My initial interest in historical environments of light was sparked when I read Love’s Labour’s Lost for the first time a few years ago and was intrigued by the line: “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile” (1.1.77). Here, light not only represents both sight and knowledge, but displays early modern theories of vision (in which sight was thought to be the result of light rays emitted from the eye). This line got me thinking: what exactly did “light” mean for Shakespeare? What I understand as “light” comes from a world of street-lighting, and a host of electric and convenient artificial lighting sources. Yet for Shakespeare, light was simply daylight and flames. Before I knew it, I was counting candles and looking at 16th- and 17th-century window glass.

Unlike many of the things that have become of the object of studies into Shakespeare’s world, light is not simply a material or an object of perception. Rather, light, like sound, is a medium of perception. This distinction is crucial. Light is not something that we see, but something that enables us to see. What I see (and fail to see) is dependent not only on the light waves that hit my retina, but on my very existence at that particular moment. That is, it is exactly how I am in light that determines what I see. The same was true for Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The fact that early modern people were regularly in a different light to their modern counterparts, particularly at night, raises fundamental questions for theatre historians. How did the ways in which people saw in light on a daily basis in the early modern period affect how they saw in the theatre? Taking this into consideration, how did the shift from the daylight of the outdoor playhouse to the confluence of daylight and candlelight of the indoor playhouses affect theatrical experience, particularly of plays performed at both venues? Ultimately, how do theatre reconstructions, such as the Globe and Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, attempt to bridge the gap between the experience of light then and now? Over the course of this blog series I want to use my experiences here at Shakespeare’s Globe to explore some of these questions, both from an historical and contemporary perspective.

Neil is a PhD researcher at the University of Otago (Prof. Evelyn Tribble), co-supervised by Shakespeare’s Globe (Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper). He will be at Shakespeare’s Globe for six months working primarily on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.