Elizabethan Special EffectsIn this new series of blogs, we’re…

Elizabethan Special Effects

In this new series of blogs, we’re going to take you behind the scenes of our Guided Tours & Exhibition. Open all year round, the tour gives you an opportunity to learn more about this unique building and its most famous playwright, Shakespeare.

In this post, Exhibition Assistant Claire Reeves talks about how stage effects would have been created in Shakespeare’s time.

Facing tough competition from neighbouring theatres, such as the Rose and Swan, Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, had to fight hard to keep their share of the audience. So, like blockbuster movie producers today, they often looked to special effects to help wow audiences and keep them coming back for more.

There is the famous story of how, on the 29th June 1613, the company fired a cannon above the stage as part of a performance of Henry VIII. Part of the wadding flew out and landed on the thatched roof, starting a fire that would lead to the theatre burning to the ground. This was just one of the special effects used in Elizabethan Theatres. 

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular plays, featuring raging storms, magic and even fairies. It also features one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular special effects. In Act Three Scene Three Prospero leads part of the shipwrecked party to a grand feast conjured by the spirit Ariel. However, just as the group reaches out to take the food Ariel ‘clasps his wings upon the table and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes.’ So how, without Prospero’s magic books, could Shakespeare’s company make a table of food disappear before the audience’s very eyes? 

The answer is simple: with a cleverly designed Trick Table. The table would be brought onto stage elaborately decorated with the magical feast. However, what the audience doesn’t realise is this table is carefully weighted so that once a pin was removed the top of the table would flip over to reveal the blank table top, concealing the feast below. The actors would crowd round the table, appearing to grab food from the feast. This meant that when the table flipped the audience couldn’t see the movement so when the actors step away in shock the food seems to have magically disappeared.

Of course The Tempest doesn’t just require magical special effects, it also needs a storm! Whilst you could be forgiven for thinking that there is enough rain and wind in a British Summer to make storm effects unnecessary in an open air theatre, Shakespeare and his company didn’t agree! Instead they came up with numerous ingenious machines to help ensure that, even on the brightest days, you got the full force of Prospero’s Tempest! 

The easiest way to create the sound of thunder was by banging drum in the Tiring House behind the stage. However, they all produced a device called a Thunder Run which was a wooden trough attached to a stand similar to a see-saw. This would be placed in the Sound Attic above the stage. A stagehand would then place a cannon ball in the groove and roll it from one end to the other to create a rumbling sound. To complete the effect they also use a device called a Swevel to create lightening. This was a wire reaching from the roof of the heavens to the stage bellow. Gunpowder could be purchased from a grocer or ironmonger and used to make a firecracker that could be lit to fly down the wire to the stage, sending sparks all the way. 

And, of course, Lear cannot cry ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’ without the wind. To create the sound of wind they had a large cylinder covered in fabric. When a handle on the side was turned the cylinder would rotate, moving the fabric and creating the sound of howling winds. This technique is still used on our stage today. In fact the wind machine used in our 2008 production of King Lear can be found in our Exhibition, so why not come and have a go at creating a storm yourself? 

Visit our Exhibition and find out more about other special effects, like flying gods, demons emerging from hell and of course how they achieved all of the blood and gore needed for all of Shakespeare’s tragedies!

Words: Claire Reeves
Photo: John Wildgoose