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Shakespeare's Audience and Audiences Today


Shakespeare’s audience for his outdoor plays was the very rich, the upper middle class, and the lower middle class. The lower middle class paid a penny for admittance to the yard (like the yard outside a school building), where they stood on the ground, with the stage more or less at eye level—these spectators were called groundlings. The rich paid two pennies for entrance to the galleries, covered seating at the sides. The rich paid three pennies to sit in the higher galleries, which had a better view. The best seats were in the lords’ rooms, private galleries closest to the stage.

How Much Did It Cost?

To get an idea of the cost of a ticket in today’s terms, consider that the average blue collar worker earned five to six pennies a day; bread for his midday meal cost a penny, ale cost another penny, and if he were lucky enough to have chicken for dinner, it cost two pennies. His rent was often a shilling (twelve pennies) a week, so there wasn’t much money left over for playgoing, nor would he have been able to take time off from work to go and see a play in the middle of the day, when they were usually performed.

Activity: Ask the students to set the space with room to sit on the floor (for the one penny seats), a semi-circle of chairs on the floor (for two-penny seats), and tables behind the chairs for three-penny seats. Depending on the size of the class, a second rank of tables with chairs on them may be set up as lords’ rooms.

Before the students decode what seating area they wish to be in, have them cost out the price of a ticket, using their allowances or earnings as a base for comparison with Elizabethan ticket prices and deducting amounts for rent and food,

Example: A student gets an allowance of $5 a week. He gets 500 pennies, as compared to the Elizabethan worker’s 36 pennies per week. Therefore, 14 of the student’s pennies equal one of the worker’s pennies. From his weekly allowance he must deduct his food and lodging, which would be 33 pennies Elizabethan (12 pennies for lodging and 3 pennies times 7 days for food). The worker has 3 pennies left for entertainment or extra chicken or ale. Let the student work out how much he has left for entertainment, and whether he will see one play with a very comfortable seat, or several, standing in the yard.

How Was Seeing a Play in Shakespeare’s Time Different from Seeing a Play Today?

Shakespeare’s audience was perhaps not as well behaved as you are. Since the play was so long, people would leave their seats and go looking for food to eat and ale to drink during the performance, or perhaps go visit with their friends. Some playgoers, especially those who had saved up money to come and see the play, were extremely annoyed if they were unable to hear the actors and would tell rowdy audience goers to quiet down.

Later in Shakespeare’s career, his acting company was invited to perform in noble houses and royal courts; the audience there was a good deal more polite, and focused on the play as you do.

Today’s Audience

Today, you have a lot of entertainment to choose from, not including the ones you provide yourselves, such as sports or putting on your own shows. Today’s audiences can choose television, movies, or stage shows, and there is a different kind of behavior that is right for each one.

Television audiences are the most casual; they don’t have to dress up, they don’t have reserved seats, and they can talk or go to the fridge whenever they want.

Movie audiences sometimes think they’re at home. Have you ever been annoyed by someone who sat behind you and kicked your chair or talked loudly so you couldn’t hear the movie? And you paid good money to go and see it, too! Then there are the people who can’t decide where to sit, and keep getting up in front of you so you can’t see the screen. What other behaviors have you seen which ruin your enjoyment?

People who go and see theatre (like you) usually pay more for a ticket than they would for a movie, and are most often annoyed by any disturbance. A theatre performance is not something you put on tape and play back on your VCR—it’s like seeing a basketball game live—there aren’t any instant replays. It requires your full attention, and you don’t want to be interrupted by other people talking and moving.

The actors who put on a show for you also want your attention—they’ve worked for a long time to develop a good production, and you can see them concentrating extremely hard to get the best meanings out of all they have to say and do. If you’ve seen any golf on television, you know that when the golfer is lining up his shot, even the announcers stop talking. What other situations can you think of where you need quiet and full concentration?

Activity: Take a four- or eight-line speech from the play and ask the students to memorize it while you provide some aural distraction (loud music, some of the students talking, you asking questions). Then have them write down what they remember. Take another speech of the same length, provide an environment with no distractions, and ask the students to study it. Then have them write down what they remember. The third method is to have the students study a speech in units of two or three, keeping the groups as far apart as possible, and keeping voices at a low level. This shows that interplay between actors helps memorization.

Utah Shakespeare Festival
Welcome to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. We hope you enjoy this Study Guide, but while you’re here you may want to explore the Festival a bit further. You can learn about this Tony Award-winning theatre, our plays, and so much more by visiting our home page.

What's On

The 39 Steps

June 22 - October 5, 2024

Randall L. Jones Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing

June 21 - October 5, 2024

Randall L. Jones Theatre

The Winter's Tale

June 18 - September 6, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Silent Sky

July 12 - October 5, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

RADA 2024 Production

July 30-August 3, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew

June 19 - September 7, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Henry VIII

June 17 - September 5, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

The Mountaintop

July 13 - October 5, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

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