chapter  2
What is an audience?
Pages 19

I In creating a taxonomy of the English Renaissance stage, the largest imponderable is surely the audience, the community that constructs itself around the performance of a play. Generalizations about the tastes of the audience and about the differences between audiences at different venues are rarely based on more evidence than can be inferred from the texts – and sometimes the only text we have is the play’s title and the assertion that it was performed at a particular place or before a particular audience. This in fact constitutes a very large body of evidence – there are several hundred surviving plays and masques from the period, and references to hundreds more that are lost – but the texts tell us at most half of what we need to know, only what was intended, or what the performers or playwrights or publishers wished to preserve, and nothing about the response. For modern historians of the Renaissance stage, the problem of evidence is compounded by the difficulty of reconstructing an early modern sensibility: to put it crudely, there is no reason to assume that audiences in the age of Shakespeare responded to the same things and in the same ways that we do, and there is, indeed, some striking evidence to the contrary. Consider, for example, the case of Simon Forman, who went to see The Winter’s Tale at the Globe in May 1611, when it would have been new, and recorded his reactions in his journal. Here is the account, which I quote in full in a modernized text:

In The Winter’s Tale at the Globe 1611 the 15 of May Wednesday, observe there how Leontes the King of Sicilia was overcome with jealousy of his wife with the King of Bohemia, his friend that came to see him, and how he contrived his death and would have had his cupbearer to have poisoned, who gave the King of Bohemia warning thereof and fled with him to Bohemia.