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Welcome to Episode #97 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Ben Jonson staged a masque at court called The Fortunate Isles which begins with a spirit descending onto the audience, featuring a floating island so elaborately constructed that England’s premiere architectural professional, Inigo Jones, who is the designer behind Whitehall Palace, Banqueting House, and Covent Garden square, was hired to construct an apparatus specifically for this performance. While records do not detail the construction of this magical floating island, we know from various accounts it was impressive in its scope and execution. So, What does this mean about William Shakespeare? We know from Shakespeare’s plays that the bard includes very similar items in his plays as well. From magical floating islands and gods riding on dolphins in plays like Twelfth Night to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, where there is a stage direction that almost mirrors what we know happened in Jonson’s masque, when the text says “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle” When these fantastic elements are used in the text, does that mean Shakespeare could have had an architectural designer build an elaborate floating island, or a descending eagle befitted with thunder and lighting inside The Globe theater?

Traditional theater research into Elizabethan staging suggests that the set and scenery for this play would have been so sparse that the production relied on the strength of the dialogue to convey the elaborate and fantastic parts of the story, but if that is the case, why did Shakespeare map out Jupiter’s descent in the stage directions with such precision? Could Shakespeare have used elaborate props and circus-like movable scenery? Our guest, Dr. Michael Hirrel believes, the answer is yes.

Join the conversation below.

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Mike Hirrel is a lawyer who did commercial litigation, mainly concerning the telecommunications industry, for 40 years.  He’s retired now, although he does still take on pro bono cases that concern environmental protection. But mainly now he’s doing Shakespeare scholarship, something he’s done at least part time his whole career.  He’s interested in the literary and early stage history of Elizabethan period plays. He has written scholarly articles for journals such as Shakespeare Quarterly, Review of English Studies and Huntington Library Quarterly, plus a Chapter in the book, Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England.  He has spoken at several scholarly conferences. And he’s finishing a book about the lost predecessor play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Learn more about Mike at his website,

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Mike Hirrel about :

  • What was it about the actor, Edward Alleyn, who played Faustus in the play Dr Faustus that made you believe the reference to “Hell’s Mouth” found in Henslowe’s diary had to have been a large opening on stage?
  • Mike, was there a difference among the level of elaborate props that varied depending on the income from various patrons, or were all Elizabethan theaters using elaborate scenery?
  •  Why do we accept that masques were known to be elaborate, even hiring professional architectural designers like Inigo Jones to accomplish feats of great magnitude during performance, while theaters were assumed to have nothing but the power of dialogue to convey their story? 
  • … and more!
When my good stars, that were my former guides,
Have empty left their orbs, and shot their fires
Into the abysm of hell.

Antony and Cleopatra (III.13)

Title page of a late edition of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with a woodcut illustration of a devil coming up through a trapdoor. Illustration by John Wright, dated 1620. Source

Dr. Faustus and Hell’s Mouth

Michael’s latest research compiles strong evidence to suggest that we may be wrong in assuming Shakespeare’s plays were sparse in their set design, and that instead, they may have been quite technically impressive in the execution of elaborate staging, props, and scenery. Records from Henslowe’s diary indicate “a dragon” and “hell’s mouth” along with a tomb, and the entire “City of Rome” were constructed on stage with enough substance that Henslowe included it as an item in his records of theater inventory. We are delighted to have Mike with us today to share with us what these records, and others, reveal about how Shakespeare might have executed his set designs as well.

Mike points out the trap door (as shown in the woodcut illustration above) saying,

At the end of Faustus, the devils drag Faustus down into hell and Faustus shouts out in horror, and they drag him down (based on the deal he made) and the inventory lists a Hell’s Mouth, and presumably this was over the trap door in the theater. 

Mike points to the research done at Dulwich College into the life of Edward Alleyn as one piece of evidence regarding the use of the trap door. After analyzing Alleyn’s portrait, it was concluded that Alleyn was unusually tall for the early modern period. Accommodating for Alleyn’s stature on stage is one reason historians and scholars believe the props and things like trap doors would have needed to be more complicated than at first assumed, for strictly practical reasons.

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Come on, then; horse and chariots let us have,
And to our sport.

Titus Andronicus (II.2)

“Phaeton Asking for the Chariot” Hendrik Goltzius (after) (Holland, Mülbracht, 1558-1617), Hendrik Goltzius (Holland, Mülbracht [now Bracht-am-Niederrhein], 1558-1617). Holland, published 1590 inside Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book II, plate 1, title page, Prints; engravings, Graphic Arts Council Curatorial Discretionary Fund (M.71.76.1). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Phaeton’s Chariot

In his research, Mike calls attention to the dragon-chariot in Dr. Faustus, as well as the reference to “Phaeton’s chariot” from Henlowe’s diary, saying they were “presumably…rigged to fly over the stage” 

Moving side to side while in the air over the stage might have been hard to accomplish, but when analyzing the text of Dr. Faustus, you can see that the actors are supposed to fly over Rome and Italy more generally before they finall land. 

So how did they accomplish this flight on stage? The purist artistic way would have been to simply describe the flying, with actors pretending to be taking flight without ever leaving the stage. However, Mike suggests there is evidence to be found in Henslowe’s diary to indicate the depictions of this scene were much more elaborate than just pretending.

