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Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Elizabethan Theater

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 87

In Shakespeare’s time, theater companies used a variety of staging effects in their productions to create a full-body experience for playgoers: fireworks, fake blood, fake body parts, paint, and more. Plays were smorgasbords for the senses—including, thanks to all those sweating spectators and the use of animal blood, the sense of smell.

Our guests, Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern, are the editors of a 2013 collection of essays, Shakespeare’s Theatre and the Effects of Performance, written by themselves and nine other theater historians. Tiffany Stern is a Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama with the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. Farah Karim-Cooper is Head of Higher Education and Research at Shakespeare’s Globe and Professor of Shakespeare Studies, King’s College London. They are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Elizabethan Theater, with Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern (rebroadcast)

Bookcover for Shakespeares Theatre and the Effects of PerformanceFrom the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Originally published December 13, 2017, and rebroadcast August 17, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Awake Your Senses,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French and Ben Lauer are the web producers. We had production help from Cathy Devlin and Dom Boucher at the Sound Company in London and Paul Luke and Andrew Feliciano at at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Professor Karim-Cooper answers our thirty lightning-fast Shakespeare questions.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Here’s something I can pretty much guarantee. If you went to the theater, and the next day at work you told a friend about it, your friend did not respond by saying, “Oh, wow, how did it smell?” It turns out, in Shakespeare’s day, that was not such a safe bet.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director.

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.

Back in 2017, we invited Tiffany Stern and Farah Karim-Cooper in to talk about how this all of this worked together. Tiffany Stern is a Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama with the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. Farah Karim-Cooper is a Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London and Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. We call this podcast  episode “Awake Your Senses.” Tiffany Stern and Farah Karim-Cooper were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Can we clear something up, right off the bat? I’ve heard scholars and people like theater historians say things like, “People in Elizabethan times went to hear a play.” That implies to me that theater going used to be more about the words, rather than the whole theatrical experience of lighting and costumes and special effects. But then, I read your book, and your whole book seems to be a rebuttal of that. So why don’t we start with you, Tiffany: is there a misconception about the experience of theater in Shakespeare’s day and, if so, where does this bias or this interpretation come from?

TIFFANY STERN: Yes, there is a misconception. The very word theater, which was the name of the first, round, permanent theater in London, comes from the Greek. It means to see. Shakespeare talked equally about audiences and auditors and about spectators. Throughout the early modern period, we have equal references to hearing and seeing plays. They’re clearly both extremely important, and the oddity of picking the word hear over the word see is traceable to a particular academic… and I don’t think I’ll go into that now.

It’s become a misconception, it’s become a thing that school teachers say, you know? But, I think this book confronts that head-on in a couple of ways. Firstly, I think I give a couple of examples of Shakespeare talking about spectating, but also Evelyn Tribble writes a whole interesting chapter on the importance of the visual side of Shakespeare. And, in fact, I think the whole book deals with Shakespeare as a man of the senses: aural, visual, and touch and taste, all the senses. He’s appealing to all of them. We very much want to think of him as more than just a man of the word on the page.

BOGAEV: So, Farah, is this a deliberate rebuttal, this collection of essays?

FARAH KARIM-COOPER: Yes, I mean, it’s certainly one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. Working at The Globe where we were thinking about a new indoor theater, that phrase had come up a few times in our own committee, that, you know, “hearing a play,” “these were auditory spaces.” So it was something that was very important to me because the theater spaces were places where bodies were pushed together. And the way in which you know things is through the body, and it’s through the entire body. It’s not just hearing. And so, this was a really important component of the work, which is why we have a whole section on the senses.

BOGAEV: Well, I didn’t know I was walking into an academic dust-up [LAUGHTER] when I asked this question, but I guess I thought it goes back to this idea that the theater experience in Elizabethan times and Shakespearean times was different from what we know now. And, Tiffany, you wrote an essay that explains this very well, and says, and I’m going to quote from it, for instance, “Theaters at the time offered an unchanging backdrop for every play mounted within them, with universal lighting which imposed the same mode on every play.” You go on to write that, “Every play had essentially the same staging and that explains the repeated plea for imagination throughout Shakespeare.” So theater was a bit of a blank canvas. How different was the experience back then from what we know now?

STERN: Well, I think what I was trying to draw attention to in that essay is that, yes, actors and their bodies and their clothes and their props and their voices have to create some of these extraordinary differences. So it puts a lot more pressure on other materials.

But the other point I was making is that we tend, in a rather blasé way, we often talk about something that we call metatheater. And, that’s where the theater refers to the theater. But, I was saying that there are very complicated kinds of metatheater going on in that space. So, that space has a bit of it called “heaven” and a bit of it called “hell.” So that when plays are being rather fictional about heaven and hell, they’re also being extremely practical and factual about the stage on which they’re occurring.

BOGAEV: And, just to clarify, you mean “heaven” was whatever the rafters above the stage… and “hell” is below the stage? An actual, physical space, not just metaphorical?

STERN: Yes. Yes.

BOGAEV: Well, that was understood by Shakespeare and by playwrights that this is what the theater was called, but it was terminology that the people in the audience understood, right? That these areas were called heaven and hell the same way we think about upstage and downstage?

STERN: Yes, exactly. These were well-known terms and, in fact, they’ll have been familiar with them anyway from things like churches, which also had the heavens and hell was below. And, you know, we still have that kind of notional sense. The name of the area that overhung the actors was the heavens, and it was also decorated with stars and little images of the sun and things, so it looks like heavens, but it was a fictional heavens. But, that means when Hamlet talks about this “o’erhanging firmament…fretted with golden fire,” he’s on one level being fictional, talking about fictional heaven, but, he’s also in that stage, pointing at the factual, actual heaven and talking about it. Shakespeare loves this kind of layered metatheater, where at your most factual, you’re at your most fictional, and sort of vice versa. He plays with that all the time with the pillars on the stage, with the back of the stage, that was called the “scene.” So, whenever he refers to a “scene,” you’re geographically thinking about the practical stage, and you’re also metaphorically thinking about divisions in a play, and you’re also practically hearing a person who’s saying that.

BOGAEV: So in Hamlet when the ghost is underneath the stage and he says, “Swear,” it has all of that extra meaning.

STERN: Oh, yes.

KARIM-COOPER: Absolutely.

STERN: The audience know he’s in hell. That’s the thing. And, Hamlet goes, oh, I don’t know whether this is really a ghost, or is it a goblin damned. But, the audience know. So entrances and exits and positions on stage will really have extraordinary interpretive relevance to the audience.

BOGAEV: You give a lot of examples of this. The witch’s cauldron in Macbeth—



BOGAEV: — which sinks into the trap in the stage directions.

STERN: Yeah, if you go down that trap, it’s always bad because it goes down to hell. Otherwise, you’re using it as the grave, yeah.

BOGAEV: So that’s Macbeth’s future.

STERN: That means that that trap also has sort of accumulated resonance and when any play uses it, it has the burden of all the other plays that have also used it and have affirmed and reaffirmed its meaning. I think that’s one thing that’s just interesting about theaters. There it is, sort of fixed, but affecting meaning and accumulating meaning with repeated performance.

BOGAEV: Like onion skins.

KARIM-COOPER: I mean, the point of the book is to really make people aware of that, but also how those effects work in concert with the writing itself. So it’s not just about the language. But, the language is, obviously, quite crucial to the entire process.

STERN: At the same time, I think we’d got a little frustrated with the schoolroom approach to Shakespeare, which doesn’t go further than the book. We’re both interested in theater history and all the other stuff that theater brings, as well as the words. And, we thought we’d like to get a group of really fine scholars, who are also dear friends of ours, and get their wisdom on all sorts of different aspects of this.

BOGAEV: And, they get into the real nitty-gritty of how Shakespeare and the playwrights interwove the physical and sensual theater with the text. I would like to ask you about the costumes because in the same way that the sets were less elaborate and perhaps more metaphorical, were the costumes as well? For instance, Farah, did actors wear togas for the Roman plays?

KARIM-COOPER: Well, the evidence we have suggests that they would have, but that they wouldn’t necessarily have been bogged down in too much historical detail. So we have a drawing by Henry Peacham, which scholars have suggested is a sort of scene from Titus Andronicus. And, it shows the actors sort of lined up and some of them dressed clearly as Elizabethans, but with perhaps a kind of Roman toga right across it. And, for Shakespeare’s audiences, sometimes all you needed was a few gestures here and there for the symbolic meaning to resonate.

BOGAEV: So the productions were in modern dress for the most part?


STERN: Yeah. I mean, Julius Caesar refers to his doublet and Cleopatra wants her lace cut.


STERN: So theater also references the clothing of the time. And, as it seems, they wore the clothing of the time, but with, as Farah says, a symbol of the period that they’re representing. And, of course, this was a highly symbolic world where gesture and prop might be enough to symbolize a place or an era. But, there’s an interesting essay in this book by Bridget Escolme. She’s talking about, what does it mean when you have someone who disguises, that the audience can see that it’s the same actor, but the characters are taken in with the disguise, and, what sort of awkwardness does it put on the audience? And, what’s the interpretive valence of using costume as disguise versus using costume because now you’re doubling and you’re playing someone else? So she’s interested in the sort of information that costumes are giving and the way that audience would read them. And, again, it’s slightly different from us today, where disguise doesn’t have the same resonance.

KARIM-COOPER: Unless, you’re watching Superman [LAUGHTER]. It’s true, where a pair of glasses can do all the work.

BOGAEV: That’s true, but yeah, the assumptions are different, that’s right, and they are more metaphorical, but also more shocking in a way. I’m also thinking, besides the trap doors and on the stage the greatest effects were storms and, particularly, lightning. So why don’t you just tell us very practically, how did Elizabethan theater companies make that effect? And, what is. . . is it swevel? Sw-ee-vel?

KARIM-COOPER: Swevel [ED: pronounced swivel]

KARIM-COOPER: And squibs. There were all kinds of pyrotechnics that were used in the theaters.

BOGAEV: It’s fireworks terminology, right? Swevel?

STERN: Yeah.

KARIM-COOPER: Yeah, oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

BOGAEV: What is it?

KARIM-COOPER: It’s sort of you would have to have a rope, tied on one side, and then you release a rocket that goes across to the other side and it moves very, very quickly, and it makes a sort of screeching or hissing noise. And, what’s interesting is that Gwilym Jones, who wrote the essay about storms, talks about Shakespeare’s theater, The Globe, as being a kind of new, innovative, technologically-advanced theater space. And, the company wanted to sort of showcase its capacities by staging, in 1599, Julius Caesar, which has quite few requirements for pyrotechnics, including a storm.

What’s really fascinating about that is thinking about the fact that it may be that Shakespeare was the first playwright to have ever staged a storm in such a way. And, I suppose some of the ways that they would do that is you’ve got to create the sound of thunder and you’ve got to create the effect of lightening.

BOGAEV: I’ve seen pictures of this. It’s sometimes in the shape of a dragon.


BOGAEV: Which is a great effect.

KARIM-COOPER: It’s a really great effect, yeah.

BOGAEV: It’s like Disney’s Mulan or something.

STERN: Yeah, and his point is that when, in Julius Caesar, you hear of going “through a tempest dropping fire…” again, it’s a sort of similar point, that one might think that’s sort of fictional, but it has also been factually staged. You have actually just seen this kind of supernatural storm happening on the stage. And, he’s interested to wonder whether that was a particularly Globe thing and whether in the Blackfriars, which was a quieter, enclosed space, whether, in fact, they wouldn’t have gone all out in the firework way in the way that you did at The Globe. So he makes an interesting comparison between tempests taking place supernaturally and probably in a firework way in Julius Caesar and then the quieter, maybe more poetic tempests of the The Tempest, which he sees as not being embellished in quite the same way.

KARIM-COOPER: And, very likely written for the Blackfriars specifically, and so, was very deliberate in the way in which it was sort of staging or representing storm effects, and it may have been the very first storm staged indoors as well.

BOGAEV: So, The Globe, which was outdoors, and Blackfriars was indoors.



BOGAEV: So really you’re accommodating very different settings.


KARIM-COOPER: Yeah, I mean, the two settings are very different. What’s really fascinating is thinking about Shakespeare’s repertory moving from the outdoors to the indoors and what accommodations or adjustments that Shakespeare and his company were making.

BOGAEV: And, are they commercial accommodations?

KARIM-COOPER: Oh, god, they’re always commercial.

BOGAEV: Would you say that?

KARIM-COOPER: They’re always commercial. I mean, you know, they’ve got to make ends meet. I mean, these are guys who were sharers in a company, householders in a playhouse. It was very important to them that their plays were appealing to as wide an audience as possible.

