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 deadDoyle, 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.