Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shakespeare's audiences

From the Roxburghe Ballads.
Unversity of Victoria Library.

The public theatres were built to cater to a wide variety of levels of income*, from the "groundlings" to those who paid far more to sit in the "Gentlemen's rooms" or the "Lords' room." Apprentices* who could not read would have watched the same play as a member of the Court with a University education. Queen Elizabeth herself saw many of Shakespeare's plays in special performances at Court.

The range of social and educational levels in the audience was about as wide as it could be, especially since the brothels of London were close to where the theatres were built. And since the plays attracted a wide range of social levels, it is likely that a similar degree of variety in opinions and beliefs would have been present; it is one of the great strengths of Shakespeare's plays that they make remarkably few assumptions about the audience's responses to the great questions of that (or our) day. (The range of belief in the audience is explored further in the section on the supernatural.)

Perhaps the most sophisticated members of Shakespeare's audience would have been the actors for whom he wrote the parts; it was two actors who supervised the publication of the First Folio, and ever since it has been actors not scholars who have kept the plays on the stage.


  1. The cost of a trip to the theatre

    An apprentice could pay one penny to be a groundling, while a wealthy patron could spend twelve times as much (a shilling) to see the play from the Lord's Room.

    More about how much this might mean in today's money.

  2. Apprentices and "hard handed men" at the plays

    Catherine Loomis reminded those on the Shaksper discussion list of an early reference to the tastes of Shakespeare's audience.

    "Antony Scoloker, in the splenetic preface to Daiphantus, or the Passions of Love (1604), comments on genre and audience:

    ... yet your Genius ought to live with an honest soule indeed. It should be like the Never-too-well read Arcadia, where the Prose and Verce, (Matter and Words) are like his Mistresses eyes, one still excelling another and without Corivall; or to come home to the vulgars Element, like Friendly Shake-speares Tragedies, where the Commedian rides, when the Tragedian stands on Tip-toe. Faith it should please all, like Prince Hamlet. But in sadnesses, then it were to be feared he would runne mad.

    Scoloker's scorn for the vulgars and their element, and for Shakespeare's ability to please all, supports the conjecture that, however they were paying for it, hard-handed men were getting to the theater" (posted on Monday, 15 Feb 1999).