The “Heavens”: Elizabethan Superstition and Theater

One cannot miss the “Heavens” of the stage when visiting the Globe. With the bright colors of the paintings and structural resemblance to typical Asian temples, they immediately caught my attention after we entered the yard.  However, my interest in them was actually furthered when the tour guide mentioned that they used to relate to Elizabethan superstitions, and there is also a counterpart, the “Hell”, beneath the stage. The idea of superstition fascinated me, as I had never connected it with theatrical performance or the effects it might have on-stage.

Let’s turn back to the “Heavens”. I feel the name the “Heavens” itself is superstitious—or else it could be simply called the roof. Moreover, they were (are) painted with the sun, the moon and the zodiac on an azure background. The Globe was (is) a theater, not a cosmology or astrology museum, but those celestial objects were (are) there. They bring the stage a mythological ambiance, as if it had been a miniature of the world, and every “show” carried out under heaven could be seen there. We cannot confirm James Burbage, the builder, or Shakespeare, or any specific Elizabethan theatergoer was superstitious, but it is certain that superstitions were prevalent in Elizabethan era, and that they affected the theater as well as the plays.

It is not uncommon to see supernatural characters in Shakespearean masterpieces. Although we do not know if Shakespeare intentionally added the superstitious elements to his plays, they seem be able to reinforce the theatrical effect, making the plays more dramatic, convincing, and fascinating. For instance, the rehearsal of Richard III we saw on the 12th presented five ghosts, Richard’s unlucky victims, haunting and cursing the king to “despair and die”.  While this scene is in fact unrelated to Richard’s tragic ending in a historian’s perspective, it undoubtedly increases the tension of the play and provides a fatalistic explanation to Richard’s loss at the battle of Bosworth Field. The ghosts’ curses (rather than Richard’s factual deficiency) make the King’s death seem destined–it is likely to evoke a strong feeling among the audience that this tyrant should eventually get his comeuppance. Contemporary theatergoers and Shakespeare readers may no longer believe the existence of ghosts; however, they may still share a fatalistic feeling at this point, instead of casting doubt on the credibility of these imagined characters and hence the reason for the end of Richard.

During Elizabethan era, when society was clouded with a more superstitious air, the audience might be more affected by these dramatic supernatural elements on the stage. For superstitious Elizabethans, supernatural characters could give them a chance to see what they believed to exist but had never seen, which they knew was pretend but nevertheless exciting. Besides, as a result of a less refined judicial system, the superstitions in the plays could also serve as an unusual way to realize justice. While the ghosts in Richard III could be seen as playing prophetic roles in the performance of justice, the ghost of the former king in Hamlet, disclosing the heinous murder, is definitely the cause of the entire revenge (realization of justice) in the play. This subjective confidence in justice brought an idealistic world on the stage, allowing the audience to temporarily stay away from the relatively unjust reality and hence be comforted.

Superstition in theater might also serve to stress social hierarchy, order and other ends, but by all standards it is a part of human nature. I have found an anonymous quotation appears frequently online when superstition is discussed:

“The true origin of superstition is to be found in early man’s effort to explain Nature and his own existence; in the desire to propitiate Fate and invite Fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he could not understand and in the unavoidable attempt to pry into the future.”

We may not be able to find an exact match for every above intention of superstition in Shakespeare’s works. However, the superstitious factors in the plays, in addition to its contribution in theatrical terms, also tactfully reveal human nature both on and off the stage. Today, I think the “Heavens” and the ‘Hell” in the Globe still make people reflect on their own beliefs, which can also lead to introspection and accordingly to a better understanding of the world around.

–Estelle Mi

One thought on “The “Heavens”: Elizabethan Superstition and Theater

  1. Excellent reflections on the material Heavens as found in the Globe building and how they may draw our attention to important themes and ideas in the plays and in Elizabethan society and culture–and how those Heavens may be both strange and familiar to us now. Did you notice the Heavens at all during the production of Henry V–which, after all, refers a great deal to God as a force in the world? (I confess that I didn’t explicitly notice them–and didn’t notice the performers in any way guiding our attention to them.)

    Great work also in capturing–and interpreting–that moment of rehearsal of Richard III that we got to see during our tour!

    AK

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