William Shakespeare’s Audience: “The Poets Lived to Please and They Must Please to Live.”

It was Jonson who said that the 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 cannot wait like the novelist or other sorts of artists for the verdict of posterity. The present is his immediate concern and he must for his sheer survival as a playwright make his peace with the popular tastes and habits. Shakespeare was undoubtedly 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 lives to please? Opinions are no doubt divided. The puritan moralists describe than as a vulgar crowd with coarse tastes and noisy nature. Some of the playwrights themselves refer to them rather condescendingly as the “groundlings” or the “hydra – headed” multitude with “serpent – tongues 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 the resources at him command and became ultimately satisfied with the conditions of his profession which he did much to ennoble in a single life time, that still remains a wonder to his successors in trade.
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 at all vulgar and secondly all drama is a matter of intense co – operation between the author, the actor and the spectator. The audience of Shakespeare indeed co – operated marvelously for reproducing on the stage the many – splendored panorama 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.
William Shakespeare
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 fair 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 full. 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 word. 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 behavior caring little for nice decorum and propriety. A Philips 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.

This is the composition of Shakespeare’s audience, differing in tastes and coming from different walks of life but united in tastes and coming from different walks of life but united in a certain general outlook. They 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 they pined for action songs and lyric and ballads but above all they pined for action both in life and on the stage. So Shakespeare had to pack his plays with action, 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 the clash of arms and armies on the stage. Shakespeare catered to all these demands of his public in his plays and in doing so he also moulded their testes to a great extent so that when he left the stage, it was quite different from what he found it in the beginning.
Considering the work of Shakespeare as a totality we might very well conclude that breadth and variety uttered in an unrivaled poetry excellency is in a great measure the contribution of the play – going public of the age. G. M. Trevelya, 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 theatres 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 the right moment.
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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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