Props Used in Shakespeare's Time

by Alex Saez

William Shakespeare once said that "brevity is the soul of wit." He was stressing the importance of advancing the plot without wasting the audience's time by deviating from the story. The same could be applied to his visuals. Unlike today, Elizabethan theater was not about decorating the stage with as many fancy images and props as possible. Shakespeare's work was complex, but his presentation could not have been simpler.

Showing by Telling

Modern cinema has spoiled audiences with dazzling digital special effects and stunts. Even in live theater, props are used frequently in conjunction with smoke and mirrors. Shakespeare, however, did not have those luxuries. As a result, his work relied heavily on dialogue. Locations and scenes were not illustrated. Instead, characters explained their locations by integrating these details into their lines. In a way, Shakespeare's theater was more like a radio show than a play.


As far as lighting was concerned, the only spotlight that Shakespeare had was the sun. Due to this limitation, his shows were done outside in broad daylight. Naturally, this made it problematic when illustrating transitions between night and day. Shakespeare came up with a simple solution. Night scenes were indicated by lit candles and torches.

Items and Weapons

During his early days, Shakespeare favored small props because of their versatility. They were easy to move and did not clutter up the stage. Plates, cups, flowers and containers were a few small items that he relied on to liven up the scenery. Later, larger objects were brought in, but he used them sparingly. Big props were left in place, even if they were no longer part of the scene. With this in mind, he ensured they did not obstruct the actors in any way. Many of Shakespeare's plays, such as "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," involved violence. Actors were often pitted against each other in battle, so weapons were essential. Swords, daggers and armor were all used in these fighting scenes.


Costumes are important in all theater, but for Shakespeare, their use was essential to indicate his characters. In a time when women were not allowed to act, prepubescent boys were used instead. Much like torches were used to illustrate night, young male actors wore female garments to illustrate their gender.

About the Author

Alex Saez is a writer who draws much of his information from his professional and academic experience. Saez holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Queen's University and an advanced diploma in business administration, with a focus on human resources, from St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.

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