STERN: But, there are practical differences. So when you’ve got a much smaller space that’s quite intimate, that’s indoors, what might be a thrilling, loud noise like a firework going out in the outdoor theater, might actually be deafening, or unpleasant, or downright dangerous, and in fact…

BOGAEV: Impractical.

STERN: Impractical in an indoor, wooden space. You just need to be very, very careful with those things. So almost certainly for an indoor theater, you’re going to use something like a thunder run, which is when you put a cannon ball in a long box.


STERN: A trough and roll it along. And, that makes your sound. And, you can’t really do lightening. And, Gwilym is interested in The Tempest sayings that thunder and lightning is heard rather than seen for that indoor play, and how maybe, therefore, that puts a different pressure on the kinds of words you write for those spaces.

BOGAEV: I was struck though by just how much of a point that essay makes about how special effects were big selling points, as they are now, right? And, there’s that line Casca has during a storm about “never till now, did I go through a tempest dropping fire.” It’s as if Shakespeare’s saying, you know, look what we did!  No one else has ever one this!

KARIM-COOPER: I mean, and, you know, nowadays we can see special effects on our screens and, you know, in our phones, but it was such rare thing, and to produce wonder was probably one of the chief aims of theater-making in this period. Wonder is a very, very important psychological, as well as philosophical, response to theater, an emotional response.

BOGAEV: What about make-up and disguise? How did Elizabethan audiences view the use of paint? You mentioned disguise in terms of people, but before we get to that: scenery. Were a lot of spaces painted, period, in public space? You know, buildings or manor houses or churches?

KARIM-COOPER: No. Well, it depends on how you look at it. I mean, post-Reformation, the churches were white-washed. But it was a very, very painted culture in medieval England. If there was a surface, you painted it. And so, what you see is a kind of surrogacy of paint happening in other kinds of buildings like theaters, like big country homes, where huge amounts of money were spend on paint. And, you know, there is evidence that they painted the theaters, and that they were very keen to upkeep that paint, because it was an important visual component of their theater-making.

BOGAEV: And, what about face paint? How did Shakespearean audiences experience that, in the context of what society thought about cosmetics?

KARIM-COOPER: Well, it depends on how you look at it. What’s interesting is that it was actually a kind of fledgling industry for women in the period and there was a huge outcry against face painting. The main sort of outcry against cosmetics came from a particular segment of society, which was largely puritanical, and, sometimes because of what we get in writing, is the prescriptive discourse; we don’t necessary always see what’s happening in practice. And, actually, there were a lot of recipe manuals being published at the same time.

So, it’s just that face paint was quite common. You would have seen a lot of audience members wearing it, and what was really wonderful about the theater is that actors were donning this face paint quite blatantly and openly, and sort of revaluing it, giving it a kind of currency and an importance, while women in the social sphere were being marked as prostitutes, people trying to trap men with their fake faces, their hypocritical faces. I mean, Andrea Stevens wrote a really wonderful essay in the book about paint as a way of achieving transformation of the body. The body is a kind of, obviously, the actor’s main technology, but things like face paint act as a transformative agent on the stage. And so, paint is used not just in terms of creating femininity, but also it creates blood, ghosts… it was a useful thing for actors.

BOGAEV: Did it also, though, have many layers of meaning? I’m thinking that the Queen wears cosmetics, but respectable women might not, or might be ashamed of it. Or there was a debate about it?

KARIM-COOPER: Yes, it had many layers of meaning. On one level, it’s femininity. On another level, it sort of, I suppose, materializes the cultural anxiety about the discrepancies between appearance and reality, which is something that Shakespeare’s plays are constantly grappling with. Like the theater itself, it was a form of hypocrisy. It was a lie. It was—

STERN: And, that’s what Hamlet says, of course. Hamlet says to Ophelia, “I have heard of your paintings… God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” It was a source of constant fear, but that was actually because it was a constant thing.

KARIM-COOPER: Yes, absolutely.

STERN: I think the terminology of paint is interesting. We now call it make-up, we’ve made it different from the thing you put on houses, but it’s interesting that they are using the same terminology.

KARIM-COOPER: Same materials.

STERN: And, I think it’s the same materials.

KARIM-COOPER: So, yeah, it was a world of paint. It was a world of color.

