Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama

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In Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare put on plays in the Globe Theatre, why was it important to have an engaging opening?

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The public audience in London in Elizabethan times was neither educated nor patient.  The upper and middle classes paid a fair amount for a seat, but the groundlings, who stood in front of the stage, tended to be unruly and often a little intoxicated, at the theatre to be entertained and to socialize, and the play needed to catch their attention early and to hold it in action and mystery quickly.  While some of Shakespeare’s plays have prologues, sometimes delivered by a chorus figure (Romeo and Juliet, for example), they usually were lively and delivered by characters, not just speakers (see, for example, As You Like It), and were rich in “exposition”.  By contrast, Ben Jonson’s plays, written for a more educated and higher class audience, often began with “inductions,” long explanatory speeches of limited dramatic substance.  So Shakespeare chose to get right into the dramatic action, to catch the groundlings' attention and direct it toward the stage.  A good example is Julius Caesar, which opens with two characters chastising a group of commoners (purposely not unlike the groundlings).  This opening engages the audience, almost making them part of the Roman citizenry, and implies that the play’s authoritative figures are commanding the attention and obedience of the audience.

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