How does Shakespeare use descriptive language to enhance the visual possibilities of a stage production in the play Hamlet?

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janihash24 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the great joys of Shakespeare's language is that it is so visually descriptive. Because the playhouses of his time, including the ones in which his plays were staged (The Theatre, The Globe, Blackfriars) were not equipped with the devices used to create modern stage production magic, much more was expected of the audience's imagination. Shakespeare famously refers to this expectation in the opening speech of the Chorus in Henry V, when he exhorts the spectators to "piece out our imperfections with your thoughts," and "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hooves i' th' receiving earth."

In Hamlet, there are examples of these expectations throughout the play, and a modern director can take these and create an enhanced visual experience for the audience. For example, in the opening scene, it's implied that the night is very dark (and possibly foggy), since Barnardo cannot see Francisco at first although the latter is virtually on top of him. In Shakespeare's time, since this would have been staged in daylight, audiences would have had to imagine darkness and fog based on the dialogue. Today, lighting and a fog machine add to the ambiance. 

Then, consider the Ghost (of Hamlet's father...or is he?). The very detailed description of him, including that he is "very pale" could be done at the Globe by costuming an actor in gray or white and painting his face, but a modern production can of course use all sorts of effects to make him a very frightening "dead corse, again in complete steel."

Skipping all the way to Act V, the "earthiness" of the Gravediggers is made explicit by their words and their many black jokes and puns as they toss up dirt and bones while digging Ophelia's grave. It's likely the Elizabethans used real dirt and spades, and possibly also a real skull for Yorick, but it's the words that engage all the senses, as when Hamlet asks, "Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' th' earth?" and goes on to say, "And smelt so? Pah!" Although a modern production can make more use of light and sound to make the Gravediggers' world real, it's still the imagery of Shakespeare that conjures up the bleakly comic atmosphere of this scene.

sensei918 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's time, stage production was far more limited than it is today. We often see his plays produced in theaters with curtains and backdrops, where the actors are distinctly separated from the audience. His plays would not have looked like that. Often the plays took place outdoors, in innyards, as often as they did in theaters, and the theater itself was sometimes open to the elements. The setting would feature a mostly bare stage with props carried on and off, and no clean breaks between scenes. The visuals of the setting were left to the audience's imagination. The dialogue and acting took precedence, and the action was indicated by certain characters' speeches. For instance, in Hamlet, we know the opening scene takes place on a watchtower from the action of the sentinels.

In the same way, Shakespeare's imagery is evocative throught he dialogue rather than through explicit stage instructions, leaving modern directors free to come up with interesting and unique ways to set the mood. The imagery that most sets up that climate of fear and despair in Hamlet comes from the plot and from Hamlet's soliloquies, in which he epitomizes confusion and despair himself. The presence of the ghost of his father and the fact that he knows his uncle killed his father and that he plans to kill Claudius in return also add to the suspense.

The imagery is thus created through the combined vision of the playwright, the actors, and the director.

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