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The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  3 Sep 2007

William Shakespeare the Dramatist

It is now time to tackle Shakespeare.  Before we do, let us briefly look more precisely at his theatrical context which required attuning his work to an audience at once popular and elite.

The wealthy and relatively poor mixed in the Globe theatre (built in 1599) that, while Shakespeare did not practice there alone, has come to be so closely tied to the bard.  In Shakespeare’s Globe, the balcony seats, sometimes called “the lords’ rooms,” offered the richest viewers the opportunity to be seen more than to see -- positioned behind the stage, in a space sometimes used for the actors themselves, they didn’t have a great view and, according to Gurr, “were themselves highly visible, and that was what they paid for” (1032).  (According to Gurr, other, more costlier playhouses -- ones where everyone had a seat -- typically let the richest do one better:  “Up to fifteen gallants could pay for a stool to sit and watch the play on the stage itself” [1032].)  Gallery seats, elevated around the open-air Globe, offered a more refined viewing experience for two to three or six pence.  Gurr claims that sixpence was “not much less than a day’s wage for a skilled artisan in 1600” (1031).  Employees stood at the stairs, waiting to collect money from those wishing to climb further up.  Yet a single penny was enough to enter -- and the large yard of the theatre could accommodate plenty who sought to experience theatre in less than desirable conditions.  According to Andrew Gurr (1030), “the largest numbers who went to the Globe were apprentices and artisans taking time off from work, often surreptitiously, and law students from the Inns of Court doing the same.”  Women were present, escorted by men lest they be seen disreputable, and these women included, in Gurr’s terms, “whores ... looking for business” (1031).  At capacity, the theatre probably held over 2,000 people -- an even more remarkable number when one remembers that London’s city proper probably had a population of about 100,000 (see Bevington xlv).  As Gurr puts it, “the social range of playgoers ... was almost complete, stretching from the aristocracy to the poorest workmen and boys.  ... at peak times up to 25,000 a week flocked to see the variety of plays being offered [in London]” (1031).  On the ground, it was standing room only, and the smell of this noisy assembled rabble offended many of the more sophisticated -- and wealthy -- audience members.

Given these numbers, the theatre was quite the money-making enterprise.  But perhaps more importantly, the theatres of the London area had competition -- that great capitalistic incentive to appeal to that audience.  New plays typically ran only for a few performances -- and, in this climate, one had to be good to have a hit.  And one had to appeal to a broad audience.

Moreover, we must remember that many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in other theatres and even before the court.  Shakespeare’s late plays were particularly likely to be performed before King James’s court -- Othello, King Lear, and The Tempest certainly were.

Shakespeare was uniquely suited to the stage’s popular audience.  He arrived in London from his rural Stratford, leaving a wife and family while bringing a lot of talent but little formal education.  Robert Greene, another London playwright, condemned Shakespeare in 1592 (shortly before dying, one imagines bitterly, in September of that year), in part because Greene, university-schooled, resented this uneducated “upstart crow.”  In Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentence, Greene addresses contemporary playwrights and expressly alludes -- jealously -- to Shakespeare’s appeal to the theatrical establishment:  “Is it not strange that I ... shall ... be ... forsaken? ... there is an upstart crow ... that ... supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and ... is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country” (quoted on Bevington lv).

In fact, the anti-Stratfordian movement -- which argues that others wrote Shakespeare’s plays -- reveals much about Shakespeare’s appeal to his diverse audience.  Started in the late 1700s, the movement at its base cannot understand how a man from Stratford, with little education, could have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare.  This is the essence of the argument -- if one wisely dismisses the claims that records of Shakespeare’s life are sparse, given that they are probably less sparse than one would imagine for someone in his trade and with his background in this period.  The various suggestions for the real writer of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Bacon) may not hold any evidentiary weight, but they communicate a great deal because they tend to be more wealthy persons.  Both Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were hardly born noble:  Jonson’s father was a bricklayer and Marlowe’s a shoemaker.  I am not alone in arguing that it was precisely because of Shakespeare’s background that he was able to write his plays:  not encumbered by elite sensibility, Shakespeare was free to learn from the stage.  He knew the types in the pit who had paid a mere penny -- he knew how to make them laugh and how to draw them on stage.  But he knew enough from school, from those he’d met in London, and from other plays to imagine his highborn characters -- and how to please such type.  Moreover, Shakespeare needed to please this diverse audience to succeed -- success meant money, and Shakespeare lived by his wits.  One cannot imagine Bacon, for all his intelligence, writing the free-formed characters of Shakespeare, blending low humor and high society with such apparent ease.  The whole anti-Stratfordian movement ends up revealing more about how Shakespeare, aided by his background, appealed to his diverse audience.

Another element, besides Shakespeare’s background, helped him succeed with this broad audience:  his lack of convictions.  That is, perhaps, an overstatement, but it remains a fact that Shakespeare’s politics and religion cannot be conclusively established.  This has not, naturally, kept scholars from trying -- a pursuit more worthy than seeking the real author of Shakespeare’s plays, but little more successful.  The last few decades of the twentieth century were particularly guilty of making such quests fashionable.

