What was the population of London during Shakespeare's time? What percentage of the population was estimated to have attended plays?
The popularity of theatrical drama rose significantly during the era of William Shakespeare, which ran from about 1590 with Henry VI to 1613 with Henry VIII. London was established in the first century AD, and by Shakespeare’s time the population is estimated to have been about 200,000. While this sounds tiny to us compared to London’s modern population of more than 8 million, it was still one of the largest cities in the world at that time.
Some might be surprised at the make-up of Shakespeare’s audiences. To our modern ear, Shakespeare’s language sounds sophisticated and can be difficult to understand. We might expect his audience to be made up chiefly of the wealthy and well educated. However, the reality is quite different. Many of Shakespeare’s fans were everyday folks who paid about a penny to get into the theater. According to the Shakespeare Globe Trust,
One visitor, in 1617, described the crowd around the stage as ‘a gang of porters and carters’. Others talked of servants and apprentices spending all their spare time there.
According to the same source, between 10,000 and 20,000 people attended the theater weekly. That means that roughly 5-10% of the population was watching a play each week.