Henslowe specificalyl lists “Chain of dragons” in his inventory. Combined with the text of the play itself which calls for “up by dragon’s necks” and “riding on the back of a dragon” suggests to Mike that even if the suspended chariot was not actually flying in motion from one side of the stage to the other, that it is enough evidence to suspect it was indeed suspended over the stage during performance. 

The idea of suspending something over the stage is not too far fetched, either, as the London playhouses were known to be equipped with the neccessary acoutrements to raise and lower objects, including people, to and from the stage floor. As an example, in Cymbeline Jupiter is lowered down from the Heavens, with actual fireworks, and every indication is that Jupiter is riding an eagle in that moment.

Jupiter descending physically within the playhouse is further supported by the fact that Shakespeare was not the only early modern playwright using these techniques. Near to the same year Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, Haywood publishes Golden Age in which Jupiter is going up to Heaven. This production was done by Queen Anne’s Men at the Red Bull Theater. We know that the Rose Theater, the Red Bull Theater, and The Globe had the capability mechanically to pull off this kind of stunt. They had a wench in the upper house that would allow them to ratchet down a chariot, Jupiter on an eagle, or thrones containing actors. This was a relatively well practiced event, since as Mike points out, they “Wouldn’t risk breaking burbage’s neck….” So they must have been pretty sure of their mechanics. 

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


now this masque
Was cried incomparable; and the ensuing night
Made it a fool and beggar.

Duke of Norfolk

Henry VIII (I.1)

Scene of Witches, from “The Masque of Queens” by Ben Jonson. circa 1785 by Henry Feusili (1741-1825). Source

Masques vs Plays

When a playwright or poet was staging a masque, the decorations and stage props used in that performance would have been considered a one time creation. The items used during a masque were never designed to have utility in the future. However, for a playing company who was staging performance daily, any of their sets or props were required to be useful more than once. Not only would staging the same play over and over require the reuse of the scenery, but the sheer frequency with which they staged productions made reusing the sceneries across multiple plays highly practical. Mike points out,

“For an acting company, if they went to the trouble to built an elaborate proiperty, they did it assuming it needed to be used in another play later. So much so, that other playwrights would write plays specifically to include that property later.” 

While original practice techniques tend to assume that props are quite simplistic with a promotion of the “bare bones” mentality, Mike’s evidence suggests that this assumption simply is not accurate. 

That conclusion is largely based on the fact that plays changed frequently, with daily performances, and that the staged production was 2 hours long. Mike has done research, published in the 2010 Shakespeare Quarterly, that shows the productions could be as long as 3 hours or even more. So, Mike suggests, it’s not as easy to assume they did not have time to perform these grand feats on the stage. 

Mike concedes that raising and lowering of props, and having chariots fly across the stage, is limited by location. Plays performed in the playhouses did things much differently than a play being staged on tour, or in a Guildhall, for example. As the staging effects would be modified to accomodate the location where the production was being held, so the properties being used in each case could also have varied even with the same play.

 Since the dialogue is elaborate enough to imagine the properties of scenery, some scholars conclude that they were not physically on stage but instead conjured in the minds of the audience through the eloquence of the words being spoken. Mike’s opinion on this conundrum is that it is not a conundrum at all, but instead, that the elaborate dialogue allowed the same play to be performed in a variety of venues, both where the physical staging could be accomplished as in The Globe or Rose theater, but that same play was immediately made portable by the language to be performed with the same resonance in an environment like touring the country, where elaborate scenery was not available, nor practical. 

Find out more facts about Shakespeare’s Special Effects at The Globe theater inside this free guide.

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[Enter CALIBAN with a burden of wood. A noise of]
thunder heard]
(Stage Directions)

Tempest (II.2)

The Old Vic Theater resurrected their original “Thunder run” for their 250th anniversary. You can watch them use it, and hear what the thunder sounds like inside the theater, in the video above. Shakespeare would have had a similar construction inside The Globe theater, with much a similar sound. Source

Thunder Machines and Sound Effects

The Globe theater specifically used a thunder machines constructed in the upper levels of the playhouse to create fake-thunder for various productions. We cover several special effects used at The Globe inside our Did Shakespeare Use Special Effects episode on YouTube.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest when the stage directions call for thunder to be heard, it is presumed that the Thunder Machine in the heavens of The Globe was responsible for producing that noise for the production.

As Mike shares with us, The Tempest also calls for ligthening, which would have been accomplished through live fireworks. The sailors refer to the howling wind, which indicates some system for producing not only wind, but the sounds of a howling wind, was capable of being produced on stage. It is likely that the playhouses of early modern London were also equipped with the ability to create the sound of ocean waves as well (Do you think they may have thrown buckets of water at the audience to bring realism to the occasion? I’d like to think so). Doing all the sounds and effects of thunder, lightening, wind, and waves would create quite a realistic thunderstorm on stage. 

Books & Resources Mike Hirrel recommends:


Mike recommends Walter Gregg’s annotated version of Henslowe’s diary as part of his visit to the studio this week, but I was unable to find a physical copy of that book available online. I was able to locate this digital version of the full text available for free.

You can read that copy here.

Find out more facts about Shakespeare’s Special Effects at The Globe theater inside this free guide.

Signing up here gets you access to our email community
which unlocks special bonuses, free historical illustrations monthly, and updates about what’s new every Monday.

Using this form tells us where to send the free guide to special effects and signs you up for our weekly email newsletter. You can unsubscribe at anytime and keep the gift for free. If you want the guide, but do not want to join the newsletter, you can purchase this guide in our $3 guides section of the shop here.

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