Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Elizabethan Theater

Somewhere during my education I picked upon the meme that “Shakespeare’s contemporaries referred to ‘hearing’ a play, not ‘seeing’ a play,” and I regularly trot it out to emphasize how growing up in an auditory culture meant that the average Elizabethan probably got a lot more out of casually attending a Shakespeare play than the average student gets from studying an annotated script.

Practically speaking, I encourage students to listen to an audio adaptation while they read, but I also point out that our task in the classroom is to study Shakespeare’s words and the historical context in which he wrote and performed them, rather than to study any particular actor’s interpretation of those words. I’m trying to help students understand why, in my “Shakespeare in Context” course, I wouldn’t accept a paper that cites memes to support the argument that The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet.

The detail about Elizabethans going to a play to hear the words supports my own educational mission to introduce students to the study of Shakespeare’s language.

However, this podcast introduced me to a collection of essays that explore other sensory experiences that were part of Shakespeare’s theatre.

These days we’re used to thinking about people going to the Elizabethan theater to hear a play. Why wouldn’t they? One of the most glorious aspects of Shakespeare is the words. But Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern would like to invite you to see that world differently.

In 2013, they edited a collection of essays, written by themselves and nine other theater historians, to give us an understanding of how, for Elizabethans, theater was a full-body experience. Their book, Shakespeare’s Theatre and the Effects of Performance, offers copious examples of just how playwrights did this: fireworks hissing and shooting across the stage, fake blood, fake body parts, disguises, paint on the walls and on the actors’ faces, the smell of blood and death, and worse. All of it designed to create wonder and sensation by appealing to every part of the body. –Michael Witmore, hosting scholars Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern on the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited