The Effect of Audiences on Renaissance Scripts


The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in Southwark invites discussion of the effect on the audiences of Shakespeare's plays by the kind of venue for which they were designed. The experiences of modern Globe audiences may potentially even validate the procedures displayed in the scripts, though modern critics such as the New Historicists rarely discuss the nuances of performance as a self-sufficient subject: they tend to abstract aesthetic, sociological, political, or even moralistic censure of texts. This emphasis was shared by the theoreticians of the sixteenth century, such as Sir Philip Sidney, whose Defense of Poetry censured Elizabethan stage practice from an Aristotelian point of view, rather than exploring the distinctive nature and dynamics of Elizabethan drama. Nevertheless, Shakespeare failed to defend his art as seen on the Globe stage, despite comments on "acting" throughout Hamlet and on theatrical illusion in the choruses to Henry V. As a result Hamlet's personal admonitions to the players are sometimes mistaken for hints of such an authorial account, for example by the celebrated Restoration actor, Thomas Betterton (as cited in Gildon's biography). Yet to take these academic censures for the dramatist's own views would be a classic error about the author's role. For the sophisticated Hamlet, fresh from the radical University of Wittenberg, cannot be equated with the non-university-educated Shakespeare: the play's hero is an aloof academic critic like Sidney, censuring the vulgarity of contemporary theatrical stage practices of companies such as Shakespeare's own. The doubts of some modern literary critics (like Harry Berger in Imaginary Audition) about the significance of the detailed practices of theatre arts thus finds analogous Renaissance precedents, not to mention Plato's wholesale repudiation of drama in The Republic.

Theorists both then and now share suspicion of naïve performers who deal directly with popular audiences' desire for lively stories about seductive personalities, whether in Renaissance England, Italy, or Spain—all locations where popular theatres shared professional practices to a remarkable degree. This affinity appears in the resemblance of the stage configurations of the Rose and Globe Theatres to the Spanish corrales de comedias like that at Almagro, and in the types of plots and characters which audiences preferred to see on these stages, preferences openly accepted by leading lights such as Cinthio, Lope de Vega, and Shakespeare. The tours of English players in Northern European countries such as Germany can be documented, but historical playhouse contacts between English performers and those of Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain are more elusive, despite shared methods and devices. However, there have been increasing efforts to co-ordinate the theatre practices of these countries in Louise Clubb's Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time, and the anthology Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance, edited by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shearing. My essay in the latter, "Shakespeare's Verismo and the Italian Popular Tradition," argued for Shakespeare's alertness to Italian precedents, seen in his use of Cinthio's tragicomedy Epitia as a model for Measure for Measure. Shakespeare also found sources in Cinthio's Hecatommithi, for Othello and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as for Measure for Measure. There are also some indications that commedia dell'arte troops did reach London in Shakespeare's time, in the protests of the Remembrancer of the City of London, Thomas Norton (co-author of the first Elizabethan tragedy, Gorboduc). In his Exhortation (1574) he warned the mayor against "unnecessary and scarcely honest resorts to plays, . . . and especially the assemblies to the unchaste, shameless, and unnatural tumblings of the Italian women" (Richmond, Shakespeare's Theatre, 315). So there may have been some women performers on Elizabethan stages, albeit Italians.

There is also now a greater sense of some consistency in themes, characters, and staging between the English and Spanish theatrical traditions, as reflected in the anthology Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama 1580-1680, edited by Louise and Peter Fothergill-Payne. However, in that book's section on "The Great Divide" between Elizabethan England and contemporary Spain, Don W. Cruikshank observes that, during the lifetime of William Shakespeare, England was more or less continuously at war with Spain, at least until the accession of James I. Thus, dramatists like Lope de Vega had only "a fairy-tale view of England" (199) despite surviving its circumnavigation as a member of the Spanish Armada in 1588. However, the English saw Spain as a major power, even if a hostile one: "works of Spanish literature were major sources of inspiration for English dramatists. . . . Spanish plots, characters, references, and words were almost too numerous to count" (203). In the narrower field of theatre, John J. Allen has also opened up what he calls "a possible relationship" between the similar open-air structures of the theatres of Lope de Vega and Shakespeare in his essay on "The Spanish Corrales de Comedias and the London Playhouses and Stages" in Franklin Hildy's anthology New Issues in the Reconstruction of Shakespeare's Theatre. Much remains to be done, particularly on any effects of direct personal contacts, but my concern here is focused on another aspect of the relationship of these three great theatrical traditions than was covered in these earlier studies. For the close resemblances between the three dramatic traditions suggest their playwrights might share the same artistic practices. As dramatists often working in similarly structured theatres, the discourses of the two non-English masters of theatre might explain professional resources and practices in which Shakespeare would share fully.

Of course, English critics such as Sir Philip Sidney had their neo-Aristotelian analogues in the French and Italian academies. These traditional classicists all served as exponents of artistic principles they held to be relevant to Renaissance drama. However, the stage practices of contemporary European playwrights often followed a different pattern from the academicians' ideas, which in turn generated a craft contrasting to Aristotelian precepts, one dictated by immediate audience responses not philosophical principles. This wholly contemporary ordering of drama is reflected in the vindication of his own stage practices in Cinthio's Discorsi (1554) on the nature of tragedy, comedy, and romance, which seek to vindicate the theatrical success found in "mixed" or double tragedies (tragedies with a happy ending for the good characters and unhappy for the bad ones). The popularity of this genre was reluctantly conceded even by Aristotle in his Poetics, though his personal taste was for a single, fatal plot. Such mixed plays approximate to those now identified as tragicomedies, following a term in the prologue to the Amphitryon of Plautus. The precedents in Cinthio were matched by Lope de Vega, in his El arte nuevo de haçer comedias (1609), which followed Cinthio in questioning the enforcement of academic abstractions in the face of overt audience responses and demands. The principles enunciated in these treatises provide the validation for Shakespeare's practices which the English theatre supposedly failed to provide, though there are echoes in the preface to a version of Guarini's Il pastor fido (1590), The Faithful Shepherd (1609), by John Fletcher (who succeeded Shakespeare as dramatist to the King's Men). In such texts, the tragicomic mixing of genres in a multi-layered plot is justified in a variety of ways: partly by its truth to the universal experience of the mixture of feelings, but above all by the greater entertainment value of diversity, in contrast to the consistent emotional tone exacted by classical genres.

Shakespeare is commonly held not to have provided such an overt aesthetic for this mixed genre of most of his plays; however, as a playwright he mostly conforms to the theories and practices of Cinthio and Lope in failing to follow Aristotelian norms (the most obvious exceptions being The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, which seem to observe the unities of time, place, and action). This flexible posture may be partly attributed to his debts to the "realistic" diversity of tone in Cinthio's novelle collection, the Hecatommithi, from which elements of Othello derive, not to mention such dramatic models as Cinthio's Epitia, with its specific precedents for the mixed moods of Measure for Measure. The explicit pragmatism of Cinthio and Lope in their treatises matches Shakespeare's questioning of the idealism of the failed academy of Love's Labour's Lost, and perhaps also in the ambiguous attitudes of the over-intellectual Hamlet, with his theoretician's carping at the uneven practices of the popular theatre (3.2.1ff.). However, the three dramatists were not writing exclusively for Hamlets but also for the "groundlings" whom Hamlet utterly despises. In contrast, we can find a much more accurate representation of the expedient evolution of stage practices in the early debates between the humble workmen in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1.2, 3.1), who approximate to a cross-section of popular elements in Shakespeare's own audience (while the aristocrats' more debatable views are included only later, and conflict with the success of Pyramus and Thisbe in performances for most audiences). The workmen's laborious application of audience-response to their planned performance matches that wryly accepted by Cinthio and Lope de Vega. The recent physical recovery (or recreation) of the theatres for which these dramatists composed invites us to re-animate the relevant aesthetic, which is not the rigorous Aristotelianism of critics such as Sir Philip Sidney but the expedient, popular dynamics of tragicomedy.

As the precursor and fullest expositor of the issues, Cinthio deserves priority. Ironically, as Camillo Guerrieri Crocetti notes in his edition of Giovambattista Giraldi Cinzio's Scritti critici (to which I am largely indebted for the following outline of Cinthio's career and quotations), Cinthio was himself an academic, professor of philosophy at the University of Ferrara, and tutor to the illegitimate son of Ercole II, and later ducal secretary (7). After retiring to Mondoví from Ferrara Cinthio wrote the Hecathommithi, now his best-known work. However, stage success came with his tragedy of Orbecche, although it provoked others to attack his theatrical innovations, such as the actual staging of the suicide of the hero. In a more classical vein, his other plays include Cleopatre and Didone. Later, violence obtruded even more drastically in his dramatic career when the presentation of his Altile before Pope Paolo III was stopped by the assassination of the lead actor, Flaminio Ariosto, a few hours before the perfomance. Nevertheless, the prologue included the assertion: "if you still insist that the play not be classified as tragedy, you can call it a tragicomedy" (8).

