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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?


As it is necessary for historians to make inferences from the few relevant documents that do exist, inconsistencies within them do not help to clarify the situation. According to the Puritans, the Preachers and other people disgruntled with theatre life, the audience was disreputable, unruly and full of prostitutes and pickpockets, whereas as other sources suggest otherwise. Bleak imagse of the theatre are given in numerous documents varying from letters to the Government, to published works. Henry Crosse stated;

"...the commonest haunters are for the most part, the leaudest persons in the land, apt for pilferie, periurie, forgerie, or any regories, the very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, thieves cutpurses, shifters, cousoners; briefly an uncleane generation, and spaune of vipers...for a play is like a sinke in town; whereunto all the filth doth runne: or a byle in the body, that draweth all the humours into it." (14)

But again it is possible that the protesters were exaggerating the moral debasement of the theatre in order to give further credence to their own arguments. If the whole audience was made up of pick- pockets, there would be very little else going on, and everyone would be stealing from each other, and the result would be utter confusion. It is also doubtful that every woman who attended a play was a prostitute. As Harbage states;

"Pickpockets and prostitutes in an audience do not mean an audience of pickpockets and prostitutes." (15)

The violent nature of the audience needs also to be questioned. Cook, following her argument that it was only the wealthy who could really afford to attend the theatre, argues that the riotousness recorded by some individuals was the sort of behaviour typical of the holidays when the masses were free to go. She argues that destructive violence was,

"...hardly the work of customers who enjoyed coming over and over again." (16)

She supports her argument by referring to the report made by Gayton in his Pleasant notes upon Don Quixote:

"...if it be on holy dayes, when Saylers, Water-men, shoomakers, Butchers and apprentices are at leisure..... unlesse the popular humour (be) satisfied...the benches, the tiles, the laths, the Stones, Oranges, Apples, Nuts, flew about most liberally....Nothing but noise and tumult fills the house." (17)

Gurr agrees that violence was only an occasional occurrence;

"There is some evidence of violence and lawlessness in the playhouses between 1574 and 1642, but there is nothing to show that it was more than the occasional consequence of large crowds gathering together for a length of time." (18)

But he would not agree that it was the result of plebian attendance during the vacation. Gurr firmly rejects the arguments advanced by contemporary Puritans that the playhouses were a particularly violent place.

W.J. Lawrence similarly argues that the playhouses simply could not have been riotousness and noisy if one of the most common complaints of disturbance was the sound of nuts-cracking. By 1600, this was constantly being referred to as a nuisance, even in drama itself. In Beaumont and Fletchers, The Scornful Lady is said that the audience cracks,

"More nuts than would suffice a dozen squirrels: Besides the din, which is most damnable." (19)

The playhouse must have been relatively quiet and still during performances if this was one of the main distractions.

It is even more difficult for the historian to determine the experience of play going for women. Much of the surviving evidence is again written by those who object to theatres, and especially to women attending them. To them, the theatre was no better than a brothel, corrupting women's minds and compromising their honour. In 1577 for example, Northbrooke stated;

"What safeguarde of chastitie can there be, where the woman is desired with so many eyes, where so many faces looke upon her and again she uppon so many ? She must needes fire some, and hirselfe also fired againe, and she be not a stone." (20)

And William Harison in further emphasises the lascivious nature of the theatre audience. He wrote in 1617;

"...few of either sex come thither, but in theyr holy-dayes appareil, and so set forth, so trimmed, so adorned, so decked, so perfumed, as if they made the place the market of wantonesse, and by consequence to unfit for a priest to frequent." (21)

However, just because people dressed up to go to the theatre does not mean that they were promiscuous, or wanted to be. It is likely that they just wanted to look clean and tidy, so as not to disgrace the family in public. It therefore seems reasonable considering that the average person would not have had many clothes for such occasions, that they would put on their Sunday best. It seems that Preachers have totally overlooked the fact that it was the same set of clothes they were wearing for both the theatre and the church.

