Back in late sixteenth century there weren’t many ways for social gathering. For the royals and wealthy ones it would be the court, but for the mob it would be either taverns or theatres (what included visits from the wealthy ones too, I must say). Because of the masses gathering, theatres were politically relevant. In this text I will refer to open theatres like the Globe or the Swan, not the Blackfriars, which for having a roof, more confortable (yet fewer) chairs and more expensive tickets, thus more élitaire, doesn’t really serve my purpose here.
Theatres weren’t places only for those who could afford them, but for practically everyone: literate and illiterate, rich and poor. Theatre was also a sort of news channel, school, parliament, club and fashion show, not forgetting that theatre could be just entertainment.
Theatres had different prices and this way people of the same class would normally be next to each other. The more covered (roof-wise) and the more confortable the benches, the more expensive the ticket became and the other way round. Some patrons would even be allowed (against the most expensive ticket) to sit on the stage to see better and better be seen. So, in a theatre not only the fabric of the garments of theatregoers spoke for their rankings but also the place from where they watched a performance. A normal worker would be in position of affording a visit to the theatre regularly because cheapest tickets were cheap for the life standards of that time.
Theatre could be compared to fashion shows today not because anyone could buy (if they could afford) what they saw on the stage as elaborate costumes, since the Sumptuary Law forbade any common citizen of wearing certain fabrics as silk or velvet, for example, but because it was just fun to see what the noblesse and everybody else was wearing. Costumes were very important for playhouses, as they did not invest too much in sets and therefore costumes were perhaps the only way of linking characters to their professions or rankings.
Talking about fashion news, theatre was like a news channel. Audience members got information from other audience members (word of mouth) of what was going on and also learnt the news from the stage through verse or prose. Developments in science, abuses committed by the church and by royals, wars, stories of infidelity, family clashes, bastard children, witchcraft, rebel women and so on. Human beings were always keen on learning the news of their time and today it isn’t different.
Yes, Man is eager to learn even if education isn’t possible to all. Theatre in Shakespeare’s era provided culture not only in terms of entertainment but in terms of education too. Some audience members, the mob, would hardly be in position of hearing beautiful, melodic and poetic English in the streets if it wasn’t for the lines characters spoke. This was English and literature class they never thought they would get. They would probably know no science if wasn’t for some plays that worked around scientific topics. History and geography the mob learnt from plots of past wars in France or love relationships in Italy. Philosophy and psychology was present pretty much in every play and religion too, when Muslim men marry white Christian women – suddenly Muslims became human beings too, not only darkened enemy beasts from the south. Literate or illiterate, theatre was a school for all.
Theatre was also a dangerous mass gathering, when around three thousand people would come together for a performance. According to some historians, there was little violence during performances, some petty theft and even prostitution yes, but almost no fatal occurrences. The danger was the ideas being formed by the masses; single ideas that the majority of people shared and gained from the plays. More rights for women? Deposing a king? Starting a war against Spain? Audience members suddenly became parliament members because the power of the masses was always incontestable, even though the masses not always took action when they needed to out of fear, disinterest or egoism.
When I mentioned that theatre could be compared to a club today obviously I hadn’t pictured Renaissance people dancing to techno sounds, but being excited to what they were experiencing, standing, booing, throwing objects onto the stage, screaming and shouting to joy or repulse to what they were watching happening on stage. Certainly a little singing and dancing took place to the music they were listening. Theatre was a daylight club (not a night club), a matinée, a starter for further entertainment later in the evening and also a basis for hot debates, regardless if those debating it were people with or without reason. I am sure poets, actors and all the rest of theatre personnel would feel delighted to know that their work was being commented upon, not just forgotten. Bad marketing out of taste or ignorance can also be good marketing.
Audiences may have gone to the theatre for all the reasons which I explained before and many more, but still in the first place they wanted to be entertained and Renaissance theatres knew their business by offering numbers with the beloved clowns (the only artists allowed to speak ill in public about the royals including the queen and king in a funny way), musicians, boys-only troupes, mixed troupes with younger boys taking the women’s parts and older men taking all the other parts, stylised movements, convincing costumes, special sound effects and the interesting plots per se.
One thing is sure: audiences back in Shakespearean times were far more exciting than the ones we have today sitting quietly in the dark saving a critic in the safety of their anonymity of their computer screens, that is if they care even to think about what they just watched. Renaissance audiences were alive and aware, thirsty for knowledge and entertainment and they would come together as great supporters for art, always wanting more, always getting more because the change of repertoire would never stop as it never did.