In a fuller development of this issue, in 1543 he wrote the letter containing his discourse on tragedy and comedy, first published in 1553 along with his Discorso intorno al comporre dei romanzi (1549), for which he was attacked bitterly once more, particularly by G. B. Pigna, his ex-student, who sought to vindicate more rigorous academic standards in a way anticipating Robert Greene's attacks on Shakespeare and other journeyman playwrights. The cause is readily apparent in the Discorso dei romanzi, in which Cinthio rejects established precedent: "the poet should never subject himself to tradition, nor lose sight of the innovations demanded by his own time." For Cinthio "the essential element of poetry is mimesis, that is, the imitation by which the Aristotelian concept distinguishes the poem from history in so far as the latter is an imitation of the particular and the former that of the universal, which, variably understood by the critics of period, was identified for Cinthio with veresimilitude" (13).

While Cinthio insists that the moral function of art "associates instruction with delight" (15) in Discorso sulle comedie e sulle tragedie, he also confronted the problems of the art of poetry in an Aristotelian context, while expressing a distinctively personal point of view (20). Thus he enlarged the limits beyond the space of a day, and his artistic exigencies appear vividly in the necessity to combine, for the purposes of catharsis, the comic element with the tragic, and to admit some scenes of horror and death on to the stage (22). Moreover, "his tragedies, if not works of art, are designed for the theatre more than the study, and respond or seek to respond to the preoccupations of the public. The mass of spectators is always present in the thought of Cinthio, not yet as in Castelvetro (who will make them into a tyrannical source of laws and rules), but as, in the following century (granted some indebtedness) with Lope de Vega, in his theatrical composition (as he affirms in his little treatise), who applied it in stage practice and real life under the eyes of the concerned spectators for whom it was designed" (22-3).

This is not to say that Cinthio favors the modern fashion of attracting attention by violating standards of plausibility or coherence. He even provides precedents for Hamlet's advice to the players when he indicates his concern for sobriety in serious drama:

I see some in our time (to speak of comedy) who many times have moved laughter on the stage, although they achieve that by unseemly and dirty methods, with irrelevant behavior, worthy rather of drunkards and taverns and disreputable persons rather than by praiseworthy actions, which acquire all praise, and lead to a proper ending as befits a well-conducted comedy. While such things as are done do not reflect decorum or manners, or anything else which belongs to a worthy action. Into this error, Messr Giulio, no poet will ever run who considers that these jokes and sentiments which bring laughs into comedy should come there with a propriety which is not remote, not lying, not affected, not dragged in, but as they are born from things themselves, with that dexterity and that smooth method which is achieved by things natural and not distant from the civil and good manners, such that they can be used properly amongst citizens.

However, Crocetti asserts that catharsis can, according to Cinthio, be obtained in various ways. Peripeteia, or reversal of a situation to elicit pity and terror, can occur either when a hero passes from a happy state to an unhappy one, or in the opposite situation, in which the wicked fall from good fortune to bad, while the good go from misfortune to good. The two latter outcomes are those of tragicomedy alone or combined, of which the larger versions, richer in characterization and plots, are dear to Cinthio. Because tragicomedy does not lose sight of the effect of moral purification and the emotions that produce this, tragicomedy equals formal tragedy, and is more enjoyed by the public than the latter. The interest for Cinthio of tragicomedy lies in a lively need for novelty, which places him, despite contrary pressures, outside of Aristotelianism. His tragicomedy was a daring twist away from the distinction between the genres defined by classical experience. As Crocetti concludes:

Those who will champion or later assume the defense of the new genre will call on nature with a broader perspective in which laughter and lament, the serious and facetious, the sublime and the mediocre recur either alternately or mixed together in the unity of life, of reality. These will be the arguments maintained by Juan de la Cuerva, by Lope da Vega . . . in their treatises. In the ferment of these problems and of criticisms more or less severe, Giraldi did not limit himself to proposals but wished rather to activate, if not happily, his conception, which will open new horizons in the theatre, into which Lope de Vega, Calderon, and Shakespeare will expand.

