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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: February ::
Re: Groundlings & Literacy
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0233  Thursday, 11 February 1999.

[1]     From:   John Drakakis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 15:19:00 -0000
        Subj:   RE: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

[2]     From:   Rick Jones <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 09:56:34 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

[3]     From:   David Knauer <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 12:49:30 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

[4]     From:   Melissa D. Aaron <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 17:18:12 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Drakakis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 15:19:00 -0000
Subject: 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        RE: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

I wonder if Stephanie Hughes would be prepared to make a distinction
between "illiteracy" - a disadvantage in the modern literate world- and
"non-literacy"- a cast of mind radically different from our own and not
at all a disadvantage?

It seems to me that this distinction is crucial.  As for only
illiterates standing around, I'd be interested to know what the
sociological evidence for this is.

Cheers,
John Drakakis

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rick Jones <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 09:56:34 -0600
Subject: 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

Stephanie Hughes writes:

>Common sense would tell us that the immense popularity of the public
>theater was rather a reflection of illiteracy than literacy. A literate
>population would perhaps have been rather less eager to stand out in the
>rain and snow than one that could sit by the fire and read the same
>material (or some material). Certainly the theater served a far greater
>audience than publication, as editions generally ranged between 500 and
>1000, if memory serves. . . .

To me, this suggests only that theatre-going and play-reading are
different experiences, and that the former is more enjoyable to the
average person.  Imagine if instead of doing productions for today's
(literate) audiences, we merely provided copies of the script.  Good
idea?  I think not.

How many plays are read, now, compared with how many plays attended?  I
suspect the ratio is well under even.  Eliminate "assigned reading" for
college classes, and the disparity is even more overwhelming.

As for braving the elements: since Dale Lyles has introduced sports
analogies, let me suggest that "common sense" would dictate that the
good citizens of Green Bay would watch Packers games on TV, or read
about them in the next day's newspaper.  There is currently a six to ten
year waiting list for season tickets.  [Note to non-Americans: the Green
Bay (Wisconsin) Packers are an American football team; they often play
home games in conditions well below zero degrees, Fahrenheit: one
particularly famous game was played in temperatures over thirty degrees
below zero.  All of their games are be televised locally, some
nationally.]  "Being there" is a different experience, one that many
people are willing to sacrifice comfort to attain.

Finally, plays were seldom published, and if they were, it was generally
after any "buzz" had left the script.  There was no guarantee for the
literate potential spectator that the play would ever find its way into
print, or that it would do so within a decade.  Reading "some material"
instead of going to the theatre was of course an option, but one which I
suspect is impossible to quantify: the best we can do is guess, and I
doubt that Stephanie's estimates and my own would agree.

As to sources: the best and most comprehensive source I have read is Ann
Jennalie Cook's doctoral dissertation (Vanderbilt, 1972).  I believe it
was subsequently published, but I haven't read it in that form.  I'm
sure there's some more recent material available, hence my question in
an earlier post.  Anyone?

Rick Jones

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Knauer <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 12:49:30 -0600
Subject: 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        RE: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

When we're talking Shakespearean audiences, it seems to me that the
devil is in the details, requiring us to be all that more specific
rather than totalizing in our remarks.

Which theaters are we talking about?  The open and cheap amphitheaters
or the enclosed and more expensive so-called "private" theaters (e.g.
Blackfriars)?  Alexander Leggatt's book (Jacobean Private Theatre, I
think) argues that there was a very clear class distinction between the
audiences of the two; indeed many dramatic prologues of the era describe
which kind of audience might be found where, and Leggatt quotes a lot of
them.  Class certainly bears on literacy.  That doesn't mean, of course,
that dramatists were above flattering one audience at the expense of
another across town, and so I don't know if we can read these prologues
as sociologically accurate, as Leggatt seems to do.

Stephanie Hughes writes,

>Common sense would tell us that the immense popularity of the public
>theater was rather a reflection of illiteracy than literacy. A literate
>population would perhaps have been rather less eager to stand out in the
>rain and snow than one that could sit by the fire and read the same
>material (or some material).

