Around a month ago, I read reviews of several new books on Shakespeare, and decided to read David Bevington's new book This Wide and Universal Theater. I've now obtained it, and I'm in the middle -- and finding it better than I even expected.
The author has one chapter comparing how Shakespeare's own company (and contemporaries) presented battle scenes, and how they have been presented more recently. This is really fascinating.
All of Shakespeare's nine history plays and several of his tragedies "stage military confrontations, more often than not as the climax of the play's dramatic action," writes Bevington -- in fact, the importance of war was a true reflection of the reality of history during the depicted era of Henry IV onward, and continued into Shakespeare's own time. (p. 74)
"Siege warfare is a staple of the dramatic presentation of war in Shakespeare's theater," he writes. In addition, Shakespeare often depicted an open battlefield. Both of these types of warfare received conventional depiction in Shakespeare's time, and were "strikingly different from the conventions of stage fighting with which modern audiences are familiar." (p. 74-75)
The back wall of Shakespearian stages included doors, a curtained recess, and a higher-up area. This served for presentation of the battlements or gates to a besieged city. Bevington repeatedly points out that the stage was not set up in any special way, either as a gated city, a balconied mansion, or other architectural element: rather, a character voiced the descriptive detail, setting up the viewers' imagination to see the scene as Shakespeare wanted it seen. In producing battles, Shakespeare placed a variety of statements in his characters' mouths to clue the audience in to what they should imagine the stage to represent.
By describing what can be known of 16th and 17th century performances and contrasting them with the visual details of modern stage productions and films, the author clarifies how our theater experience differs from the original (though he constantly reiterates that he doesn't mean to criticize modern choices at all, just elucidate them). Modern stage conventions, he explains, use "armed men in one-on-one combat, parrying each other's swords and timing their choreographed blows so that the actors will not get hurt.... Today's theater fighting is neither modern warfare nor Elizabethan siege warfare; it is an understood theatrical convention about the way Elizabethan warfare is 'supposed' to look on the modern stage." (p. 82)
The history plays recieve much other discussion on other topics; I found the comparison of war-presentation and attitudes especially interesting.