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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: February ::
Re: Groundlings & Literacy
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0206  Monday, 8 February 1999.

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Sunday, 7 Feb 1999 10:04:49 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

[2]     From:   Rick Jones <
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        Date:   Sunday, 07 Feb 1999 10:46:35 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

[3]     From:   Ed Pixley <
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        Date:   Sunday, 07 Feb 1999 18:55:17 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

[4]     From:   John Drakakis <
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        Date:   Monday, 8 Feb 1999 00:28:19 -0000
        Subj:   RE: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Sunday, 7 Feb 1999 10:04:49 EST
Subject: 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

>  Like Rick Jones I too have wondered just what the literacy rate among
>  the audiences at the Elizabethan Playhouses must have been. The normal
>  estimates for literacy in London seem too low and I think a good case
>  can be made for it being higher among those who attended the theatre in
>  any event. Certainly Londoners were buying a great many broadsides and
>  not a few books-someone had to be reading them. Has anyone been working
>  on this?

I think Franklin makes a valid point: the literacy of the general
population is not unto itself a valid yardstick for estimating how many
theatre-goers were literate, any more than assessing the general
knowledge of the average highschool or even college graduate today is an
indice of the mean literacy rate of those who frequent the opera houses
or concert halls or Shakespearean plays. (Obviously, I am not only
talking about the ability to read and write.) By the death of Charles I
not even fifty years later, the average man was snapping up copies of
Eikon Basilike at an alarming rate:

        On the day of the king's execution, some 2,000 advance copies
        of the first issue . . . were released at the outrageous sum of
15s,
        and by 04 February 1649, hawkers were selling the second issue
        to the general public.  By the ninth of the month, the third
issue
        began to appear in bookstores, and within forty-five days of the
        execution, approximately twenty editions had been or were about
        to be issued . . . .  Despite the fact that it sold for much of
its
        heyday at 'a high black market price . . . [it] was reprinted
thirty-
        five times within the year.'

Surely, these were not all souvenirs?

Carol Barton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rick Jones <
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Date:           Sunday, 07 Feb 1999 10:46:35 -0600
Subject: 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

Frances Barasch says that I am "much mistaken about what 'prosperous
educated folks' laugh at."  I fear a misunderstanding.  My suggestion
that "prosperous, educated folk don't laugh at dirty jokes, after all"
was intended as an ironic portrayal of Victorian mythology, not as a
description of reality.  Apologies if I was unclear.

Both William Proctor Williams and David Knauer note the problems
inherent in claiming literacy for those who could write their own names,
and I certainly agree.  But if, as WPW says, "probably a majority of the
population could have read Titus Andronicus," I'd say that suggests a
fairly substantial level of literacy: whether or not the public could
write.  DK's evidence about the literacy rate is useful, and I will
check out the sources he recommends.  I am suspicious, however, of
claims that because plays didn't sell well, the audience wasn't
literate: plays don't sell well now, either, but the population is
certainly capable of reading (reading in a sophisticated manner is of
course another matter altogether).  Has anyone studied the ratio of
theatre-goers to play-buyers throughout history?  If not, maybe I'll put
that on my "to do" list.

Moreover, the conflation of the London public with Shakespeare's
audience seems to me a bit hasty.  It's been twenty years since I've
really studied this matter, but two things stick out in my memory.
First, although we think of the Elizabethan theatre as being
inexpensive, wages were very low, too.  The cost of entrance to the
theatre as a percentage of the daily wage of a laborer was about the
same then as now.  And, considering the general standard of living was
lower, I can we might reasonably interpolate that the cost of going to
the theatre as a percentage of "disposable income" was in fact higher in
1599 than in 1999.  Secondly, plays were presented in the afternoon,
when the butcher, baker and candle-stick maker (not to mention their
journeymen and apprentices) were at work.  This was really the source of
my question: has there been any recent work that would challenge my
impression of the literacy rate (as well as the wealth, social status,
etc.) of Shakespeare's actual audience, as opposed to the
Elizabethan/Jacobean society as a whole?

Rick Jones

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[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Pixley <
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Date:           Sunday, 07 Feb 1999 18:55:17 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

> >Taking due notice of our colleague's gadfly instincts, and of the
> >rhetorical device of hyperbole, I am still forced to wonder about
> >exactly how many of those spectators really were illiterate.  I have
> >long believed that the "groundling" character was largely a Victorian
> >caricature of what those people were really like, a myth propagated to
> >explain the bawdry: prosperous, educated folk don't laugh at dirty
> >jokes, after all.  Is not this rather romanticised view of Shakespeare's
> >audience simply an inversion of the assertion that a glover's son from
> >the provinces could not have written these plays?
>
> >Or has there been recent work (say, in the last ten years or so) which
> >would support an argument for a largely illiterate audience?
>
>  Rick Jones
>
> Rick Jones is much mistaken about what "prosperous educated folks" laugh
> at than or now.  continental theater history bears out the fondness for
> bawdry in ducal and royal courts of renaissance Europe .  Frances
> Barasch

Probably, Frances Barasch, by this time, you hare reread Rick Jones's
comments about the "prosperous educated folks" and realized that that
statement was only meant to characterize the myth that he suspects the
Victorians to have laid on Shakespeare's audience.   But just in case
you hadn't, I wanted to support what I believe he was saying.  I would
like to add one more point that has always bothered me about that
emphasis on his playing to the groundlings. I have always found most of
Shakespeare's treatment of the lower classes, particularly what we might
today think of as middle class, as extraordinarily caricatured and
condescending-and the humor built around such characters as laughing
more at them than with them. Is that what's meant for the groundlings?

Iconoclastically,
Ed Pixley

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Drakakis <
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Date:           Monday, 8 Feb 1999 00:28:19 -0000
Subject: 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        RE: SHK 10.0200 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

David Knauer is quite right to point to Peter Blayney's fine essay which
strips a few textual emperors of their rather flimsy clothing.

The instability of many of the texts of the period indicate an attitude
to writing that is foreign to modern literacy.  Also, it was a condition
laid down by the Stationers' Register for some of the apprentices
working in printing shops to be "put to school to learn to read and
write". .  This was the condition laid down for one apprentice in the
shop of James Roberts, who printed Q2 Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of
Venice Q1 and 2, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Q2 of Hamlet.
Presumably the stipulation that a printer's apprentice was required to
be literate suggests that this may not have been common.  I wonder

John Drakakis
 

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