The depiction of monarchs on stage was tremendously problematic in Shakespeare’s time:  Elizabeth and James both seemed to like complementary depictions of monarchs who they saw as analogous to themselves, while disparaging the idea that such corollaries held any power -- the might of the state resided in the royal body, not in the trappings that actors could mimic:  the player-king might represent power, but the body of king was power.  Killing kings on stage could be even more politically dangerous, but to read any single king as an analogue for either Elizabeth or James is nearly as problematic.  Those who wish to do so focus on the censorship of the time:  one obviously might have been inclined to speak obliquely if one wished to criticize such monarchs.  But this obliqueness, if it exists with Shakespeare’s texts, is so great that any true attacks upon these monarchs are difficult, if not impossible, to discern.  For example, Richard III and Macbeth have both been seen as partly royalist propaganda.  And Shakespeare’s theatre received a royal patent, becoming known as the King’s Men in 1603.  But, the argument goes, Shakespeare hid his true feelings, encoding messages within his plays even while those plays frequently propagandize for the English monarchy.  Needless to say, I am not convinced.  There does seem to me, however, to be a theme within Shakespeare that the extremes of hierarchy expressed in monarchical forms of government frequently leads to insanity, as the monarch’s consciousness must equivocate between himself or herself and the state -- but, while I would defend this as present in the texts themselves, I am far less certain that it was intended and probably reflects more modern awareness of hierarchy and its discontents.  The politics, as expressed in his plays, seems quietist if they are anything:  broadly speaking, kings can be wrong but are due respect, but monarchy is both sacred and glorious -- to kill a king, even a bad one, is a grave thing that calls to the gods for vengeance.  In fact, even before he was patronized by the crown, Shakespeare seems to have done a good job of ridding his work of contemporary politics.  Shakespeare thus avoided breaking his audience along party lines:  he entertained them, regardless of their political allegiances.

In Shakespeare’s time, religion could be a very serious matter indeed, particularly in terms of the project of establishing a national Protestant state:  especially after the Gunpowder Plot, the more paranoid among the English saw Catholic conspirators and terrorists behind every corner.  Some have argued that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic:  a rather Catholic profession of faith, signed by Shakespeare, was reportedly found in April 1757 by workers retiling the roof of Shakespeare’s Stratford birthplace -- though the original has disappeared.  E. A. J. Honigmann has found further evidence that one “William Shakeshafte” was a part of a network of Catholics, though the link to Shakespeare remains unclear.  If Shakespeare was indeed a recusant Catholic, his writing does not suggest it.  This has not, naturally, stopped scholars from searching for evidence within the bard’s work -- but it is confined to more or less arguable strains of depiction and is not, to my mind, convincing.  Key here is that, if he were Catholic, Shakespeare was a rather utter recusant.  Whatever Shakespeare’s personal convictions, he doesn’t seem to have felt any discernable need to make them clear.  Again, this helped him avoid offending his audience -- his would not be partisan plays, religious or otherwise.

While it may be impossible to ascertain authorial intent, several of Shakespeare’s plays seem to demonstrate authorial accommodate themselves to his diverse audience.  Such instances, involving interpretation of both the plays themselves and their audience reception, are necessarily somewhat subjective.  Nonetheless, it may prove useful to focus on several particular instances of what I see as Shakespeare accommodating his plays to the theatre’s audience -- or audiences:  consistently, we find that Shakespeare’s approach is conservative but muted, and I would argue that he consciously crafts his plays to keep interpretive possibilities open so as not to offend his diverse audience.

The framing sequence in The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1592-1954) is perhaps as good a place as any to start.  It strikes me as out-of-place:  while it is certainly delightful to imagine the possibilities of a drunken Christopher Sly observing and interjecting from above, essentially making the entire play a play-within-the-play, this narrative reality isn’t really relevant to the play itself, however much it delights critics.  In fact, it strikes me as a kind of critical shield -- and the name Sly is particularly apt here.  Feminists who seek to defend or rehabilitate Shakespeare love the framing device:  it lets them say that all of the play’s misogyny is a mere fantasy, staged for the self-aggrandizing benefit of a drunken male fool’s mentality.  I think not:  such a reading, not unlike those that seek to transform royalist propaganda into secret revolution, inverts the entire play and requires that Shakespeare write roughly two hours’ worth exactly the opposite of what he means.  Yet such a revisionist interpretation reveals the frame against the critics’ intent:  it allows female members of the audience who might not be the most obedient of wives or daughters not to take offense.  Moreover, in Sly’s transformation from a commoner to a rich man, it blends the richest and the poorest in Shakespeare’s audience in a way amusing to both:  the wealthy can laugh at Sly’s ridiculousness in aping a lord, while the poor can half laugh at themselves and half identify with the dream of waking up rich.  But, perhaps more than this, the induction is indeed funny, as is the metatextual riffs it generates.  The clearest indication of this is its play with stage transvestitism as Sly mistakes the page for his lady, pointing out the artificiality of the performance -- a common Shakespearean maneuver.  The framing sequence not only provides ideological shielding for Shakespeare:  it also delights, which is precisely the point.

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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