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The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  2 Sep 2007

It is one of the great academic fallacies that every historical era, at least after the Medieval period, saw the "democratization" of literature.  The chosen era usually happens to be exactly that in which the scholar or teacher making the statement specializes.  This democratization tends to include the "rise of the middle class," spreading literacy, and greater participation by the populace in both politics and literature.  In fact, these great processes -- like most paradigmatic shifts -- took centuries to complete, if they are in fact completed:  one can easily argue that they are still ongoing.  Moreover, such processes presume a certain sense of progress, and we now understand -- or ought to -- that such progressions frequently ebb and flow, even if one can describe an overall progression.

Still, it is difficult not to see this democratization of literary audiences when talking about Shakespeare, in particular.  There is a liveliness of his characters that one cannot image existing without the diversity of the Globe theatre's audience.  It may be tempting to say that Shakespeare would not have been Shakespeare were his plays not written in this context.  And that, as far as it goes, is certainly true.  But such a statement does not imply causality.

Medieval Mystery Plays, for example, certainly attracted a widespread audience -- in fact, they were produced explicitly for the masses, explicating Biblical history in dramatic form for an uneducated populace, making the material more accessible precisely as the twentieth century did through film or comic books.  Medieval churches certainly had a mix of social strata -- although often seated separately -- but generally are not seen as radically altering the mass or their services to accommodate this diverse audience.  These example is illustrative because it suggests the true nature of the change seen in Shakespeare -- one less to do with audience and more to do with fiscal accountability.  At the risk of sounding like a materialist critic, literature requires certain material circumstances for its creation, and the elevated costs of theatrical production in turn elevate this accountability to one's paying audience.  If we need reminding, the same dynamic exists today:  a painting sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts may be seen by a wide "democratic" audience in a state-sponsored museum, but it is not directly accountable to that audience -- it can, in fact, rather freely anger them.  On the other hand, a Hollywood movie, even a small and artsy one, aimed at about the same audience as museum-goers, is more directly accountable -- and one can see the results on screen.

This is to say that attention paid to a work's "audience," by itself, can often be a distraction from material conditions of artistic production.  Shakespeare could make a living writing plays, and plays at the time were successful to the degree that they pandered to this new audience.  To say that the audience had changed is important:  to say that an artist wanted to please a certain audience, most frequently to ensure his livelihood but sometimes to augment his reputation, is more germane.  A work's audience, in terms of its readers or viewers, is less relevant than its intended audience -- and how the creator(s) want that audience, or segment of that audience, to react.

Indeed, this distinction becomes important as one examines various English Renaissance authors.  Having established this distinction, I wish to turn to not to poetry but to the stage, since it is here that the influence of a more popular audience may be most keenly felt.  After a bit of background establishing the popular context of the contemporary English stage, and the split between "high" and "low" audiences, I turn to Shakespeare, since he is the most obvious and famous instance of audience influencing an English Renaissance artist's work.  Shakespeare's popular success contrasts markedly with Ben Jonson's mixed success on the stage, and so it is to his dramatic works that we next turn.  A discussion of poetry, and how its higher audience also informed its production, follows.


The Democratic Theatrical Renaissance Audience:  High and Low

The "democratic" Elizabethan audience loved buffoonery and sensational plots:  it cared next to nothing for the classical unities of time, place, and genre (in which comedy ought not be mixed with tragedy).  Educated critics, however, frequently condemned this attack upon classical dramatic theory.  Moreover, governmental and religious attacks against the theatres -- launched from positions of social height -- help to illustrate the popular nature of the medium.

This dynamic was underway before Shakespeare.  A few such examples ought to suffice.  A 6 December 1574 order of the Common Council of London required that plays be licensed prior to production and condemned the theatre for gathering an unwieldy audience that drunkenly quarreled and attracted pickpockets, for depicting shameful actions and characters, for injuring people through mishaps (such as through the use of gunpowder on stage [Recall that the original Globe theatre burned down -- on 29 June 1613 -- following a cannon discharging backstage, perhaps during Shakespeare's Henry VIII.]), and for keeping playgoers away from church on Sunday.  When James Burbage constructed his theatre (perhaps the only permanent one in operation), he did so in Middlesex, then a London suburb and outside the jurisdiction of the city's Common Council.  The Queen's Privy Council, which could order the suburbs to regulate the plays, was less stern:  Queen Elizabeth herself was a patron of the theatre, and the Privy Council argued that the players needed practice if they were to appear before the queen.  Still, preachers and educated writers condemned the popular medium, while some argued in favor of it, appealing to classical tradition, to the moral instruction plays could provide, to the boost they gave the economy, and even to the entertainment it provided.