BOGAEV: And, it was a world of blood, and stage blood. I really like the chapter title, “Enter Bleeding.” [LAUGH]  What did—

STERN: I think that the chapter title is, in fact, “They Eat Each Other’s Arms” [LAUGHTER]. That’s Lucy Munro’s amazing chapter.

KARIM-COOPER: Yeah, the best stage direction in early modern drama.

BOGAEV: And, it’s about stage blood. They eat each other’s arms? Is that the same one?

STERN: Its title is “They Eat Each Other’s Arms: Stage Blood and Body Parts.”

BOGAEV: Oh, right, right, right. Okay, yes.

STERN: But, its title is “They Eat Each Other’s Arms.”

BOGAEV: Well, I love this. I wanna hear about not only prosthetics, but first: stage blood. How much was it used in the theater and how did they make it?

STERN: Well, so Lucy Munro talks marvelously about this and the very different materials you might use for stage blood, which include animal blood, paint, obviously, which Andrew Stevens talks about, vinegar, vermillion, which are used in cosmetics—So there are all kinds of different things that might be used for blood. And, as she points out, you really don’t want your expensive clothes actually getting ruined with actual blood. So she looks at how carefully blood is used. You know, very often, either it’s on the face, or on the arms, kind of cleanable…

KARIM-COOPER: She did quite an amazing survey of stage directions that require blood and that’s where the notion of “Enter Bleeding” comes from, where it would be, as Tiffany said, on your face or on your hands or on a prop of some kind, a handkerchief.

STERN: Yes, you would come on with a bloody handkerchief, or with a bloody shirt or something. But, she’s able to point out how careful the staging is actually, to avoid too much ruination of expensive stuffs just because the bleeding’s taken place. So you might also come on with a limb or, you know, a hand [LAUGHTER]. She’s very interested in those.

BOGAEV: Save us some money.

STERN: —or head. She’s really interested in those, and kind of that hazy line between sort of realism and kind of unbelievable symbolism and kind of fictionality. And, I think maybe this whole book keeps getting at that moment where, as you think you get nearer the thing, you also get further away from the thing.

KARIM-COOPER: It’s sort of Shakespeare constantly asking you to hold two things in your view at the same time, and that’s a really complicated position for the audience.

BOGAEV: She says, in that essay I think, “Stage blood and violence against the human body represent, in vivid theatrical fashion, both the exercise of tyranny and attempts to control or pre-empt it.” And, there she’s referring to the Roman plays, Julius Cesar and Titus Andronicus. So, again, clearly this is really complex, and there are layers of meaning here. But was the motive sensationalism? I mean, selling tickets, like with the flashy storm effects?

KARIM-COOPER: I would say that may be one motive, yeah, I do think in that period that this was something that, like today, people are drawn to. I mean, you know, Game of Thrones has a massive following and it’s not just because of the interesting story lines. You know, there’s quite a huge amount of sensationalism about it. But, the sensationalism has meaning. It isn’t just sensationalism, it is sensation. And, I think that’s the point we were trying to make that these kinds of effects are essential to the meaning of the drama. You can’t stage a cultural aversion or horror to Roman ritual without demonstrating what that is.

STERN: And, of course, then as now, blood means everything that we’re scared of: pain and death. But, it’s also kind of vivid. It’s an amazing prop. It also, you know, flows and it moves if you’re using any kind of liquid. And, we’ve always been compelled by blood, but that doesn’t mean it’s just trivial. It’s a huge symbol of many, many things. And, I think, Lucy is steering clear from saying that it is one thing, but she’s talking about the range of symbol and realism that it simultaneously covers, and the fear and joy the audience simultaneously feel when they see it, then as now.

BOGAEV: It’s also interesting though to place it in the context of the culture. I mean, theater was competing with bear and dog fights, right?

KARIM-COOPER: Blood sports, yes.

STERN: Yes. Yes, in that theater was in direct competition with bear-baiting, which also took place in round, outdoor spaces that looked very much like the round theaters, and cost similar money. Yes, in that it was competing with that, that then makes it interesting when those moments when we think actual animal blood is being brought on the stage. And, that then becomes very interesting because what you’re getting then is the look of blood and the smell…


STERN: —of blood, you know? And, I think, you know, if the audience is being denied the smell of blood and urine and death from the bear-baiting, well, they’re getting it in the theater instead. So they’re getting an equal experience.

