Audience Behaviour in Shakespeare's London
From: Cambridge University Press | By: Andrew Gurr


EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | What was it like to be in the audience for one of the first performances of a play by Shakespeare? What was the experience 400 years ago of attending either one of London's large amphitheatre playhouses, the Globe or the Rose, or one of the smaller, private, indoor halls? Andrew Gurr, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Reading, England, reconstructs the theatregoing experience in England around 1600 from vivid contemporary accounts. behaviour, in individuals and in crowds, is a complex but vital part of the physical environment for playgoing. It is also more easily notable in its extreme forms than its everyday features. The extremes, of course, give some hints by their very notability about where the lines for good behaviour were usually drawn. It is certainly possible to identify some of the normative as well as the extreme features of audience behaviour, and even to see how behaviour changed between different playhouses.


The most prominent feature of the amphitheatres was the physicality of audience responses to the play. The sitters in the galleries matched the reactions of the section on its feet in the yard. As Gosson said in 1596, "in publike Theaters, when any notable shew passeth over the stage, the people arise in their seates, & stand upright with delight and eagernesse to view it well" (Stephen Gosson, The Trumpet of Warre, 1598).



Whether because of the greater numbers, the quantity of people standing on their feet close to the stage, or the broader social catchment, the crowds at the amphitheatres were markedly noisier than those in the hall playhouses. Nor, if John Lyly is to be believed, was the noise so much a matter of incidental shuffling or coughing as a direct vocal response to the performance.



Lyly's prologues written in the 1580s for boy plays at Blackfriars and Paul's more than once express the hope that the gentlemanly audience in the halls would react with "soft smiling, not loude laughing," or at worst would be too courteous to hiss. These were evidently common reactions elsewhere.



Applause too was delivered with voice as well as hands. Samuel Drayton has a sonnet written in about 1600, which refers to his writing plays for Philip Henslowe at the Rose amphitheatre and sitting in the "thronged Theater" listening to the "Showts and Claps at ev'ry little pawse, / When the proud Round on ev'ry side hath rung."



Shakespeare, Marston, Dekker and many other poets used epilogues to appeal for applause at the end of their plays, but it was clearly not only at the end that applause came. Moreover it was not just "Brawny hands" which delivered the audience's opinion. William Fennor, bringing to the reader's eye in 1616 the text of a performance recently given to a royal audience, offered a pained account of his play's original reception at the Fortune amphitheatre:


Yet to the multitude it nothing shewed;
They screwed their scurvy jawes and look't awry,
Like hissing snakes adjudging it to die:
When wits of gentry did applaud the same,
With silver shouts of high lowd sounding fame:
Whil'st understanding grounded men contemn'd it.
And wanting wit (like fooles to judge) condemn'd it.
Clapping, or hissing, is the onely meane
That tries and searches out a well writ Sceane,
So it is thought by Ignoramus crew,
But that good wits acknowledge's untrue;
The stinkards oft will hisse without a cause,
And for a baudy jeast will give applause.
Let one but aske the reason why they roare
They'll answere, cause the rest did so before.



Hearing this kind of doggerel it is perhaps hardly surprising that audiences would feel free to applaud or hiss at any point throughout the performance. In 1640 John Tatham characterised the behaviour of audiences at the Fortune as "a noyse / Of Rables, Applewives and Chimney-boyes, / Whose shrill confused Ecchoes loud doe cry, / Enlarge your Commons, We hate Privacie."



Crowds strengthen their sense of identity, their collective spirit, by vocal expression of their shared feelings. The audience was an active participant in the collective experience of playgoing, and was not in the habit of keeping its reactions private.



Tatham was a judge no less biased than William Fennor. His lines were written for a company expelled from the Fortune and forced to play instead at the Red Bull, and therefore understandably hostile to the Fortune and its playgoers. Not that the Red Bull, the other citizen playhouse in 1640, was noticeably quieter.

Tatham's verses confirm the suspicion that when an audience was addressed as "Gentlemen" or "Gentles" the poet was likely to ask for less riotous behaviour than he had reason to expect.


Here Gentlemen our Anchor's fixt; And wee
(Disdaining Fortunes mutability)
Expect your kinde acceptance; then wee'l sing
(Protected by your smiles our ever-spring;)
As pleasant as if wee had still possest
Our lawfull Portion out of Fortunes brest:
Onely wee would request you to forbeare
Your wonted custome, banding Tyle, or Peare,
Against our cu'taines, to allure us forth.


Tatham evidently called them gentlemen because their wonted custom was so markedly ungentle. Other commentators suggest that missiles might be used not only to hasten the beginning of a performance but to stop it, and even to make the players offer a different play, though this was an extreme and probably rare example of the customers insisting on getting what they wanted.



Proper conduct

The usual form of audience behaviour is better indicated by the rare cases when authority laid down its laws for proper conduct. When the Court visited Cambridge in March 1632, for instance, and a play was provided for Charles's entertainment, the university authorities issued an order prescribing exactly what the student audience might and might not do.