It would be easy to conclude from these two pieces of evidence that firstly it was considered immoral for a woman to go to plays, and secondly that the theatre was a place where people went to attract others for sex. But other pieces of evidence are not consistent with this view. Father Busino for example commented on women visitors;

"These plays are frequented by a number of respectable and handsome ladies...." (22)

And a report given by Philip Julius in his diary of 1602 similarly says that,

"...there are always a good many people present, including many respectable women." (23)

This shows just how important it is for the historian to use as wide a range of sources as possible, for relying on a small number can lead to a distortion of the whole picture. Harbage argues that this is exactly what has happened in several instances. Some historians such as A.W.Ward have argued that;

"...no respectable woman might appear at a playhouse except with her face concealed under a mask." (24)

And Chambers similarly pointed to the need for women to wear masks. Harbage however is most critical;

"Either there is a lode of information uncited and unknown to me, or the authorities have decided that Shakespeare's audience was no place for a lady and are imposing their own sense of decorum upon the Elizabethans."(25)

There is simply not enough known about play going activities general, let alone for women, for any conclusive judgements to be made.

Such starkly contrasting opinions and information given in various documents, on various matters, can surely present nothing but a dilemma for the historian, who has to decide which one to believe and then justify the rejection of the other. After all, which is the most reliable? In all likelihood, it seems that the reports given by foreign visitors are more accurate a reflection of theatre life in general. Andrew Gurr certainly argues this. Certainly the foreigners were viewing the situation through less prejudice eyes than, for example, the Puritans - not having the same need to discredit the playhouses on moral ground. But still these reports must be treated with some degree of caution. The same need to question the motive of writing still applies. It is possible that the foreigner was for some reason employed to report the debasedness of England, and so would look for it. The description given by Thomas Platter(1599) on women and taverns will suffice to illustrate the point;

"Women as well as the men, in fact more often than they, will frequent the taverns or alehouses for enjoyment." (26)

Also, to some degree foreigners are on the outside looking in, and therefore it is not impossible that they may have missed, or misunderstood, some point of significance.

There is also a danger for historians to look at the plays themselves, and from them, make assumptions about the audience. There has been a tendency for historians of the past to see those below the social elite as somehow intellectually inferior. This was certainly believed at the time. One only has to look at the portrayal of the ordinary people in the works of Shakespeare himself. Most notably in A Midsummer Night's Dream where the mechanics are portrayed not only less dignified than the nobles, but having less appreciation of great drama. It has been held by some studying the plays of Shakespeare, that his often bawdy humour was put in to make the plays appeal to the masses as well as the elite. Foakes argued;

"However uneducated, and however much they may have preferred fights, noise, and clowning to serious drama, the groundlings remained an important part of the audience and the arena theatres continued to cater for them." (27)

However, such a statement is debatable. Just as pickpockets in an audience do not mean an audience of pickpockets, neither does it follow through that to be a member of the lower classes meant less intelligence. Certainly those at the upper level of society may have been privileged with a higher standard of education, but that does not mean that they were any more intelligent than the working man. Life is an education in itself. The plebians may not have been educated on the ins and outs of Greek and classical mythology, but it seems reasonable to assume that in an age where this was such an integral part of their culture, the plebians would have had some knowledge of the subject. This gives rise to another problem; the need to separate todays culture from that of yesterday. Today very few people would know who Diana, Cassandra, Astrea, Juno and Mars are, but that does not mean that such names were as obscure in the past. It could even be argued that the plebians were more worldly and had more experience of life than the aristocracy who always had everything handed to them on a plate. Also, Shakespeare's plays are often about emotions; love, hate, jealousy, passion, greed; and emotions are universal. Neither can it be assumed that because the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare contained a large amount of blood and violence, that this is a reflection on the nature of the audience. Gurr states;

"...this kind of presumption has no particular validity. One might look at twentieth century television and by the same assumption conclude that audiences now are quite as lecherous and disorderly in their living rooms as those of Shakespeare's day are thought to have been in their playhouses." (28)

It is largely due to the lack of relevant sources, not sources in general, that makes it problematic for the historian to understand completely the nature of plebian play going in the years before the English Civil War. No plebian contemporary has left an account of his or her experience of play going. Therefore, it is necessary for the historian to make inferences and assessments which may, or may not, be correct. The information that does survive tends to be from the upper ranks of society, and it must be remembered that they were viewing the situation from only one perspective. It is therefore necessary to treat every piece of evidence with the upmost care and caution, always keeping in mind the author (if known) and the likely motive for writing, as well as ensuring that the source base is wide ranging and as representative as possible. This will prevent a distortion of the truth and only then can a more accurate picture of those playgoers of long ago, be formed.



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