BOGAEV: Well, that brings me to your chapter on smells and what the theater smelled like and how, in one case, the smells were part of the effect.

STERN: Yes, that’s Holly Dugan’s amazing chapter, which is on the Hope Theater. That was a unique and very particular theatrical experiment, which ultimately didn’t work. The Hope Theater was a round, outdoor theater that was, when first built, partly a bear-baiting pit and partly a theater for actors. So it divided the week between both. And, what she draws attention to is if you’re a bear-baiting pit, then your place will smell of dead dog, poo… [LAUGH]

KARIM-COOPER: Roast pork.


BOGAEV: My idea of hell [LAUGHTER].

STERN: Yes. And, that’s what your space, anyway, smells of. And so, she is very interested in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, the first play to be put on in that space. This is a play that’s very much about smell. It’s about a fair, and all the good and awful smells you get at the fair, and she is fascinated by the fact that this smelly play takes place in a smelly environment. And, again, she’s intrigued by the interchange between those two. And then, she also wonders when that same play then performed at court, in Whitefriars, what difference will that have made? You know, now it’s in a different smelling environment. How does that affect one’s understanding of that play?

BOGAEV: It’s all a plus, that hell smells like hell and, luckily, it was built on a bear pit. Well, I do think all of this leads up to the $60,000 question, which is what there is to be learned by taking this more nuanced look at theater in this era and the role of senses, what they played in for theater-goers and the actors’ experience?

KARIM-COOPER: Well, yeah, that is the $60 million question. I mean, I suppose it’s, as students of Shakespeare, what we always want to do is get to the bottom of his plays or to find out more, to find out what we didn’t know before. And, if we’re constantly reading the plays just as pieces of literature or pieces of text, then that is really quite limiting, at the end of the day, because they were, obviously, conceived of as much more than that. And so, when you understand the sort of experiential nature of these plays and that the language itself is speaking to that and gesturing to it, actually constantly—the technologies and the sensations of the body are sort of a really key part of Shakespearean imagery—then you get a, I suppose, much more well-rounded conversation with Shakespeare and the theaters of the time.

STERN: Yes, and I suppose what we’re trying to get at is that theater was a full-body experience for the actors and for the audience. It was the words, it was marvelously and fabulously the words, but it was the words and the other senses. It was an all-around, incredible occasion and, I mean, you hear that when people went to the theater, when they left they’d be laughing, they’d be crying, they’d go off and masturbate, you know, they had big emotional responses and, for us, it’s therefore very sad when people get a bit holy about these plays, a bit careful about them, a bit somber about them and lose the kind of feisty, extraordinary physicality.

KARIM-COOPER: The surreality.

STERN: Yes. Yes, which is part of the magic of them.

BOGAEV: That’s exactly it. Reading the book, I was thinking, it brings this alive. You know, so many people have this feeling like, oh, this is this dead thing, or I might have to read it in school. It comes alive when you think of these living, human bodies smelling and yelling things.

KARIM-COOPER: Absolutely. But also, you know, modern theater experience is nothing like this. The modern theater experience is entirely mediated by staging, stage lighting, sometimes microphones. You don’t have that sort of body-to-body connection and you also, most the time, are sitting in the dark. And so, it’s really important to think about Shakespeare’s theater as a space where bodies are kind of pressed together because they would have had quite a lot of contact with each other if you fit 3,000 spectators into a space that’s about 82 – 90 feet in diameter. That’s a mosh pit.

STERN: And, if you think of the theater as a sort of amazing kind of instrument and the people in it, what they’re doing resonates against that painted wooden structure and they’re all part of the weird, magic music that’s being created in that instrument, which consists of actors and audience, and the smell and the look and the everything.

BOGAEV: Well, this has been so much fun. And, I really enjoyed the essays and I really enjoyed talking with you, Tiffany and Farah. Thank you so much.

STERN: Thank you.

KARIM-COOPER: Thank you.

WITMORE: Farah Karim-Cooper is a Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London and Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. Tiffany Stern is Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama with the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. Their book, Shakespeare’s Theatre and the Effects of Performance, was published by Arden Shakespeare in 2013. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“Awake Your Senses” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French and Ben Lauer are the web producers. We had production help from Cathy Devlin and Dom Boucher at the Sound Company in London and Paul Luke and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.