Consider Sir Philip Sidney's famous 1581 Defence of Poesy, typical in the sort of educated argument against the English stage while not against the stage itself.  The tract is worth extended quotation here, not only for the vehemence of it educated condemnation of the popular English stage, but for its amusement.  Importantly, however, Sidney does praise English drama for its "stately speeches and well-sounding phrases" -- later Shakespeare's forte -- as well as it "notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtain the very end of poesy."  But Sidney goes on to condemn the breaking of the classical unities along familiar lines, though hilarious in their expression:

in truth it [English drama] is very defectious in the circumstances, which grieves me... .  For it is faulty both in place and time... .  For where the stage should always represent but one place, and the uttermost time presupposed in it should be, both by Aristotle's precept and common reason, but one day, there is both many days and many places inartificially imagines.

From this dry didacticism, Sidney moves to humorous describe exactly why the breaking of the unity of space defies "common reason":

where you shall have Asia of the one side and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the player, when he comes in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or else the tale will not be conceived.  Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden.  By and by we hear news of shipwreck in the same place; then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock.  Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave.  While in the meantime two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field?

Sidney continues, lampooning the English stage's lack of the unity of time:

Now of time they are much more liberal.  For ordinary it is that two young princes fall in love; after many traverses she is got with child, delivered of a fair boy; he is lost, growth a man, falleth in love, and is ready to get another child, -- and all this in two hous space; which how absurd it is in sense even sense may imagine, and art hath taught, and all ancient examples justified, and at this day the ordinary players in Italy will not err in.

Sidney goes on to condemn the mixing of genres on the English stage, which features works "neither right tragedies nor right comedies" and that mix monarchs with lowbrow humor, exhibiting "neither decency nor discretion."  In all of this, Sidney may sound like a traditionalist clinging desperately to an outmoded and dogmatic view of the theatre -- and history may have proven him so -- but it is hard not to sympathize with such a hilarious description of dramatic chaos.  In fact, he sounds rather like someone who grew up with classical film, such as that of the mid-twentieth century, and cannot adjust to the rapid jump cuts of the end of that century, when many critics condemned this as the "MTV style."  But in both cases, the popular audience does not seem to have been so bothered.  Yet it is worth noting that Sidney's essay is also important for noting that even such a dramatic curmudgeon continued to attend -- and care about -- the English popular theatre.

It is worth noting that the same dynamic -- that popular audiences coincide with a looser dramatic style -- may be seen in France, where theatre was controlled directly by the court and educated classes.  There, Corneille and Racine would compose tragedies along far more classical lines.  Shakespeare, of course, was reviled -- not only as an Englishman, but for breaking the classical unities along the same lines that educated English critics frequently condemned him.  Indeed, the Elizabethan formation a new, English sort of drama may be seen along nationalistic terms -- a theatrical equivalent of the English garden, allowed to grow wild or seem as if it were doing so, in contrast to the French cultivated garden of carefully sculpted flora.

Of course, the popular audiences of the English theatre would not continue unbroken.  Under James I, the King’s men moved closer to the court, becoming capable of receiving larger audiences but increasingly attuned to more courtly modes.  Moreover, the Puritans who had condemned the theatre were on the ascendant due to James I’s poor governance, culminating in the closing of the theatres in 1642 until the Restoration.

Moreover, the great debate over the classical unities was not completed.  The Restoration that brought back the theatres also made them a more courtly enterprise:  people went to the theatre in great part to be seen -- and to see who others were seen with.  Playwrights frequently recognized Shakespeare’s poetic skill but found his violation of the unities alarming, and Dryden in particular revised a considerable bit of Shakespearean material, aligning it more clearly with Aristotelian theory.  But we are already getting ahead of ourselves.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby