Shakespeare’s Audience

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Who would have attended an original Shakespeare production?

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.
(Hamlet, 3.2)

Most of the poorer audience members, referred to as groundlings, would pay one penny (which was almost an entire day’s wage) to stand in front of the stage, while the richer patrons would sit in the covered galleries, paying as much as half a crown each for their seats. In 1599, Thomas Platter, a Swiss doctor visiting London from Basel, reported the cost of admission in his diary:

“[There are] separate galleries and there one stands more comfortably and moreover can sit, but one pays more for it. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door. And in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost.” (Diary of Thomas Platter)

Shakespeare’s audience would have been composed of tanners, butchers, iron-workers, millers, seamen from the ships docked in the Thames, glovers, servants, shopkeepers, wig-makers, bakers, and countless other tradesmen and their families. Ben Jonson commented on the diversity of the playgoers in his verses praising Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess:

The wise and many headed bench
That sits upon the life and death of plays, is
Composed of gamester, captain, knight, knight’s man
Lady or pucelle, that wears mask or fan,
Velvet or taffeta cap, rank’d in the dark,
With the shop’s foreman, or some such brave spark,
That may judge for his sixpence. (Ben Jonson, Underwood)

Shakespeare’s audience was far more boisterous than are patrons of the theatre today. They were loud and hot-tempered and as interested in the happenings off stage as on. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries noted that “you will see such heaving and shoving, such itching and shouldering to sit by the women, such care for their garments that they be not trod on . . . such toying, such smiling, such winking, such manning them home … that it is a right comedy to mark their behaviour” (Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579). The nasty hecklers and gangs of riffraff would come from seedy parts in and around London like Tower-hill and Limehouse and Shakespeare made sure to point them out:

These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse,
and fight for bitten apples; that no audience, but
the Tribulation of Tower-hill, or the Limbs of
Limehouse, their dear brothers, are able to endure.
(Henry VIII, 5.4.65-8)