The Meaning of <em>Thunder and Lightning</em>: Stage Directions and Audience Expectations


  • Leslie Thomson University of Toronto



The focus of this study is 'thunder and lightning', a stage direction used regularly by early modern playwrights and bookkeepers, which highlights several important issues related to the original performance and reception of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. More particularly, the argument of this paper is that the original purpose of these directions in a playtext was essentially practical: 'thunder and lightning' was the conventional stage language for the production of effects in or from the tiring house that would establish or confirm a specifically supernatural context in the minds of the audience. This approach necessarily requires acknowledgement of an implicit contrast between modern attitudes to the supernatural and the perceptions and expectations of early modern spectators: to generalize, most of us do not believe and most of them did. An awareness of that audience's different conception is therefore useful when considering stage directions that call for effects consistently linked to the supernatural. The related issues of audience expectation, theatrical practice, and thematic implication are thus concerns in the article.