Elisabeth Morgan is a senior double majoring in Theatre and Creative Writing. She enjoys acting, directing, writing, reading, and traveling.
‘Space is a social product…social relations have no real existence save in and through space’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space). In light of this quotation, examine the ways in which the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries consider social spaces and relations in early modern London.
In early modern London, the social spaces of theatres reflected the environments brought to life in Shakespeare’s plays. Then and since then, the language of his plays have allowed for interpretations and experimentations of space, as influenced by indoor, outdoor, private, public, early modern, and modern theatrical productions. Space is where the action and story unfolds, where interactions take place. The environment, the stage elements, and the aspects of performance dictate the existence of the stories and relationships within space. In this essay, I will explain how the physical location determines the social ambiance of space and how it affects the environment and nature of the storytelling. I will explore how scenery, props, and stage elements are utilized to create and dictate space. And I will delve into the nature of performance and how actors use language and physicality to bring space to life in relation to the text, theatrical locale, and the audience. With these three elements in mind, I will use Macbeth and The Tempest to illustrate the uses and possibilities of space, and I will include the contexts of Shakespeare’s early modern London versus modern day adaptations to explore the spectrum of spatial awareness in Shakespeare’s plays from his contemporary time to the present.
Initially it is the spatial environment and physical theatre stage that affects and dictates space. The literal theatrical space determines the social ambiance within it. The environment and structure of the theatre affects the nature of the story. As explored in the Place of Stage session at the Globe with Simon Smith, the principle spaces for playing in early modern London were ‘public’ amphitheatres, ‘private’ playhouses, court entertainment, and touring performances. At this time, “London and London life was the perpetual background of the playhouse”; before playhouses were built, plays took place in locations “amid London scenes and London life”.
Theatres of early modern London varied from indoor to outdoor and from public to private. Outdoor amphitheatres (like the circular Globe), candlelit indoor theatres (like Blackfriars), and court performances were the main types of stages during the period. I will compare these early modern spaces with modern forms—the reconstructed Globe and indoor venues—for locations of The Tempest and Macbeth vary from early modern spaces to more modern ones.
Although it is not known for sure, we can assume that Shakespeare wrote certain plays with specific venues in mind. Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men had their two playhouses by 1610: The Globe and Blackfriars, which shared the same basic architectural features:
…a non-scenic stage with a trap door, a tiring-house façade with a discovery space in the centre and a door on either side, an upper gallery, a music room and a flying device that enabled the descent of thrones and goddesses, among other items. In both playhouses, the audience surrounded the stage on four sides; however, in the Globe those who paid least stood throughout the performance and were closest to the stage, while in the Blackfriars those who paid most sat near or even on it.
It is speculated that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for King James I, and thus its first performance may have been at court. Yet it was also performed at the Globe. Due to the short length of Macbeth, we can presume Shakespeare wrote it for the winter season with less daylight, or rather for court and/or a special occasion:
King James, first monarch of the newly united England and Scotland, supposed descendant of Banquo, a stickler for the Divine Right of Kings, an expert on witches and a fan of plays which were not too long, is an obvious candidate for the attentions of the author of Macbeth.
We do have on record that Macbeth did play at the Globe from astrologer and alchemist Simon Forman’s record in his Book of Plaies where he mentions “his recollections of a performance of Macbeth at the Globe on 20 April 1611”.
The Tempest is almost undoubtedly written for Blackfriars. It has been said that the “acquisition of the Blackfriars playhouse in 1608” by the King’s Men “influenced decidedly the dramatic composition of Shakespeare”.
Tiffany Stern describes the intimate relation of the actor and audience claiming that “the story of stage and audience frequently meld together, and Blackfriars plays often have internal events—masques, songs, dances—that called for a ‘staged’ audience of actors” (p. 30). The Tempest also uniquely dictates breaks for intervals with separate acts signified by Shakespeare himself. Blackfriars needed these to attend to the candles in the theatre (p. 30). Another experimental tactic of The Tempest is Shakespeare’s play on space and spectacle. Perhaps the opening storm scene was a “deliberate shock tactic” with its “uproar and confusions” that seemed akin to “an amphitheatre spectacle of noisy running-about”, something that would have been disorienting to “a Blackfriars audience that had just been lulled by the soft harmonies of music and song from the Blackfriars consort of musicians”.
