The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0406  Thursday, 12 February 2004

From:           Al Magary <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 11 Feb 2004 16:28:52 -0800
Subject:        Did Shakespearean Audiences Talk Back to the Performers?

A funny column in the Cape Times (below) comments on audience
participation or interference, specifically by school audiences.  The
plot of Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) suggests that
rowdy audiences in Shakespeare's day might have gone beyond mere
reaction (cheers to boos) to talk back or even actively participate in
performances.  In Beaumont's comedy, a grocer and his wife in the
audience of a play-within-a-play barge onto the stage and force the
players to adopt a new character, a hero grocer-"knight of the burning

There are numerous examples of plays-within-plays, but these are
different as they don't involve the playhouse audience.  Hamlet has the
mime play within it, "The Murder of Gonzago," which the prince has
requested in revised form (2.2) and coaches the players on, but when it
is performed (3.2), there is no stage-audience participation, though
from our POV the real king, Claudius, deliberately walks out.  Taming of
the Shrew is five acts within a play.  Pyramus and Thisbe is an
interlude in MND.  Obviously a convention common in Sh.'s time.

But I am more curious about the Elizabethan audience talking back,
participating, interfering-as then dramatized by Beaumont.  Any reading

Al Magary
Some of Shakespeare's questions that invite schoolboy answers
By John Scott

Capt Times, Feb. 11, 2004


One of Shakespeare's problems, especially when there are a lot of
schoolboys in the audience, is that his characters ask so many leading

Some of them invite clever retorts, if you are a 13-year-old bored by
Elizabethan English and can't understand a lot of it, anyway. It could
explain the chattering that went on during the special schools
performance of Macbeth at Maynardville last week.

The distraction became so great, especially when a boy in the front row
had an audible cellphone conversation with his girlfriend, that leading
actor Kurt Wustmann broke character in the middle of a dramatic scene
and told them to "shut up!", or even stronger words to that effect.

It certainly got their attention in a way that up to that moment, the
Bard had failed to do.
I speak as a former schoolboy who was himself dragged off with his class
to see that year's setwork, Twelfth Night, being performed at the Labia
when it was still a theatre and not sliced up into cinemas.

We all brought our books with us, and at crucial moments in the play
read out the dialogue one line ahead of the actor then speaking.

"If music be the food of love ..." began Duke Orsini. "Play on, give me
excess of it," we chorused. "Play on, give me excess of it," the duke

I know what we would have done if someone had forcefed us Macbeth.

"When shall we three meet again?" asks one of the witches, in the very
first line.

"How about Sunday, after breakfast?" one of the clever dicks in our
class would probably have responded.

And the first line in the second act, uttered by Banquo (the
appropriately-named murder victim later to feature as a ghost at the
banquet), is: "How goes the night, boy?"

Schoolboy response: "Not too good, there're still four acts to go."

Then there's that knocking scene. Lady Macbeth says: "Hark, more
knocking." And the porter cries: "Knock, knock, knock, who's there, in
the name of Beelzebub?"

It's enough to make any irreverent schoolboy suggest that the knocker
might have more success if he sent an SMS [short message service, on
cellphones]. But let me not give anyone any more ideas.

Acting is already an insecure profession without wondering before each
night's performance how much adlibbed dialogue you may have to exchange
with the audience.

Yet they were an even rowdier lot in Shakespeare's day, and wealthier
patrons brought their own stools and took up position on the stage itself.

They would have had no compunction about answering a few of
Shakespeare's questions during a performance, either.

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