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The term “Shakespeare’s audience” opens a social question: who saw his plays, and who read the quartos as they were printed? We know that all social layers went to the public theatres, and we know that the elitist royal classes also patronized the companies for private performances. One of Shakespeare’s subtlest accomplishments was how he managed to satisfy the general public’s appetite for social protest without offending the ruling class (in fact, historians point out several close calls, especially with the performances of the history plays which, by definition, dealt with the very relatives of Queen Elizabeth.)
The Act IV Scene iv soliloquy (“how all occasions do inform against me”) is an excellent example of how Shakespeare accomplished the delicate balancing act. Its abstract discussion of action vs. inaction when a “sea of troubles” presents itself, together with the sufficiently distant conflict of Danish politics represented by the impending battle (“”Witness this army…”) give Shakespeare aesthetic room to voice the personal moral conflict each individual has between suffering injustices or bearing them because of loyalty to a monarch. The whole play is a dramatization of this very dilemma, and this soliloquy is the heart of the play’s theme. The general audience – that is, the patrons of the Globe – lived in constant fear of this same dichotomy, as do any peoples in a non-democratic world. Individuals’ complaints and justifications for revenge, however righteous, must be balanced against a citizen’s duty to the ruling bodies. This is why scholars question whether there ever was a private performance of Hamlet
Another often overlooked “audience” for Shakespeare’s plays was their readership. It has been shown that the quartos of his plays, printed and sold soon after their performance, spread quickly throughout the English population outside London, and served almost as a news bulletin of London politics. Some of them (here, again, the histories were most suspect) were considered disguised criticisms of Queen Elizabeth’s rule, and thus subject to censure. This soliloquy from Hamlet was like a virus of unrest in the kingdom.
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