These precedents in Cinthio were indeed matched by Lope de Vega in his brief verse treatise El arte nuevo de hacer comedias (in Gilbert, 540-8), which followed Cinthio by questioning the enforcement of academic abstractions in the face of overt audience resistance and demands for other outcomes. Lope de Vega's validation of the stage practices of the commercial theatres of his time provides another justification for the practices of devotees of popular art against its Aristotelian critics, both then and now. This exposition of the values of the Renaissance popular stage indicates further criteria by which the impact of the restored Globe can be measured. Lope de Vega's more compact and candid outline of the values relevant to Shakespeare's practices at the Globe appears in his expository poem. This poem purports to be a respectful exposition to Aristotelian critics of the time about the practices and conditions of the contemporary theatre as found at Madrid theatres resembling the Globe: "You order me, lofty spirits of Spain, who in this society and illustrious academy will in a brief space of time exceed in excellence not only those of Italy, . . . but Athens too, . . . to write you a treatise on the art of making comedies which may be acceptable for the use of the public" (541). Throughout Lope ironically professes awareness of the aesthetic superiority of the neoclassical principles of drama which his academic audience derives from Aristotle, while bemoaning the quite different dramaturgy exacted of him by contemporary audiences: "I write in the manner of those devisers who aspire to the acclaim of the crowd; for, since it is the crowd that pays, it is proper to speak to it stupidly in order to please" (542). This is that "quantity of barren spectators" whom Hamlet censures (3.3.41). Modern theatre critics following Lope's perspective may see the populist character of performances at the reconstructed Globe less well through the eyes of an intellectual such as Hamlet than from the perspective of an experienced practitioner such as Lope de Vega.

Popular theatre audiences are also the ones for whom Lope de Vega insists his predecessors, such as Lope de Rueda, had composed their earlier comedies. So crude were their expectations, he notes, that Rueda introduced into them "the affairs of mechanics, and the love of a blacksmith's daughter" (542)—seemingly matched by the "mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the "jailer's daughter" in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Rueda excelled in playing rascals and fools, who also appealed to Shakespeare. Morover, two of Rueda's plays are based on Italian originals which were used by Shakespeare: Eufemia like Cymbeline derived from Boccaccio, and Los engañados like Twelfth Night from the anonymous Gl'ingannati. The ancient Athenian precedents, of course, had higher critical status, for Cicero had called them "a mirror of customs and a vivid image of truth" (543). His metaphor provides another academic precedent for Hamlet's expectation of plays which will "hold the mirror up to nature" (3.3.22). But for Lope de Vega modern audiences are less traditionally minded: "you asked me to write on the art of making comedies in Spain, where whatever is written is against art; and to tell you how comedies are written, contrary to ancient art and the foundation, is to ask me to give my experience rather than art" (543).

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Lope then proceeds to expound a new set of procedures imposed because "I have to obey those who can command me, . . . gilding the error of the mob" (544). After asserting that kings may appear in modern as in ancient comedy, Lope enunciates his first assumption of the nature of popular drama: "The tragic mixed with the comic, Terence with Seneca, although it be like another Minotaur of Pasiphae, will make one part grave, the other absurd: and this variety gives much delight. Nature gives us a good example, for because of such variety it has beauty" (544). Lope then concedes the Aristotelian principle of unity: "one should not be able to remove any part of it without destroying the whole context" (544). However, he absolutely rejects the other constrictions on theatre required by Sidney: "It is not necessary to prescribe that it take place within the limits of one day, though this is a precept of Aristotle" but only "in the least time possible" (544). However, historical material may require a gap of "several years" between the acts (as in The Winter's Tale), or "a character can go on some journey" (544), as in Cymbeline. As for the unity of time, Lope ridicules the compression required by the limit of one day's action on stage, because of "the years that must elapse in matter which ends in one artificial day" (545). By contrast, modern Spaniards are quite happy to progress from Creation to Last Judgment "within two hours." Obviously, Spanish plays share in the comprehensive chronology of the English medieval drama, from which Shakespeare and his audiences inherited their indifference to the unity of time.

In terms of format, Lope had favored three acts, perhaps with interludes, though he says that more recently he has favored "a dance, because dance means so much in comedy" (545). In this he shares the values reflected in Will Kempe's jigs, which regularly concluded any kind of dramatic presentation at such theatres as the Rose and Globe, and may even have served to "deconstruct" any tragic mood. Such assertions justify the Dance of Death with which Mark Rylance recently concluded his first Hamlet at the Globe, with highly positive audience response. Equally aware of audience response, Lope insists: "Do not permit the denouement until you arrive at the last scene: for when the crowd knows the end, it turns its face to the door and its back on the conclusion" (545). For similar reasons, "rarely should the stage be left without a character who is speaking, for in these intervals the crowd becomes unquiet" (545). As for characterization Lope requires the appropriate language, whether for kings, or lower classes: "How deceptive the servants are, how shameless the lady is, full of fraud and wiles of every sort!" (548). By similar analogy to Shakespeare's witty transvestite heroines, we find the counsel: "Let ladies be in keeping with their characters, and if they change costume let it be in a manner that can be excused, for male disguise is very pleasing" (546). He notes "How wretched, unhappy, foolish and inept the lover" appears to be in most Spanish popular drama (548), just like Shakespeare's Orlando, Orsino, or Bertram. Despite such stereotyping of characterization, consistency of costume is irrelevant: "for in Spain today, comedy is full of barbarous things: a Turk wearing a Christian's neck-gear and a Roman in tight breeches" (547). This resembles Peacham's sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus. Here we can see the shared timeless aesthetic of the Spanish and English Renaissance theatres, with clear guidelines for modern theatrical experiments at the Globe. There is some divergence from the scrupulous medievalism of the Globe's first Henry V. Modern designers seemingly should not be overzealous for historical production values in their costumes if they wish to explore the original popular staging of Shakespeare.

Overall, Lope stresses the primary need for suspense throughout so that "until the middle of the third act no one can even guess at the solution. Always deceive anticipation, and so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may be left to the understanding" (as with the notorious last scene of Cymbeline). Indeed, "equivocal speech and the uncertainty arising from the ambiguous has always held a great place with the crowd for it thinks that it alone understands what the other man is saying" (as with audiences' delight in the equivocations of Richard of Gloucester's black humor). Such considerations suggest that, rather than seeking to rationalize Shakespeare's intentions more subtly, one might simply explore the reversals and paradoxes of his plotting as staging devices to capture and retain audiences' attention.

For, in the end, on the basis of his own 438 comedies (of which "all except six of them sin grievously against art"), Lope repudiates theory divorced from expert practice, which is its own justification: "Listen attentively, and do not dispute about art, for in comedy everything will be found of such a sort that if you listen to it everything is apparent" (548). Thus the principles enunciated in the treatises of Cinthio and Lope de Vega provide a validation for Shakespeare's practices, as echoed in the preface about tragicomedy to The Faithful Shepherdess, by John Fletcher (also dramatist to the King's Men). In such texts, the tragicomic mixing of genres in a multi-layered plot is justified in a variety of ways: partly by its truth to the universal experience of the mixture of feelings, but above all by the greater entertainment value of diversity, in contrast to the more consistent emotional tone exacted by classical genres. Hence Shakespeare's titles: As You Like It and What You Will—the "you" refers to the response of actual theatre audiences of 1600, making the ultimate consideration simply the actors' direct interaction with such specific live audiences. The recent physical recovery (or recreation) of the Renaissance theatres for which the three dramatists composed invites more awareness of this expedient aesthetic. Rather than applying the rigorous neo-Aristotelianism of critics such as Sidney, we might recognize the more expedient dynamics of popular tragicomedy in all ages from classical Greece through Renaissance Ferrara and Madrid, down to the modern restored Globe Theatre. © HMR


Allen, John J. 1990. The Spanish Corrales de Comedias and the London Playhouses and Stages. In New Issues in the Reconstruction of Shakespeare's Theatre, ed. Franklin Hildy. New York: Peter Lang.

Cinzio, G. G. Giraldi. 1973. Scritti critici. Ed. Camillo Guerrieri Crocetti. Milano: Marzorati.

Clubb, Louise G. 1989. Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Fothergill-Payne, Louise and Peter, eds. 1991. Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama 1580-1680. Cranbury, NJ: Associated Univ. Presses.

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.

Hildy, Franklin, ed. 1990. New Issues in the Reconstruction of Shakespeare's Theatre. New York: Peter Lang.

Richmond, Hugh Macrae. 2002. Shakespeare's Theatre: A Dictionary of His Stage Context. London: Continuum International.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond