Tag Archives: william shakespeare

Challenges in making props lists for Shakespeare

When faced with a new production, the second thing a props master does (after reading the play once) is read the play again and make note of all the props. I’ve written about how to read a script and make a props list before. If you’re doing Shakespeare though, it presents itself with several challenges in this method.

First is the problem with the stage directions. In modern plays, the stage directions give a large number of clues. In Shakespeare’s plays, the stage directions are more suspect. Modern Shakespeare scholars understand that finding the “definitive” version of many of his plays is a problem that may never be solved. Theories exist that some versions are pirated copies from an audience member who transcribed the play during a performance. Other theories suggest that actors wrote down their own parts from memory and compiled them into a single version. In any case, the versions we perform today are merely the “best guess” of what was originally performed. The stage directions themselves were probably added by a later editor based on the stage manager’s notes of what was originally performed.

In Titus Andronicus in Act III, Scene 1, we see the stage direction:

[Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand]

Some directors treat Shakespeare’s text as sacred as modern playwrights’ and will ask for two heads and a hand in the props list. Others, recognizing that the stage directions are less authorial and possibly even a corruption of the original work, will either keep, change, or omit the stage directions on a scene-by-scene basis depending on what works best for the production.

What this means is that the initial props list you generate from your first reading (before meeting with the director, designer or stage managers) will have a lot of question marks:

Act/Scene character prop qty. notes
III.1 messenger heads 2 ?
III.1 messenger hand 1 ?

The second challenge in making a props list for Shakespeare’s plays is in how he layers rich visual imagery on top of the action of the scene. His metaphors often weave in and out of the reality on stage, making it difficult to know (and open to the interpretation of the director) what objects are used in a scene and which are merely mentioned by the character.

For instance, take Mercutio’s famous speech in Act I, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone

On the fore-finger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomies

Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;

Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,

The traces of the smallest spider’s web,

The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,

Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,

Not so big as a round little worm

Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Now, it would be silly of a prop master to add all these things –  a hazel-nut chariot, cricket’s bone whip, etc. – to the props list. However, there are plenty of passages throughout Shakespeare where it is far less obvious when a character is alluding to a real object on stage or merely waxing poetic. In many cases, it can be up to the director to make that decision.

The final challenge with propping a Shakespeare play is how widely different the interpretations of a single play can be. Hamlet can be played in Elizabethan Denmark, or modern-day Wall Street. It would be very embarrassing to bring an armload of rapiers to the first day of rehearsal if the director has set the play in Nazi Germany. It is vitally important to find out the setting and time period which your production will be set in before you begin generating a props list. Even then, you have no way of knowing what props they will want merely by reading the text.

Shakespeare’s Props

As yesterday (April 23) was William Shakespeare’s unofficial birthday, I thought I’d write a bit about props and Shakespeare. At the Public Theatre here in New York City, we’re starting to gear up for Shakespeare in the Park, starting with Twelfth Night. It will feature Anne Hathaway (the Bride Wars star, not Shakespeare’s wife).

A lot of what we know about props in Shakespearean times comes from Henslowe’s Diary, which incidentally, never once mentions William Shakespeare. It does, however, contain a detailed record of the day-to-day theatre business of Philip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur involved in nearly all aspects of the Elizabethan stage. Included in his diary is an inventory of “all the properties for my Lord Admiral’s Men, the 10 of March 1598:

Item, 1 rock, 1 cage, 1 tomb, 1 Hell mouth… 1 bedstead.
Item, 8 lances, 1 pair of stairs for Phaethon.
Item, 1 globe, & 1 golden sceptre; 3 clubs
Item, 1 golden fleece, 2 racquets, 1 bay tree.
Item, 1 lion’s skin, 1 bear’s skin; Phaethon’s limbs, & Phaethon’s chariot, & Argus’s head.
Item, Iris’s head, & rainbow; 1 little altar. . .
1 ghost’s gown; 1 crown with a sun.”

You can see many typical props here. Furniture, weapons, and set decoration all appear on the list. Heads are another common prop made by prop shops. The list also contains what we would consider small set pieces. As Elizabethan theatre had no “background” scenery, it made sense for a set of stairs to be made and maintained by the same person or people who made and kept track of the bedstead.

It is a fairly straightforward props list. When you read a Shakespeare play, the stage directions will be pretty explicit about what props his actors probably used. In Romeo and Juliet, when it is written that Juliet “snatches Romeo’s dagger”, it most certainly meant she (technically, he) grabbed a prop dagger, rather than miming the action. The style and construction of the dagger is less certain, though many scholars contend it would have been an Elizabethan dagger, rather than a more historically or geographically accurate one.  In other words, the dagger in Julius Caesar would have been the same dagger as in Romeo and Juliet, which would have been similar to the daggers carried by the audience.

Perhaps one of the most problematic stage directions is The Winter’s Tale‘s “exit pursued by a bear”. Without uncovering new archaeological evidence, we will probably never know whether a real bear was used or not. But for the rest of the props, between Henslow’s diary, and de Witt’s drawing of the Swan theatre (pictured below), we get a good overview of props in Shakespeare’s time: weapons, furniture, minor set decoration and small set pieces, and fake (I hope) body parts.

You can find more about Henslowe’s Diary by perusing the public domain Henslow’s Diary Companion on Google Books. I also found a great deal of information at Internet Shakespeare. If you click around, you’ll find an archive of Shakespeare in Performance, including an archive of artifacts from past performances of Shakespeare’s plays. This includes not only drawings and photographs, but also props lists, scene breakdowns, and other production notes.

The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt
The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt