Special Effects in the Theater During the Elizabethan Era

by Michael Belcher Google
A reproduction of The Globe is on the bank of the River Thames.

A reproduction of The Globe is on the bank of the River Thames.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Stage plays, and the theater, became an incredibly popular form of entertainment during the Elizabethan era. With more money to work with, the art of stage production radically changed. Stage engineers could create larger sets and use a variety of materials and tricks to produce effects. Many plays were performed in makeshift theaters by traveling troupes, but some purpose-built theaters, such as The Globe and the Blackfriars Playhouse, featured state-of-the-art special effects.

Trapdoors from Hell

Trapdoors were built into the floor of the stage to allow actors to make dramatic entrances. The area below the stage was called Hell. It also could be used by musicians, or as a place for actors to change out props in the middle of a scene. The stage was usually 4 to 6 feet off the ground, leaving plenty of space for actors, musicians, and props.

Hoists to the Heavens

The false ceiling above the stage was called The Heavens. It was usually painted to fit the current play. The paint hid several trapdoors built into the ceiling, which in turn hid hoists and pulleys that could lower and lift backdrops, props, or actors for entrances and exits.

Sound Effects

The theaters used sound effects to add realism to the productions. A small cannon was usually kept on the roof or in The Heavens, and it was set off to herald the start of important acts, particularly before battles in historical plays. Similarly, fireworks were used onstage to recreate the noise of battles. Large, flimsy metal sheets or small rolling cannonballs were used to create the sound of thunder.


Music played an important part in the theater. Larger theaters would have a composer to create music to fit the mood of the play, and the musicians usually had a special balcony box. Trumpets would be used to herald royal entrances, drums would play a marching beat during battles, and cymbals and bells would create the sounds of thunder and rain.

Blood Effects

Small special effects were used to add believability to a play. In many of the historical and dramatic plays of the time, characters were wounded or killed. A handkerchief soaked in animal blood could signify a death. In larger productions, a sheep or oxen bladder would be filled with blood and strapped under the actor's clothing. When it was hit with a stage knife or sword, the bursting bladder would add a large amount of gore to a death or a battle scene.

About the Author

Michael Belcher has been a public relations professional since 2008 working for university groups and volunteer groups. He has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Murray State University and is in Dublin, Ireland to finish a Master of Science in mass communications.

Photo Credits

  • Bruce Bennett/Getty Images News/Getty Images