In the text of his plays, Shakespeare often makes allusions to the space in which they take place. Shakespeare’s words have moments of awareness of being in a theatrical setting. This appears in both Macbeth and The Tempest. After discovering Lady Macbeth has committed suicide, Macbeth reflects on life, saying,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.
Then, similarly, in The Tempest, Prospero muses that, “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep”.
The dreamlike, shadowy aspect of Shakespeare’s spaces demonstrates his view of the theatricality of life. In many ways, the Globe was a “living metaphor” with “metatheatrical” performances drawing “frequent attention to their own theatrical natures and their consequent unreality”.
As Henri Lefebvre states, “Space is a social product and that ‘[s]ocial relations […] have no real existence save in and through space”, so is theatre a social product and the space of the theatre determines the social relations between the characters, the actors and the audience, and the audience and society.
Shakespeare’s plays lose perspective if “we ever take Shakespeare away from the idea of the theatre as the globe, the actor as man, man as actor, and life as play.
In fact, the actors performed in a “play-world” that was meant to be a reflection of the real world.
On an immediate level, Shakespeare’s London therefore with “its buildings, its court, its playhouses…becomes a feature of Shakespeare’s texts and of the mentality of Shakespeare’s audience” where his plays are thus “a product of [his] environment…” (p. 33). After all, the city was “a social production of space, an oeuvre (as Henri Lefebvre has rightly characterized it) composed and rehearsed…to be conspicuously bodied forth and located in the urban landscape”.
Shakespeare’s London was a source of spatial inspiration and Shakespeare used drama (‘the literary art of space’) “to bring reigning ideologies and cultural climates into view” (p. 57).
Now to examine the use and non-use of scenery, properties, stage effects, and spectacle in the creation of space. These details and elements of production create the spectacle of space in Shakespeare’s works; they are the essence of the visceral visual.
The whole realm of space and the question of the boundaries and expectations of space are brought into view with the Third Apparition’s prophecy that, “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him,” to which Macbeth understandably believes, “That will never be./Who can impress the forest, bid the tree,/Unfix his earthbound root?” (IV.i. 92-96). It’s a metaphor and challenge to space, for indeed, the forest does figuratively move forward as part of Macbeth’s eventual downfall. But also, the concept of unfixing the earthbound root could be a metaphor for character, for humanity. The change of locations throughout Macbeth is “significant and should be visually apparent” as he moves from “the heath to the battlefield to the dark, confined interiors of the castle, the movement is important to the story.
Shakespeare also used masque-like elements in Macbeth, which gave the ‘weird women’ an opportunity for ‘theatrical innovation’—something that would have been ‘especially attractive in the age of the new court masque’.
For indeed, the cauldron scene is suggested to be “the climatic point of the play’s use of spectacle”.
A modern example of staging Macbeth is the 1977 stage version in Stratford with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench: “The set was virtually non-existent—a few wooden boxes, a bell, a rope, a few lamps were all the stage furniture used and which [were] surrounded with austere blackness”.
Peter Hall would agree with such a staging for he deems that “Macbeth with scenery that changes in any sense—even something going up and down—is impossible. The stage has to be a space which becomes what the characters say it is”.
The details and props used in the space can add subtle, yet significant effects. For example, the single extant version of Macbeth contains a moment when Macbeth is shown the line of kings who will descend from Banquo: he sees ‘A show of eight kings, [the] last with a glass in his hand, and Banquo’ (IV. i. 127). The ‘[looking] glass’, it has been suggested, would only make absolute sense if James I were supposed to look into it; a descendent of Banquo, he would then see the line of kings stretching out to—himself.”
While the mirrors would serve as a physical, visceral use of property, Macbeth’s “air-drawn dagger” creates the possibility of imagined space and spectacle:
The dagger does not merely occur as an object of sight. Rather, it represents sight itself. Its form, nature and origin incorporate the very physiology of visual illusion or hallucination, according to both the theatre and the medical science of Shakespeare’s age: ‘Or art thou but/ A dagger of the mind, a false creation’ (II. i. 38-39).
