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

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Shakespeare uses imagery—descriptive language employing the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—to provide what a stage set could not in Elizabethan theater or to enhance a scene. For example, Horatio provides verbal description that helps establish that the ghost before him is the dead king:

Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated.
So frowned he once ...
We, as an audience, would see a figure stalking in armor, perhaps lit or made up to look eerie and otherworldly, but we need Horatio's words to confirm that this must be the armor the king wore and the king's face.

Shakespeare also uses imagery to describe what happens offstage so that we can have a vivid mental picture of it. For example, the ghost tells Hamlet that he has to return to the flames of purgatory. This increases Hamlet's anguish and desire for revenge, while at the same time Hamlet struggles with the idea of killing Claudius:

My hour is almost come
When I to sulfurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
When an audience might have trouble seeing small objects on the stage—still an issue today—Shakespeare uses specific description, such as when Ophelia tells us what flowers she is carrying and casting about. This allows Shakespeare to introduce the symbolic meanings of the flowers, but on a more practical level, it helps the audience see in their mind's eye exactly what flowers she holds and tosses:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
This play does not have as much need as others, such as A Midsummer's Night Dream, for added passages of description, as, except for the ghost, it happens outside of the supernatural world. However, Shakespeare uses powerful imagery to describe Ophelia's death, because it happens offstage and yet is an important scene. In one of the most poetic passages in the play, which allows us to visualize how Ophelia died, Gertrude tells Laertes of his sister's death:
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up ....
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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.

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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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