ESSAYS / ARTICLES
What difficulties does the historian encounter when trying to learn about the experience of play going for those below the social elite before the Civil War?
King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, the works of arguably the two greatest Elizabethan writers of drama, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, still survive today and enjoy immense popularity. With very little effort it is easy to imagine the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage; to visualise their costumes and hear the voices of long dead actors, perhaps even to hear the roar of laughter at the antics of Puck or Stephano, or feel the tense silence as Lear emotionally holds his dead daughter Cordelia. All this is possible, and yet the audience, those who filled up the auditorium, those who the actors performed too, and the playwrights wrote for, remain but a ghostly substance, shrouded in the mystery of time. Where they;
"...ignorant or intelligent, riotous or refined, libertine or law-abiding, plebian or privileged?" (1)
Penetrating this distant world is far from easy and discovering the true nature of the Elizabethan, Jacobean audience perhaps impossible. Yet fragments of this lost world remain, and although many pieces may be lost, it is possible to put the rest together again and thus get some idea of what the whole looked like. When trying to determine the nature of plebian play going in England before the Civil War, it is perhaps necessary to concentrate on the period 1576 to 1642. Before 1576 there were no great "public" theatres as such, the first being built in 1576. Before then, players performed where ever they could, in streets or in halls.
One rather overwhelming problem that immediately arises for the historian when trying to learn about the play going activities of those below the elite, is the sheer lack of sources for those areas outside London. This means that most studies of the theatre in this period are confined to this city. Therefore, it must be remembered that it is always a small percentage of the entire population of England that is being referred to. There were theatrical activities outside London, but London was the centre - it still is today. In this respect therefore, London was unique, and this form of Popular Culture only accessible to those within easy distance of the city. Neither are the London masses typical of the masses in general, for the Capital was economically, as well as culturally, ahead of the provincial counties.
The difficulty for the historian does not lie so much in the lack of references made to the theatre audience, they are plentiful indeed, as Alison Cook states;
"A wide assortment of sermons, official complaints, regulatory documents, diaries, letters, and foreign travellers accounts, as well as passages from plays and other works of literature, all refer to the audiences." (2)
And some things such the cost of entry and how it depended on where one desired to sit (or stand) can more or less be taken as fact, but these sources give very little insight into the actual "experience" of play-going, especially for those below the social elite. Indeed this is not a problem exclusive to studies of play going, it is very difficult for the historian to learn about plebian lifestyle in general. Perhaps this proliferates the problem. Such sources do not reveal why people went, what they actually got out of the plays, what the environment was really like, or the frequency of visits. For such information, diaries are invaluable, as Gerald Eade Bentley states;
"One of the most promising sources of information about Elizabethan theatrical history is the private diaries and letters which have survived the house clearing raids of three centuries." (3)
But as this suggests, such sources are rare, and where they do exist, they usually refer to the play going of the elite rather than the masses. Not necessary because the masses were all illiterate, but simply because Popular Culture did not embrace diary writing. Such conclusive evidence is so scanty that it cannot even be said with any degree of certainty that the masses did actually attend plays. This is certainty an ongoing debate amongst historians of this period. Alison Cook argues that play going was an activity belonging largely to the "upper levels of the social order" (4). She argues that family incomes in the last decade of the sixteenth century were barely enough to provide the essentials of life, let alone the penny or so needed for entry. She states;
"On the surface it might appear that almost anyone could afford to spend a penny for two or three hours of amusement at the playhouse. Yet in view of the cost of basic necessities - food, shelter, clothing and fuel - it seems doubtful that even so much as a penny could often be spared from most pockets. " (5)
And concludes that;
"...the social and economic realities or renaissance London decreed an audience more privileged than plebian" (6)
This is certainly plausible considering the heavy demands laid on the people by the war with Spain, the succession of bad harvests, and high inflation, and would certainly explain why only an estimated three out of twenty five Londoners attended the theatre (7). However Alfred Harbage states;
"...if the penny spent on food meant only an additional cucumber or two, one might as well squander it on a play." (8)
If living standard were harsh in the late sixteenth century, as historians generally agree, perhaps the truth is that the lower classes could not really afford to go, but that they went anyway. Henry Crosse in his Vertues Commonwealth; or Highway to honour (1603) states:
"...many poore pincht, needie creatures, that live of almes, and that have scarce neither cloath to their backe, nor foode for the belley, yet wil make shift but they will see a play, let wife and children begge." (9)
However, contemporary opinions such as Crosse's need to be treated with caution. With any type of primary evidence, there are necessary questions to ask. Before one can begin to assess the value of the information given, it is perhaps necessary to establish who wrote the piece and why. People generally write for a reason. Either because they want to remember a particular event; because they want to inform someone of something; because an unusual occurrence has taken place, or because they think that what they have to say is significant or interesting. Establishing the author can reveal a lot about the validity of the source. It should be noted that men such as Henry Crosse were men of fervent religious zeal. They were one of many of the religious to be concerned about the play going activities of the citizens of London. They therefore may have presented a distorted picture of reality. Their aim, more often than not, was to discourage people from going to the playhouse by stressing the dishonour and immorality of the activity and it is likely that self interest also played a part. Preachers wanted to be heard, and the theatres were, if not literally, giving them a run for their money;
"More have recourse to playing houses than to praying houses." (10)
Similarly, it may have been in the interest of the middle classes to encourage this immoral image of the playhouse, as it would perhaps discourage their employees from skipping the afternoon to attend a play. Also, considering that after the 1590's competition was rife between the different companies and theatres, it would perhaps be in the interest of one to discredit the other.
Cook's argument receives support from Evans, but historians in general seem to agree that plebians were regular playgoers. Holsey states;
"The audience itself would seem to have been composed of just about every class, with the possible exception of the highest nobility." (11)
"...Shakespeare's audience was a large receptive assemblage of men and women of all ages and of all classes." (12)
It is also difficult for the historian to determine whether the lower classes confined their play going activities to the large Amphi-theatres, or whether they also frequented the more expensive, private playhouses. Traditionally historians have advocated that the so called "Public" and "Private" playhouses were most certainly divided along class lines. It was a common assumption that the lower classes went to the outdoor playhouses such as The Swan or The Globe, whereas the middle classes went to the private, indoor playhouses such as Black Friars. However, Andrew Gurr has recently challenged this assumption. He does not deny that the lower classes, because of their financial situation, had to restrict themselves to the cheaper Amphi-theatres, but he argues that the amphi-theatre also attracted the wealthy. He argues;
"The rich and poor audiences were not mutually exclusive; rather the rich went to public and private playhouses alike, the poor more exclusively to the public." (13)
Neither does he exclude the possibility that the lower classes also occasionally visited the more 'elitist' Black Friars. There are just too few documents shedding light on such matters.
Bibliography & Endnotes