Then in The Tempest, the action opens with Antonio, Gonzalo, and Boatswain speaking of “commanding” the elements, much like the elements of the stage:
Boatswain: …if you can command these elements to/ silence, and work the peace of the present, we will/ not hand a rope more. Use your authority; if you/ cannot, give thanks you have liv’d so long, and/ make yourself ready in your cabin for the/ mischance of the hour, if it so hap. (I.i.16-21).
Later on in the play, Caliban’s speech is also reminiscent of theatrical sights and sounds as he speaks of the sounds of the island lulling him into a dream: “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt/ not. (III, ii.129-131). With the new features of Blackfriars, Shakespeare was able to implement allusions to sounds in the space. For example, in The Tempest, Ferdinand claims of the music ‘I hear it now above me’ (I. ii. 406) which “reflects what had always been the positioning of musicians in the Blackfriars”.
The possibility of space in The Tempest allows the island to “appear a lush paradise or a barren desert or both at once”.
In the first scene, the stage itself can represent the ship “with the lords emerging from a trap as if from below deck and with mariners positioned not only on the ‘main deck’ of the stage but also on the ‘mast’ of the upper gallery. Elsewhere, characters entered through the tiring-house doors, and Prospero probably gestured to the discovery space to indicate his cell.” (p. 71).
A stage element utilized by Shakespeare in his later works is the “held tableau” where “moments are created almost entirely by actors’ bodies used in particular ways in the stage space of the Globe or Blackfriars.” In the first scene of Act V in The Tempest, Prospero ‘discovers Ferdinand and Miranda, playing at chess’. At this moment, he could be revealing the discovery space and demonstrating the “framing of a stage within a stage” with the “still bodies of Ferdinand and Miranda” thus constructing the lovers as an “emblematic tableau”. Then when Prospero renounces his ‘rough magic’, “it is the actor’s command of the space and the powerfully assertive and lyrical language he utters that primarily create the tableau effect”.
In the previous act, Prospero speaks of the spectacle, the masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, in which he had Ariel summon the spirits to perform. He speaks of their “revels”, comparing the “actors” to “spirits” as part of “this vision” in “the great globe itself” as an “insubstantial pageant” which is “such stuff as dreams are made on” (IV.i.148–158). At this point, the masque structure appears in “masque proper danced by the reapers and nymphs” with the figures of Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban, and the goddesses uniting with the “idyllic love story and the plottings of the courtiers”; for this scene, even in Blackfriars, “the Enchanted Island was given a setting to capture the eye as well as the fancy of the spectator”.
Costumes and visual, scenic effects additionally contributed to the spatial landscape and setting of Shakespeare’s plays. Philip Henslowe’s inventory of the Rose Theatre “indicates that the Elizabethan stage…was by no means a desert, rather that certain actions were definitely pin-pointed by means of free-standing scenic elements”.
For instance, in The Tempest, Shakespeare writes that Ariel is “invisible” as he moves about before the Prince, “playing and singing.” In Henslowe’s list is “a robe for to go invisibell” so “possibly, Ariel wore a special costume that was supposed to make him invisible—a convention recognized by the audience.” (p. 98). Costumes were often used to give information about locality or setting.
Such costumes and props were the main features of scenery in early modern theatre. In both the Globe and Blackfriars, “spectacle was restricted to a sumptuous display of elaborate and colourful costumes” and “locations were indicated, if at all, by a suggestive prop, such as a throne or a bed”.
This absence of scenery “meant that plays were not situated and could dictate and redictate perceptions to the audience. The island in The Tempest is of the mind, and collapses, as the play-world collapses, when the story comes to an end: ‘These actors…Are melted into Ayre…like the baseless fabricke of this vision (4.1.148-51) which is significant because “even what the audience can see is sometimes reinterpreted by the characters on stage”.
Finally, I will examine the aspects of performance and how acting, language, and physicality can create and break boundaries of space. The text itself, what is being said and what is not being said, illuminates the space. Much of the story depends on the actors’ physical use of space as Shakespeare’s language manifests space. Performance and language do play in the spatial relations to the audience. There are instances of the effects of language and physicality used in acting as seen in specific scenes from Macbeth and The Tempest. An importance of hearing rather than seeing exists due to words and performance creating space. I will also explore the nature of performance in early modern London with reference to modern acting.
