Shakespeare knew how hard it was to stage large scale convincing battles with a limited number of actors. He had a very good solution to this which he often but not always employed. He put the battle off stage and the audience became party only to the observations of those on the edges. Messengers going to the battle with news or exhausted bloodied soldiers leaving the battle with news. Giving the audience the impression that a huge war was going on just off stage was far easier than bringing that war onto the stage. But even this presented its own challenges.
To create the effect of warfare the theatre used a firing rack (pictured) to give the sound of cannon fire just outside the theatre. By packing firing rigs with black powder and wadding a good explosion could be created with little danger. This sound effect was also used to create a sense of ceremony for the entrance of kings and queens. And effective as it was it was also just a little dangerous. It was during one production of Henry VIII as the entrance of the king was signalled with appropriate drama that the globe theatre was burnt down. Here is an eye witness account by Sir Henry Wotton – July 2, 1613
“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”
Theatre today is rather less dangerous – but you might like to consider the alternative uses for your bottled water next time you are watching a history play!