Item: That no tobacco be taken in the Hall nor anywhere else publicly, and that neither at their standing in the streets, nor before the comedy begin, nor all the time there, any rude or immodest exclamations be made, nor any humming, hawking, whistling, hissing, or laughing be used, or any stamping or knocking, nor any such other uncivil or unscholarlike or boyish demeanour, upon any occasion; nor that any clapping of hands be had until the Plaudite at the end of the Comedy, except his Majesty, the Queen, or others of the best quality here, do apparently begin the same.

The performance for which this instruction was issued entailed a seven-hour play, The Rival Friends, by the ambitious young academic Peter Hausted. The performance was a disaster, and helped drive the university's Vice-Chancellor to suicide on 1 April following the royal visit. His directive over student behaviour reads rather naively in retrospect. But it does indicate that even a student audience at Cambridge in the presence of the king was expected to react vocally in the course of a performance, and to maintain a distracting level of background noise and activity.



At the amphitheatres the vastly greater crowds, the packed mass of "understanders" and the open-air acoustics could generate a higher intensity of audience reaction and hubbub than the halls with their padded benches and seated clientele.



Small and darker as the candlelit halls were, though, they did not change the most basic feature of the amphitheatre auditorium. They had windows to let in some light, and although at the "Torchy Fryers" the auditorium might not have had the candle power of the Globe's daylight, at neither playhouse was there any thought of using darkness to conceal the playgoers from the players and from themselves. Thus at every performance, while the play was on, Thomas Dekker's gull and his fellow gallants in the audience were free to distract themselves and others by their attention-seeking antics. Not surprisingly, there was a good deal of comment on their behaviour.



In the 1590s before the halls reopened gallants occupied the lords' rooms, or the front places in the galleries. Jonson's Every Man Out (1599), written for Shakespeare's company, identifies a gallant

Who (to be thought one of the judicious)
Sits with his armes thus wreath'd, his hat pull'd here,
Cryes meaw, and nods, then shakes his empty head ...

in visible response to the action on the stage platform.



This kind of self-conscious criticising was taken by John Marston a year or two later at Paul's to be a matter for words as well as gestures. In the induction to What You Will (1601) Phylomusus, friend of the author and speaker of the prologue, complains of "some halfe a dozen rancorous breasts" who come to the play to advertise their hostility to the poet. The outcome would be that

... some juicles husk,
Some boundless ignorance should on sudden shoote
His grosse knob'd burbolt, with thats not so good,
Mew, blirt, ha, ha, light Chaffy stuff ...



Deliberate interjections of that kind were probably most fashionable during the early years of the revived boy companies, when the so-called War of the Theatres harnessed the fashion for poetic railing, and put the attacks by poet against poet in front of titillated playgoers. Outside that phase, which did not outlive the boy companies of 1599-1608, the gallants in the hall playhouses would have made their peacock display as Jonson has Fitzdottrell describe it in The Devil Is an Ass (1616):


Today I goe to the Blackfryers Play-house,
Sit i' the view, salute all my acquaintance,
Rise up betweene the Acts, let fall my cloake,
Publish a handsome man, and a rich suite
(As that's a speciall end, why we goe thither,
All that pretend, to stand for't o' the Stage)
The Ladies aske who's that?



It may serve as a rough measure of the changes in behaviour at the playhouses which developed through the seventeenth century if we set Jonson's parody of a gallant at Blackfriars in 1616 against what Clitus-Alexandrinus (the Inns of Court poetaster Richard Brathwait) wrote about an amphitheatre playhouse in the 1620s. His Theophrastan character "A Ruffian" is a belligerent swaggerer who attends plays on his own terms.


... To a play they will hazard to go, though with never a rag of money: where after the second Act, when the Doore is weakly guarded, they will make forcible entrie; a knock with a Cudgell is the worst; whereat though they grumble, they rest pacified upon their admittance. Forthwith, by violent assault and assent, they aspire to the two-pennie roome; where being furnished with Tinder, Match, and a portion of decayed Barmoodas, they smoake it most terribly applaud a prophane jeast unmeasurably, and in the end grow distastefully rude to all the Companie. At the conclusion of all, they single out their dainty Doxes, to doze up a fruitlesse day with a sinnefull evening.



According to Brathwait such rufflers, probably paid-off soldiers, wore the swords and spurs of would-be gentlemen, though their behaviour was a crude burlesque of the gallants whom Jonson and Fitzgeoffery claimed to see at Blackfriars in 1616.



Playhouse crowds, for all their violence and exhibitionism, seem to have adopted an effective if anarchic regime of self-regulation. Authority of any kind was signally absent. If a pickpocket was caught, for instance, he could expect to be dealt with by a form of mob rule. Will Kemp in 1600 wrote of cutpurses being tied to one of the stage pillars "for all the people to wonder at, when at a play they are taken pilfring."



Cutpurses had to be expected at plays as readily as the whores whom Brathwait's ruffians looked for, not only in the amphitheatres. Dekker described their favourite localities as "the antient great grandfather Powles, & all other little churches his children, besides Parish Garden, or rather (places of more benefit) publick, & by your leave private play houses." All the attendant characteristics of large gatherings could be found there, from the secretive thief to the gentleman and whore. Such figures, though, were a fairly small proportion of the total throng, parasites as they were upon the many whose first purpose was to see the play.