The language of Macbeth permeates with visceral descriptions of the environment, weather, and spaces within the play. The witches speak of ‘thunder, lightning, rain’ and the ‘fog and filthy air’ (I.i.2,13). Ravens croak and bells chime, creating an ambience of sound as well as marking the silences. Macbeth brings to life visual claustrophobia, making the space seem oppressive with his words: “But now, I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in/To saucy doubts and fears” (III.iv. 25-26). The language brings the space to life and fills in the gaps in a play that comes “in lurid flashes, a version of montage where the whole is greater than the parts and in which some questions remain for actors and directors to answer”.
With these unanswered mysteries, an actor can utilize space as “one of the prime expressive materials the theatre offers” in which he or she “must give the illusion of filling the space of the stage so that the role can be felt as a physical presence”.
Sheridan Knowles spoke of this ‘presence’ in regards to Sarah Siddon’s performance as Lady Macbeth: “the chill of the grave seemed about you while you looked on her; there was the hush and damp of the charnel house at midnight” (p. 119). For indeed, it is the actor who often dictates the audience’s perception of the spatial environment and significance of the play. To achieve this effect, an actor must own the space. Caliban in The Tempest speaks strongly of possession of space when he says, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/ Which thou tak’st from me” (I.ii. 482-3). He feels stripped of his home and his own space that he showed to Prospero, who then took it over once he had learned all about the island from Caliban’s native knowledge. This conflict illustrates the power play and possible shifts of balance in regards to space, an element not only of plot but also of staging and performance.
Regarding the qualities of an early modern performer, it was necessary to have a good voice and command of language. An Elizabethan play was “full of action, but in the final analysis it was not the physical activity that caught and held the emotions of the audience; it was the words” in which the audience “learned the location of each of the scenes, the emotions of each of the characters and the poetry and excitement of the play as a whole”.
Drama critic, A. B. Walkley defined the drama of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England as the “drama of rhetoric”.
The limitless potential of the imagination in terms of visualization overrode the bounds of the stage space and “gave rise to some of [Shakespeare’s] most famously poetic passages”.
This significance of language made actors “the centre of attention” with “their physical and vocal performances largely responsible for establishing the context for a play’s action.” (p. 174). Early modern audience goers would have been appreciative and receptive to such an emphasis on spoken spatial descriptions since they came from a culture “unable or unused to read[ing] but accustomed to gathering jokes, stories, and information by the ear rather than the eye”.
The term ‘character’, the Elizabethans called ‘person’ (from persona, the Latin word for ‘mask’ and by extension for role or character represented by the mask). An actor’s presence created a spatial duality:
a complex mix of presence and absence—the actor is present but also absent, in that he is not himself but the character, and the character is absent (because fictional) but also present in the actions and words of the actor…[a] ‘dual consciousness’.
In early modern theatre, the audience itself held a greater presence than in most modern theatrical settings. In both indoor and outdoor venues during Shakespeare’s time, “spectators and actors clearly saw each other and borrowed reactions from one another” because the “audience was as well-lit as the actors, as visible, and sometimes, as talkative”.
From a 2000 interview with actor, Jasper Britton who played Caliban in The Tempest at the Globe, the relationship with the audience is described—the groundlings have their “playfulness” and “desire to be included”, an experience for actors to “explore” and “enjoy”.
Also, an interview with Yolanda Vazquez, the stage coach of The Globe’s 2010 production of Macbeth, delves into the relationship of text and space—it’s about “playing to the right, to the left, to the back and to all the 3 levels of the Globe theatre so that you’re aware of everyone in the space” because “[Macbeth] was written specifically for a theatre like the Globe” so the “play really fits the space.” Plus, it is “full of soliloquies” with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth speaking directly to the audience, thus “when those actors come out they are not just talking into mid-air, they’re facing their audience and individually speaking to them, straight to their faces, and saying ‘This is what’s happening to me’”.
Both modern examples exemplify the ongoing connection of actors and audience members due to the spatially rich nature of Shakespeare’s language.
That space is an inherent and vital element in Shakespeare’s works, especially in consideration of Macbeth and The Tempest. The physical, theatrical locale creates an environment for the action to take place within. Then, the stage effects, costumes, properties, and spectacles allow for concrete imagery and existence of spatial detail and awareness. Finally, the performance and language manifests the visceral connection to, and visual imagination and perceptions of space. With all these aspects, the envisioned spaces within Shakespeare’s plays come to life.
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