How did they (Create a siege) in Henry VI?

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If you know even a little about Shakespeare’s theatre you will probably imagine it as very bare, they did not have painted backdrops or elaborate scenery. For this reason you may find it hard to picture more dramatic moments as they may have looked in the theatre spaces Shakespeare knew. Henry VI was probably first performed at the Rose theatre and later performed at the Globe. The Rose theatre had a rather small stage space compared to the Globe theatre so it is perhaps possible to picture the drama of battle’s made real with a limited number of actors crowed onto a small space. And yet in writing the play’s Shakespeare does not limit himself to hand to hand combat or off stage battles. In fact during the Henry VI trilogy he brings not just a battle but a whole siege on to the stage.


Stage set for siege by Ian Dickinson

Illustration by Ian Dickinson

Here you see the stage set as it might have been for the siege of Orleans. This drawing is closer to the set up at the Globe than the Rose theatre but gives an idea of the effects possible with what are in fact limited props. Shakespeare’s play is recreated here with nothing more than good use of balcony spaces and a few ladders. Populate it with some 15 actors, some above, some below and you begin to get a sense of the drama possible. Now add some sounds of battle (more on this in another blog) and I think it could be pretty effective.

It is interesting to consider how staging traditions have changed over the years – whilst you may now see this scene on quite a bare stage – not unlike it was for Shakespeare’s audience in the Victorian period stage sets and backdrops for this siege were praised for being so realistic they made the audience gasp with the wonder of it and it was impossible to tell where the stage ended and the backdrop began. But would that have made the drama any more thrilling?

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Alan Butland

    In interesting article Ian, but surely it wouldn’t have been necessary to build the ‘toy fort’ staging?  The ladders would have sufficed for the siege. And the toy fort setting (f you’ll excuse the expression) would have been an encumbrance to achieving swift changes from scene to scene.
    Come the Victorian era though, as you say, it was all different with the pictorial approach to staging, assisted by the armies of stage carpenters and painters.

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