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Scholars of Elizabethan theatre agree that the stage in Elizabethan playhouses could have a trap door, for example in the Globe Theatre (built in 1699) and the Red Lion. In his study Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale (Penguin, 1988), Christopher Hardman writes (page 95, emphases added):

The stage dimensions are calculated to be forty-three feet wide by approximately twenty-seven feet from back to front, on the evidence of the Fortune, and there was a trap in the stage certainly big enough for two men to go through at the same time.

Hardman does not cite a source for the dimensions of the trap and I could not find any mentions of the width in sources such as Shakespeare Survey 52: Shakespeare and the Globe, Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance by Michael Hattaway or Shakespearean Entrances by M. Ichikawa.

I assume the claim about the width of the trap door would be based either on stage directions that require two persons to disappear simultaneously or descriptions by contemporaries. What is the evidence that would support Christopher Hardman's claim?

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This paper by Andrew J. Power gives a fairly comprehensive use of trapdoors in the Shakespearean era. It's worth noting that the trap would be used any time there is a need for a depression in the stage, so it was almost certainly used for, e.g., the graveyard scene in Hamlet V.i which was big enough to hold the two actors playing the gravediggers.

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  • Could you please add what that paper says about the width of the trap door?
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 31 '20 at 20:27
  • I didn't see any specific mention of the size, but the fact that the trapdoor would have been used for the graveyard scene which has Hamlet and Laertes jump in the grave would provide support for a trap big enough for two men to go through it at the same time. Aug 31 '20 at 20:41
  • How do we know that the trapdoor was used for the graveyard scene? How would the groundlings have been able to see Hamlet and Laertes in that case?
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 1 '20 at 0:19
  • The case for the trapdoor being used for the grave is circumstantial, I think. That said, when I saw Hamlet performed by the Wisdom Bridge Theater in 1986, they did indeed use a trap to enable the characters in the grave to be below the main stage level. There was a platform below stage so they were perhaps three feet below grave level but easily visible from the floor seats of the auditorium. I imagine it would have been something similar in the Globe Theatre. Sep 1 '20 at 2:32

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