Playgoing in Shakespeare's London Analysis

Andrew Gurr

Playgoing in Shakespeare's London

The magnitude and potency of William Shakespeare’s reputation often obscure much that is significant about the theatrical world in which his plays were first produced. Because Shakespeare now belongs to the Western tradition generally, and because almost four centuries of cultural experience—shaped in part by the plays themselves—stand between modern readers and the playwright, modern readers and audiences sometimes assume that the original performance circumstances are inconsequential or immaterial to the study of the plays’ meaning. Even those familiar with the history of Elizabethan acting companies sometimes forget that much of the original significance of the plays depends upon the audience that Shakespeare saw before him and sought to address. Minute critical examination of the plays, especially without regard for the practical exigencies of performance, also obscures the important shaping force that the audience—the consumers of the theatrical commodity—represents.

Without denying that the works of Shakespeare are immensely valuable and meaningful even to audiences unfamiliar with theater history, Andrew Gurr, professor of English at the University of Reading, England, offers all readers an opportunity to become acquainted with the rich world of the Elizabethan and Stuart stage in this brief but thorough study of “playgoing.” In the broad definition that he gives to the term, it includes not only the social and economic composition of the audience but also the physical circumstances of performance, the intellectual equipment of the audience, and the evolution of taste and preference between the opening of the Red Lion, London’s first amphitheater playhouse, in 1567, and the closing of London theaters at the beginning of English parliamentary wars in 1642. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, as the title implies, places Shakespeare’s plays in one of their most important social contexts, filling in with extensive reference to other contemporary works the background of taste, economics, and politics which shaped the evolution of the Shakespearean canon.

Throughout the work, Gurr looks at his subject from a historical perspective, always interested to show how various influences and pressures eventually developed into stable preferences, only to be replaced when new influences and pressures were brought to bear. In this approach, the author acknowledges the importance of earlier studies but also points out that the two previous major works on the Shakespearean audience had narrower limits and more restricted perspectives. At the outset, Gurr identifies the four kinds of evidence that he uses in his analysis of Shakespearean playgoing: the physical circumstances of performance, the demographic composition of the audience (some evidence for which appears as appendix 1), the body of contemporary comment on playgoing (collected in appendix 2), and the evidence for the “mental composition, the collective mind of people in company, of the kind of playgoer the hopeful poet might expect to find in the crowd at the venue intended for his play.” Using this evidence, most of which is analyzed in the middle three chapters, Gurr proceeds to a detailed and informative review of the evolution of theatrical taste during the period. In the last chapter, the study demonstrates its importance for increasing modern understanding of this rich period of dramatic creativity.

Regarding the physical circumstances of playgoing, Gurr extends and details much that is already familiar to anyone who is acquainted with the theater history of the period or with more extensive, specialist studies of the physical theater in Shakespeare’s time. The amphitheater playhouses, the Red Lion (1567) being the first and Shakespeare’s Globe (1599) the most famous, were modeled on the innyards and bear-baiting arenas that were centers of entertainment for the London population: a large platform at one end of an arena open to the sky was surrounded by a covered gallery of as many as three stories. The cheapest “seats” in the amphitheater were standing spaces in the arena; more well-to-do members of the audience could pay for sheltered seats and cushions in the galleries. Performances were always given in daylight, sometimes to audiences that numbered as many as three thousand. The hall playhouses, so called because they were constructed in great halls or assembly rooms of existing buildings, are the direct ancestors of modern theater structures. They had more select and consequently smaller audiences, as well as artificial lighting that made possible performances at night or during inclement weather. Amphitheater...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXIV, November, 1987, p. 226.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 30-November 5, 1987, p. 1197.