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Severed heads on the Elizabethan stage

On Tower Hill, 25 February 1601, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, was beheaded with three blows of an axe before some 150 spectators. The headsman held the head up for the spectators to see. He called out, “God save the Queen.” This beheading and others of that time color an important question for Shakespeare scholars. Severed heads populate many Elizabethan period plays. What objects represented those heads on stage? Elizabethan acting companies did, as we know from the records of theatre owner Philip Henslowe, employ realistic stage properties. But all stage performances require audience imagination. So might the heads have been pumpkins or were they in fact realistic representations of the actors themselves?

As Essex illustrates, many spectators at Elizabethan plays had seen actual severed heads. Beheadings were surprisingly frequent. They followed when a person was convicted of treason, a crime quite broadly defined back then. Like Essex, nobles and royals usually were executed by beheading. Those executions were witnessed only by courtiers and nobles. But commoners, who often patronized plays vicariously to experience the lives of their betters, surely expected to see something akin to what the spectators saw at Essex’s execution.

A more gruesome fate awaited commoners convicted of treason. They usually were hung until almost unconscious, then were removed and sliced open. While they writhed, their entrails were extracted and fed to a fire. Their private members and heads were cut off, and their bodies quartered. The heads probably were, as they were in later generations, held up for spectators to see. These executions were public spectacles. Rodrigo Lopez, the Queen’s physician accused of conspiring to poison her, was executed in this fashion in 1594 amidst a large crowd’s jeering derision. The cut-off heads were later set on pikes and placed atop the Southwark gate of London Bridge, with more than thirty reported there in 1598.

For an audience accustomed to seeing real severed heads, the acting company surely did not trot out the same tired object to represent all four heads.

Many Elizabethan plays contain correspondingly lurid episodes. The bloody mayhem in Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus is difficult to track. The second part of his Henry VI features no fewer than four severed heads. The Duke of Suffolk is beheaded by pirates. Jack Cade and his know-nothing rebels behead Lord Saye primarily because he has promoted literacy. For good measure, they also behead Saye’s son-in-law, Sir James Crowmer. The heads of Saye and Crowmer are mounted on poles and made to kiss each other. Ultimately, Cade’s own head is severed and taken to the King.

The multiplicity of severed heads in 2 Henry VI suggests that the heads shown on stage actually resembled those of the actors in character. For an audience accustomed to seeing real severed heads, the acting company surely did not trot out the same tired object to represent all four heads. They couldn’t in the case of Saye and Crowmer, whose heads must appear on stage at the same time. And Queen Margaret grieves over the head of her deceased lover, Suffolk, but the head isn’t orally identified. The audience must have been puzzled if she were grieving over some unrecognisable object.

Portrait of Edward Alleyn, British actor, 1626. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Edward Alleyn, British actor, 1626. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The same conclusion follows from many more plays. The living head of Macbeth occupies most of that character’s eponymous play. When, at the end, Macduff brings out the “usurper’s cursèd head,” did he bring out an unidentifiable object? Lady Jane Grey is beheaded at the end of Thomas Dekker’s Sir Thomas Wyatt and the headman enters “with Jane’s head.” Was it the same object used to represent male heads? In the lost play Tamar Cham, the severed heads of three rebellious lords were brought on sequentially, all three on stage at the scene’s end. Were they three indistinguishable objects?

These questions reach an apex when we consider George Peele’s 1588 play, The Battle of Alcazar. The villain-hero of Alcazar is Mahamet. The play was performed in the 1590s by the Lord Admiral’s Company. They had in storage in 1599, according to Henslowe’s records, an “old Mahamet’s head.” The head was an old one, probably, not because Mahamet was elderly, but because it had been replaced by a new one. The role of Mahamet was usually performed by the famous Lord Admiral’s actor, Edward Alleyn, but in 1599 he had temporarily retired from acting. The old head, we may deduce, resembled that of Alleyn in the character of Mahamet. Its replacement resembled that of a new actor performing the same role.

In Alcazar, Peele employs a foreshadowing device separate from the play’s main action. Four of the play’s leading characters, Mahamet among them, enter to witness a pageant. All four will be dead at the end. The figure of Death presents the pageant, which culminates when a Fury enters bearing “dead men’s heads in dishes.” A coup de théâtre indeed if the heads resembled those of the actors performing the roles of their soon-to-be-deceased characters. The actors in character were looking at their own heads.

Image Credit: “London Bridge (1616)” by Claes Van Visscher. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Harold Smith

    Was the pumpkin, a North American native, in common cultivation and knowledge in Shakespeare’s time in England? OED implies L17th.

  2. Fearghal Mac Lochlainn

    Hi Michael
    Are you related to the Hirrell family from Donegal Ireland.

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