ghost visible to the audience members in the upper galleries, but it would still be an impressive visual effect that uses scientific principles known in the 17th century.
Pepper’s Ghost illusions are still used frequently in theme parks, trade shows, and concerts where singers interact with “holograms.” As a special Halloween treat, (or trick as the case may be), I’ve included a video that will allow you to make your own Pepper’s ghost at home. If you choose to make one, leave me a comment!
So, in conclusion, though we are taught that Shakespeare’s theater often reveled in simplistic theatrical designs, I personally think that there is more room to explore low-tech theatrical illusions like these, especially at companies like the Globe Theater and the American Shakespeare Company, which pride themselves on using Shakespeare’s original staging practices. Live theater has dodged giving up its ghost for 2,000 years by exploring the limits of live theater through movement, voice, story, music, and yes spectacle. I think theater practitioners, even Original Practitioners should keep innovating new kinds of spectacular means to keep creating fresh interpretations of Shakespeare, that still keep within the spirit of the play’s original time and place.
Bonus: If you want to learn more about the stage illusions of Shakespeare’s company, click here to listen to That Shakespeare Life Podcast with Cassidy Cash. In this episode, she interviews theater professor Frank Mohler, who describes how thunder and flying effects were done in the 17th century, using records of the period, and his own experimentation.