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AUDIENCES

During Elizabethan times, audiences of all social and class backgrounds intermingled with one another when attending Shakespeare’s plays. It has even been recorded that Elizabeth I herself attended the theatre on several occasions. The populace in Elizabeth’s grade (e.g. gentry, knights, elected representatives) mostly likely paid the three-penny (or more) admission to get the best seat in the house, which meant the most comfort and finest location in the galleries. Two penny admission was most likely paid by citizens in the upper middle class like artisans or other actors. They were seated just like the wealthy, but the best places weren’t reserved for them. Also, both of these admissions prices provided a canopy from different weather conditions. On the other hand, people who paid the one-penny admission were susceptible to all weather conditions because the yard or pit, as the central area in front of the stage was called, had a completely open roof. These people were called groundlings and they were the apprentices, farmers, or blacksmiths. Groundlings had to stand in mud when it was raining and seats weren’t readily available. They did not attend the theatre often because of their low incomes, but they certainly attended when they had scrounged up enough money.


In regard to certain endeavors during the course of the play, we can imagine that the reactions of the different classes were myriad. Certainly, we can presume that many of the groundlings yelled comments during the production because they lacked proper “theatre etiquette” much like some of the movie theatre audiences today. And maybe it is an urban myth, but the cliché of throwing items like food at a bad performer was instigated by the groundlings. The other attendees most likely had a better idea how to behave, but that is not to say they never yelled out comments either. It is likely that the upper class cheered for an upper class character and the lower class cheered for a lower class character if ever two characters should happen to duel. If the protagonist and the antagonist fought, the audience, I hope, would have rooted for the protagonist. Or if any malicious jokes were directed at a particular group, they wouldn’t find it exactly as funny as the others. Women probably played the traditional female role and screamed or gasped when something frightening or horrible occurred in the production, while men probably played the traditional male role and comforted the women.


During performances of Much Ado About Nothing, I imagine the audiences enjoyed the events created before them. But their gratification was highly depended on the presentation of the actors. In the provided DVD scenes by Branagh and the BBC, some performances were overdone and even sometimes understated and my reaction was not to judge the entire performance of the actor on a few discrepancies, as I’m positive it was the same for Shakespearean audiences. But if overall the acting was horrible, the actor was most likely booed off the stage or chatter of just how horrible it was could be heard after it had ended. Taking into account that the actors portrayed the characters suitably, the audiences expressed disapproval of Don John’s actions of destroying Hero’s reputation and they probably despised Margaret in helping with the matter. The men most likely encouraged Benedick for admitting his love for Beatrice, whilst the women encouraged Beatrice. The sexual innuendo either made the audience laugh or made them extremely embarrassed. When Hero was being accused by Claudio and the others, the audience would have been appalled because they knew that Hero wasn’t guilty.




Reactions of audiences in Shakespeare’s era are much like ours today, although techniques and views are much different. Views on sexual themes are a great example. Many people nowadays enjoy with those types of things; others accept it as a fact of life, while the rest are completely embarrassed. These sorts of attitudes existed previously as well. Techniques, such as sound and lighting, affected the Shakespearean audiences as they do us even today.



Jessica Griffing


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