The Elizabethan at the public playhouse (1575-1616)
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Little has been written about this phase of stage history, however, the topic is an important one, for the audience played an important part in determining the content, technique, and theme of not only, Shakespeare's works but, those of his contemporaries as well. A knowledge of the people who attended Shakespeare's plays, sheds light upon vital questions of staging and interpretation of his plays. The plan of this paper is to approach the subject from three points of view: first, the relation between the audience and the playhouse; second, the audience, itself, and finally the relation between spectator and writer, actor and stage manager. The first, discusses the playhouse, dealing with aspects such as admission, refreshment, the jig, and so on, in the order in which they would be encountered by the playgoer, and concludes with a discussion of Elizabethan behavior at the play. The second portion permits a closer examination of the audience, itself. The predominance of the middle class, both in civic life and at the theatre, has been brought out. The kind of person who attended the play, the student, the apprentice and the others; and the evidence, both for and against, the presence of women at the theatre are discussed. The "type" characters who attended the theatre, as Elizabethan satirists saw them are reviewed, although the actual light they cast on the nature of the audience is slight. As Harboge reminds us, the audience is never a composite of caricatures but a cross-section of society in general. The final portion of the paper deals with Elizabethan tastes and preferences in regard to plays, dramatists, actors, and stage business. Elizabethan delight in the sensational is discussed, as well as realism in the Elizabethan theatre. By way of conclusion, a discussion of the attitude of the playwrights, first, Shakespeare, and then his contemporaries, towards the audience for whom they wrote is initiated. We are surprised to learn that even in this early period in theatrical history some attempts of advertising existed. An early form of the playbill is known to be in use; the playhouse flag flew from the tiring house tower on paydays, and possibly, the actors themselves may have gone through the town, assembling a crowd with drum and trumpet and then reading an announcement of their play. The scale of admission varied, but translated into present day values, seems fairly comparable to the admission paid to attend a motion picture house. The percentage of the total population who attended the theatre is surprisingly small. It has been estimated that about two from every fifteen persons were spectators. The reasons for this small percentage were numerous. The size of the audience is a controversial question. Best scholarly evidence places the average attendance at an average sized theatre, as the Rose, between 1,054 and 1,557 persons, and the weekly total for the city of London at about 15,000 perpons. The performance, itself, was far different from anything we might encounter in this present day. The behavior of the audience would seem odd; the facilities of the theatre most uncomfortable; and the vigorous reactions of the spectators most alarming, when we come to express an critical opinion on the behavior of the audience, it is difficult to tell in what degree they are to be censured in this rerpect. However, if we linger too long on this point, we are apt to give it undue stress. We are so indebted to the age for the great literary land marks left us in the form of Shakespeare's plays that the behavior of the spectators seems relatively unimportant. The bulk of London's population was tradesmen, and craftsmen, attracted there by the business opportunities stimulated by the presence of the court. The middle class predominated at the theatre as well, a large percentage of the audience were apprentices and students. There were few women at the play, contemporary satirists have left pen sketches of characters as the gull, the traveller, the dandy, and the gallant, all familiar figures at the theatre. Many contemporary references to the behavior of the apprentices exist. Beaumont gives us a picture of the citizen, his wife, and his apprentice in "The Knight of the Burning Pestle". The audience was a colorful group of people, reflecting the likes and dislikes of middle class society in Elizabethan England. Historical plays of all kinds were favorites of the Elizabethans. The chronicle play, citing the history of England's kings, appealed to their patriotism and pride in country. Plays of action and knightly adventure pleased them end tragedies, the more violent, the better, attracted many auditors to the playhouse. sensationalism on the stage, representations of murders, executions, add similar displays which would find little popularity in modern days...were relished. Most popular of all were plays glorifying the artisan and apprentice as "The Life and Death of Jack Straw." Satires, particularly when middle class ideals and practices were the victim, were very unpopular. This explains Jonson's unpopularity except in those instances where he is careful to satirize traits or characteristics of mankind in general. The plays "Volpone" and the "Alchemist" were successful, and his "Bartholomew Pair" an example of a deliberate attempt to give the audience what they want, with very successful results, although his contempt for his audience is very thinly veiled in the prologue of the latter. Shakespeare was popular with all classes. Dekker and Reywood, were proponents of the middle class, particularly, Reywood. His plays are filled with bits of philosophy, characteristic of the middle class, and reveal a keen insight and understanding of them. It is easy to see why the "Knight of the Burning Pestle" of Beaumont, would not appeal to the audience of the public playhouse. Middleton and Brome were not able to interest middle class spectators. Middleton's "Michaelmas Term" is typical of the sharp and biting satire which proved so unpopular. Ryd's "Spanish Tragedy" remained a favorite well towards the close of this period, and the plays of Marlowe with his "mighty line" and his magnificent hero-villains, as in "Tambuerlaine" were equally favored. On the whole, the playwright maintained a kindly attitude towards his audience as long as his plays were received favorably. It is only when he is embittered by past failures, or the failure of the work of a fellow dramatist, that we read satirical comments on the inability of the audience to judge judiciously or to appreciate the best in dramatic work. Shakespeare rarely criticizes them, nor does Reywood. Jonson was most contemptuous of his public, but was aware of what qualities would please them as we have seen in "Bartholomew Fair". The audience of Shakespeare's day was a fair cross-section of Elizabethan urban ife, and when we limit ourselves to the audience at the public playhouse, it becomes a cross section of middle class society. An understanding of this fascinating group of people, enriches our understanding and appreciation of the Elizabethan drama, and in turn, our understanding and comprehension of Elizabethan England.
This item was digitized by the Internet Archive. Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University