Why Do Shakespeare's Plays Make Great Movies? Part One—Shakespeare's Theater
Leslie Banks as the Chorus in Laurence
Olivier's 1944 film of Henry V.
Image from TaoYue.
Still, it's worth considering that he may have felt that the theaters of his day were inadequate vehicles for his plays.
The interior of an Elizabethan
playhouse as rendered in
Johannes De Witt's 1595 sketch
of a performance in the Swan.
Things weren't that comfortable for spectators who had paid an extra penny to sit in the galleries either, even if they had paid yet another penny for cushions that protected their bottoms from the wooden benches. Except for those in the "Lords' Rooms" above the stage, who looked down on the tops and backs of the actors' heads, spectators in the Curtain and Globe were squeezed together in a way that would never be allowed in a modern theater. In London today, for example, fire laws limit the reconstructed Globe's capacity to 1,300; the original held more than twice that.
None of those 3,000 spectators took showers. Nor were they the polite culture vultures who go to the reconstructed Globe. As is true of today's multiplexes, people from all classes went to the theater, but Elizabethan theatergoers were far rougher than today's moviegoers. We get a sense of how rough when we consider other public spectacles that vied for their attention. At the most gruesome executions, for example, crowds watched as men were hanged until half dead and then brought down to have their genitals cut off and their intestines cut out. These were burned in front of their eyes before the executioner put the dying men out of their misery by decapitating them. Their bodies were chopped in pieces and their heads dipped in tar and set on pikes at London Bridge's south gatehouse.
Heads on London Bridge's south gatehouse.
Detail from Claes Visscher's 1616 panoramic
view of the city.
Image from antoniohernandez.es.
The queen held bearbaitings in the tiltyard of Whitehall, her London palace. She held cockfights in an arena that her father, Henry VIII, had built for just that purpose. The royal cockpit was a roofless polygon, so similar to a theater that it was easily turned into one during the reign of Charles I. The same layout was used in public cockpits and "baiting houses," and some of these were turned into theaters as well. For example, a Drury Lane cockpit became the Cockpit Theatre in 1616, the year that Shakespeare died. (The date is easy to remember—1616, double 16s—and it's a two-fer. Knowing it gives you the death date for both the greatest English-language and greatest Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, died the same year.)
|Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe|
in Shakespeare in Love.
The Bear Garden and the Globe in another
detail from Claes Visscher's engraving.
Much of the excitement in the Bear Garden and Globe came from suspense, from the anticipation of violence rather than from violence itself. The Bear Garden audience felt it as the bear growled and the dogs barked and strained at their leashes before being released. The Globe audience felt it before every history play or tragedy. At a history, many in the audience knew the main events that they were about to see represented. If they were seeing Richard III, for instance, they knew that they were going to watch a monster hack his way to the throne and die in battle. Even those who didn't know the history behind a history play still expected it to be full of bloodshed and war. If they were seeing a tragedy, they expected it to be full of violence and end with the main characters' deaths.
Like every good thriller writer, Shakespeare knew that suspense is usually more exciting than the violence that the reader or audience is anticipating. He often cranks up this anticipation by having characters talk about impending violence in asides and soliloquies (speeches delivered alone on stage, as if the character is thinking aloud or addressing the audience directly). These can let the audience know what other characters don't, setting up the "dramatic irony" that is rocket fuel for suspense. After a character has described his evil plans in a soliloquy, for example, spectators will hang on tenterhooks, watching in horror as the villain pals around with his unknowing future victims.
Marlon Brando renders Marc Antony's "dogs of war"
soliloquy in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar.
Image from Examiner.com.
A "course" was a round of bearbaiting, and whether the audience was watching one of those or the fighting that followed Macbeth's lines—Macbeth killing a young man and being killed himself—they cheered or jeered what was happening. If they got really worked up, they could throw food. Though we're not 100% sure that they did this, we are sure that they had plenty of food to throw. Excavations of Elizabethan theaters have turned up the remains of hazel nuts, walnuts, almonds, apples, pears, figs, raisins, prunes, lamb, chicken, oysters, mussels, crab, cuttlefish, eel, herring, sturgeon, and pies, as well as bottles for ale and wine (Rose and Globe 148-53). Playgoers bought some of this food and drink before the show, from stalls outside the theater. They bought the rest from roving vendors who, during performances, worked the crowd like ballpark hotdog sellers.
Robert Greene's 1591 coney-
catching pamphlet, The
Second and Last Part of
Conny-Catching, warns of
pickpockets in theaters.
Image from Luminarium.org.
His experience was less like being in modern theater or cinema than it was like being on a soccer stadium terrace or in the open seating area of a rock concert. But no matter how crazy things get at a soccer match or rock concert, the announcer or band will always be heard because of amplification. Obviously, Shakespeare's actors had no such assistance. Nor did they have lighting that would draw the audience's attention to the stage. At the indoor Blackfriars Theatre and at court performances, they used candles that illuminated the audience as well as the actors. At the Curtain and Globe, they simply stood in the afternoon light, with only their gestures and words to hold the unruly crowd's attention.
In a cinema, the lights go out, and our attention is drawn like a moth to the screen. We watch the feature in near-total darkness, an experience so engaging that a movie has to be nightmarishly bad before we'll walk out. Even our worst movies, perhaps especially our worst movies, can keep us entertained with spectacles that Shakespeare's company couldn't possibly produce on stage. No doubt they would have loved the giant sets and special effects available to filmmakers. Instead, they produced the plays' spectacles—royal pageants, storms and shipwrecks, sea and land battles—on a bare, forty-three by twenty-seven foot stage, with limited props and crude effects.
|Groundlings at the reconstructed Globe.|
Next: Part Two—Shakespeare's Reading.