There are a few reasons not to take this for granted.  The experience of
reading versus hearing/seeing a play is sufficiently different that
literates wouldn't necessarily prefer one to the other.  As your data
about the small size of dramatic editions (500-1000) show, plays weren't
that available for reading generally, and new plays in performance
usually weren't available as quartos simultaneously.  And, of course,
not everyone was exposed to weather even in the amphitheaters; somebody
had to sit in those galleries.

David Knauer

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Feb 1999 17:18:12 -0500
Subject: 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0226 Re: Groundlings & Literacy

>Melissa D. Aaron argues with reason that the inclusion of meat and drink
>in wages makes a huge difference.  But I wonder if the high cost of food
>undercuts my point considerably: if we take the 13d figure as the base
>wage, with an option to receive 8d plus food and drink, we must assume
>that over a third of the day's wage would be spent on food for the
>worker himself.

There is a certain amount of justice to this.

>Add in a family to feed, and the availability of
>disposable income plummets.  Remember, too, that workers often remained
>journeymen for years and years (forty-something journeymen were common):
>at significantly lower wages than master craftsmen.

Now, that is true.  But the document I cited was for journeymen wages
(Larkin & Hughes 3:22-23); sorry if I didn't make this clear, as this
affects the calculations considerably.  The same document looks as
though it was issued to adjust for the high cost of living in London,
which would seem to support the "workers could not afford the theater"
side of the argument.

>Melissa also argues that because of the number and size of the theatres
>in London relative to the city's population, "the theaters can't have
>been patronized only by 'privileged playgoers,' at least not the
>amphitheaters.  They'd have gone out of business."  Perhaps.  But I'd at
>least offer two counter-arguments.  First, we might suspect that the
>theatre was then, as now, patronized by tourists as part of "what one
>did" in London.  An extreme example in today's world would be to argue
>that there couldn't possibly be a theatre in Stratford, ON, or Ashland,
>OR, or Spring Green, WI because the local population couldn't support
>it.

That's possible, and we do have the eyewitness accounts of foreign
tourists.  But I'm wondering if we can compare tourism now to tourism
then.  Were there that many tourists?  There would have to have been a
lot,  and not just during a limited season, since the theaters were open
around nine months out of an average year.  Travel being what it was,
I'm not persuaded that one might, as now, casually travel 40+ miles to
see a play-what's an easy drive now was a miserable journey then. I'm
more likely to be persuaded that-

>Secondly, I'd suggest that the upper classes had more free time-and
>spent more of it at the theatre-than their modern equivalents, and that
>many of the types of responsibilities which would keep today's
>privileged classes away from matinees would not have done so in
>Shakespeare's time: the Inns of Court, for example, functioned largely
>at night.

--people up to London "on business" for other reasons--court cases,
etc.--might also have patronized the theater.

>All of which does not deny that there were no doubt some working-class
>people in Shakespeare's audience: but I am still resistant to the casual
>assumption that they constituted anything like a significant majority.
>
>[N.B. I am not suggesting that Melissa is casually assuming anything.]

Of course not!  One does not want to assume an audience of hearty,
joking "groundlings;"  that's more than teetering on the edge of
stereotype.

One of the problems with trying to decide these Early Modern class
issues is that much depends on where you draw the line.  When I am
suggesting that Shakespeare's audience is "privileged," or
"working-class,"   I need to define what those terms mean in an Early
Modern society.   Is a master craftsman who owns his own shop working
class?  or middle class?  What happens if he decides to shut his shop
for the day?  If I am an apprentice who hopes to own his own shop, am I
in a different socio-economic class than my master?  only temporarily?
"Privileged" is a similarly slippery term;  you can manipulate it so
that an awful lot of people look privileged, but the tone of the term
suggests a level of money and power that I'd  rather reserve for the
extreme upper echelons of society.

I do, however, insist on the human right to make impulsive decisions
about money.  As those who study debt and credit know, the Early Modern
period marks a positive explosion in people spending money they can't
afford.

Melissa D. Aaron
University of Michigan
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mdaaron/index.html
 

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