Why Low-Tech Special Effects
Made Shakespeare a Better Writer
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By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Modern 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.  
.......When 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.  
.......For 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.  
.......The 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:  
    Whenever 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 his writing:  
    O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend  
    The brightest heaven of invention,  
    A kingdom for a stage, princes to act  
    And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!  
    (Lines 1-4)
And then he called upon the audience to go to war with Henry:  
    Suppose within the girdle of these walls  
    Are now confined two mighty monarchies,  
    Whose high upreared and abutting fronts  
    The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:  
    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;  
    Into a thousand parts divide on man,  
    And make imaginary puissance;  
    Think when we talk of horses, that you see them  
    Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;  
    For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,  
    Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,  
    Turning the accomplishment of many years  
    Into an hour-glass: for the which supply.   
    (Lines 19-32) 
  .......And 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.   
.......In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare used this same kind of magic–the magic of words–to conjure up Cleopatra arriving at Tarsus on the Cydnus River:   
    The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,  
    Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;  
    Purple the sails, and so perfumed that  
    The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,  
    Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made  
    The water which they beat to follow faster,  
    As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,  
    It beggar'd all description: she did lie  
    In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--  
    O'er-picturing that Venus where we see  
    The fancy outwork nature: on each side her  
    Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,  
    With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem  
    To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,  
    And what they undid did.  
    ( Domitius Enobarbus, Act II, Scene II, Lines 199-213) 
.......The 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 passages:   
    It was a lover and his lass,  
    With a hey and a ho, and a hey nonino, 
    That o'er the green corn-field did pass, 
    In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,  
    When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;  
    Wweet lovers love the spring. 
    (Song, As You Like It, Act V, Scene III, Lines 18-23)   

    But, look, the morn in russet mantle clad, 
    Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill. 
    (Horatio, Hamlet, Act I, Scene I) 

Or consider the effect of gloomy skies when an actor recited this passage in which a mother mourns the loss of her child:  
    Grief fills the room up of my absent child, 
    Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, 
    Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,   
    Remembers me of all his gracious parts,  
    Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. 
    (Constance, King John: Act III, Scene IV, Lines 93-97)  
And this one:  
    'Tis now the very witching time of night,  
    When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out 
    Contagion to this world. 
    (Hamlet, alone on the stage, Hamlet: Act III,  Scene II, Lines 413-415)  
.......With 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:  
    To gild refined gold, to paint the lilly, 
    To throw a perfume on the violet, 
    To smooth the ice, or add another hue 
    Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light 
    To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, 
    Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. 
    (Salisbury, King John, Act IV, Scene II, Lines 11-16) 
.......Modern filmmakers can take a lesson from these lines.