Shakespeare's Audience: Structural Analysis

Prologue: “If an audience disrespects me it is insulting the music I play and I will not continue, because if they don't want to listen then I don't want to play. An audience chooses to come and see me perform; I don't choose the audience.”-  Nina Simone (1933 - 2003) U.S. jazz singer, pianist, and songwriter.

Introduction: It was Ben Jonson who said that poets lived to please and they must please to live. There is no truer truism than this epigram. A dramatist particularly must either please or perish. He can’t wait like the novelist or the other sort of artist for the verdict of prosperity. The present is his immediate concern and he must for his sheer survival as a playwright make his peace with the particular tastes and habits. Shakespeare was certainly a popular playwright and a great entertainer of his spectators on whose patronage he and his company depended for their fortune and prosperity, what was the nature of that audience which Shakespeare lived to please? Opinions are no doubt divided. The puritan moralists describe them as a vulgar crowd with coarse tastes and noisy nature. Some of the playwrights themselves refer to them rather considerably as a ‘groundling’ or the ‘hydra-headed’ multiple with ‘serpent tongued and contagious breath’. Shakespeare himself at least in his early dramatic career felt rather humiliated in the company of actors and vulgar spectators- the profession at least appeared to him somewhat undignified. However, he got over it with resources at his command and became ultimately satisfied with the condition of his profession which he did much to ennoble in a single life time, which still remains a wonder to his successors in trade.

Varieties: Whatever the apparent crudeness of the Elizabethan audience, they do not certainly deserve the curse of Carlyle and others of debasing the art and artifice of Shakespeare. First, the Shakespearean art is not all the vulgar and secondly all drama is a matter of intense cooperation between the author, the actor and the spectators. The audience of Shakespeare indeed cooperated marvelously for reproducing on the stage the many- splendoured panoramas that is life. Drama in Shakespeare’s time had become already a national institution comprising the cross sections of the English people at large. “Apprentices and criminals came to his plays, but so did sober citizens and their wives, so did the flower of Elizabethan gentry and nobility.” University students, members of the inns of courts and royal personages visited the playhouses where the pit was again full of the hated (?) groundlings.

Composite Nature:The composite nature of his play -going crowd has been stressed by many including the poet critic T. S. Eliot, who is of the opinion that the Elizabethan drama presented a fare for every level of understanding. Robert Bridges echoes the very same feeling when he says that, ‘Shakespeare should not be put into the hands of the young without the warning that the foolish things in the plays are for the foolish, the filthy for the filthy, and the brutal for the brutal.’ However, Bridges’ classification is rather too rigid and fails to reflect the reality fully. In fact, the cultured were not always refined and the so called vulgar were not all unrefined. The Elizabethan audience generally had a sense of poetry, lovers as they were of the spoken words. They were also a rather temperamental lot responding quickly to anger, tears, or laughter. In an essentially romantic and emotive age basking in the glorious sunshine of the Invincible Armada, people were prone to swift changes of behaviour caring little for decorum and propriety. A Philip Sidney could suddenly stab his father ‘s faithful secretary on the merest suspicion while the queen herself struck her favourite Essex across the face in the council Chamber , Essex again would burst into the room of the queen after the unfortunate campaign only to see the Queen standing half dressed before him.

Unity: This is the composition of Shakespeare’s audience, differing in tastes and coming from different walks of life but united in a certain general outlook. There were all romantic, hot blooded men and women having a zest for life and living. They loved songs and lyrics and ballads but above all the pined for action both in life and on the stage. So Shakespeare had to pack his plays with actions, serious or comic. The comic heroes were as popular as the tragic. – Tarleten and Kempe as much wanted as were Alleyn and Burbage. The fool and the clown were very much in demand.  A people addicted to bear baiting, bull fighting and street brawls naturally delighted in bloody shows, sword plays and clash of arms and armies on the stage. Shakespeare catered to all these demands of his public in his plays and in doing so that when he left the stage, it was quite different from what he found it in the beginning.

Conclusion: Considering the work of Shakespeare as a totality we might very well conclude that that its breath and variety uttered in an unrivalled poetic excellence is in a great measure the contribution of the play going public of the age. G .M. Trevelyan, the great modern social historian, has summed up the position best in his English Social History as follows: “He could not have written as he did, if the men and women among whom his days were passed had been other than they were, in habits of thought, life and speech, or if the London theaters in the years just after the Armada had not reached a certain stage of development ready to his shaping hand.” The master only came at right moment.


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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