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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 24. The Audience

The creation of an atmosphere for the play (which is the aim that modern stage production is endeavouring, often in strangely inartistic fashion, to achieve by scenery) was left to the descriptive words of the poet, the voice of the actor and the imagination of the audience. The audience of those days must certainly be supposed to have been more susceptible to the message to the ear, and less to deficiencies in the message to the eye, than that of our own time; but, while taking into account the larger part played by the Elizabethan drama in intellectual life, we must be careful not to credit the spectators with a much greater earnestness in the playhouse. Abundant evidence proves that—what with the throng of groundlings in the yard, intent mainly on the fighting and the broader humour; what with the gallants making their way through the tirehouse and lying or sitting on stools on the stage, smoking the pipes which their pages filled for them, and intent on displaying themselves rather than on listening to the play; what with the women of the town and their admirers in the galleries; what with here and there a Bobadill or Tucca ready to brawl at any moment—the Elizabethan audience, whether in a public or in a private playhouse, was not the rapt body of enthusiasts which later times have been tempted to imagine it. It included, however, Walsinghams and Southamptons, refined and intellectual admirers of the drama, and their numbers must have exceeded those of the Sidneys who scoffed and of the Northbrookes who railed. It is impossible to reconstruct past acting; but it is safe to conclude that the players whose duty it was to embody the creations of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, to the satisfaction of the best intellects of the reigns of Elizabeth and James, with practically no scenic illusion to aid them, must have cultivated to a high degree the arts both of declamation and of expressing character. The improvement in the drama consequent on the coming of university wits probably called forth a corresponding improvement in the actor’s art, and there is some evidence that a decline in acting followed or accompanied the decline of the drama in the seventeenth century. That declamation was often attended by its besetting sin of rant is recorded in Hamlet’s advice to the players (Hamlet, act III, sc. 2) as well as in various passages of other contemporary writers, which imply that the actors of the Fortune (in its later days), the Red Bull and the Cockpit were great offenders in this respect, and that the evil grew during the latter half of the period. The player’s response, however: “I hope we have reform’d that indifferently with us, Sir,” coupled with the admonition of Hamlet, is pretty good evidence that, at the Globe, declamation was not allowed to degenerate. As to the quality of the character acting, the elegy on Richard Burbage shows how vivid this was at its best; though, of course, it is impossible to tell how deeply, even under Shakespeare’s guidance, Burbage penetrated into the significance of the characters he played. The evidence of Flecknoe, who, in his Short Discourse of the English Stage (1664) praises Burbage for a “delightful Proteus” that maintained his character throughout, “even in the tyring-house,” must represent a tradition and an ideal rather than the statement of an eyewitness. That the female characters were all played in the playhouses by boys, youths, or young men, generally implies, to modern minds, incongruity and poor acting; but the popularity of boys’ companies goes to show that boys when thoroughly trained, can do better than we give them credit for to-day. The spectacle, at any rate, must have been pleasanter than that of women playing male parts, and “squeaking Cleopatra” may have boyed her greatness with better artistic effect than some actresses have achieved.

Much of the inequality in the plays of Shakespeare, as well as of their popularity during his lifetime, can be explained by the consideration that he wrote for a mixed audience, and succeeded in pleasing all. The appeal of his plays to the best intellects of the time needs no showing. For the more intelligent of the common spectators, in whose lives the drama filled the place now occupied by the lending library, the press and, to some extent, the pulpit, there was not only the strong story but the expression of comment and criticism on many aspects of life and on facts of the varied world, some of them only remotely connected with the actual plot. For lovers of sport and action, there were exhibitions of swordplay, wrestling and so forth, which the drama had woven into its own texture, besides battles, murders, and other incidents which, as St. Évremond noticed a century later, the English public liked to see on the stage. For all amateurs of wit, there were exhibitions or contests in punning and jesting—another form of entertainment which the drama, to a great extent, absorbed into itself—ranging from the keen wordplay and literary parody to the gross joke or hint for he groundlings. That Shakespeare would willingly have dispensed with the latter, we know from the passage in Hamlet referred to above. The “gag” of the clown must have been the more annoying because it was the common practice to conclude a performance, and sometimes to interrupt it, with a “jig,” performed by Tarlton, Kemp, Armin, or some other “fool”—an indispensable member of every company—answering to the “laughable farce” whichfollowed the tragedy until days withing the memory of living men. To the possible attractions of the playhouse must be added music, played both during and between the acts. That at Blackfriars was especially esteemed, as was, naturally, that of the children’s companies, and public theatres attempted to emulate their success in this matter. Where the “noise,” or orchestra sat, is not certain; it was not till after the Restoration that it was placed between the stage and the audience, and, in the period under notice, it probably occupied in some playhouse the space marked orchestra in the drawing of the Swan, perhaps on both sides of the stage. The occurrence of songs in plays is well known; and we read that in the country, at any rate, the music was more popular than the play itself.