“Audiences” in Shakespeare and the Making of Theatre

[This piece was originally published in Shakespeare and the Making of Theatre, eds Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Bridget Escolme (Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 165-89. I am publishing it here under the terms I negotiated with Palgrave for self-archiving my work under my usual CC-BY-NC license; those terms were that I could post a pre-copyedited version of my contribution on my own website or institutional repository. So here you are! I hope that you’ll take a look at the table of contents and, especially if you like what I’ve written, you consider buying the full volume or asking your library to do so. It’s reasonably priced as a paperback, and it has some wonderful material in it. We’ve all written pieces that are intended to introduce undergraduates and others interested in a performance-based approach to Shakespeare’s plays and I think you’ll find it both accessible and thought-provoking. If you’re curious about the process of negotiating a new contract, you can read my posts on the subject here and here.]

Sarah Werner, “Audiences” in Shakespeare and the Making of Theatre, eds Hampton-Reeves and Escolme

The subject of this chapter is at once both utterly obvious and bafflingly inexplicable. While on the one hand it is a commonplace that theatre needs, at minimum, both performers and audience, on the other hand, there is rarely sufficient questioning of what it is that audiences do. What does the presence of an audience bring to the dynamic of a performance? In Jerzy Grotowski’s words, theatre is “what takes place between spectator and actor” (2002, 32). But what is it that actually takes place? Consider the list of questions we could ask about that relationship between spectator and actor:

  • Are audiences passive receptacles for a performance’s meaning, ideally infused with the sense of the actors’ performance but in danger, on the flip side, of utterly failing to understand what the performance is telling them?
  • Or does an audience participate in a performance, bringing their own reactions and sensibilities to bear upon the meanings that are created in performance? Are they makers of meaning rather than receptacles for it?
  • Is an audience a collective body, something of which we can speak in the singular?
  • Or are audiences collections of individual bodies, an aggregation of many different responses that should more accurately be described in the plural?

This chapter will not answer these questions definitively—these are questions that cannot be answered definitively, and it is not the purpose of this book to theorize the reception of theatre. Rather, I want to foreground these questions in order to think about how assumptions about the role of audience might affect how Shakespeare is made in the theatre.

In exploring the role of audiences, I focus on today’s audiences in today’s theatres. Other scholars have speculated about early modern audiences, but such work is not only speculative (if it can be difficult to know what today’s audiences are doing, it is even harder to ascribe responses to past audiences), but also often unproductive for today’s practitioners. If early modern audiences were rowdy, does that mean that today’s audiences should be? And if they are rowdy, are they being so in the same way that a 1590s audience would have been? To focus on today’s audiences does not, of course, completely eliminate a consideration of early audiences. Whether they are the same or not, both audiences are responding to a script that is approximately the same and both audiences watch their own contemporaries performing that script onstage. And, indeed, those scripts make clear that audiences are often centrally involved to the performance of a play. When Hamlet opens with the question, “Who’s there?” the answer is not only Francisco and Bernardo, but also that we are always there. As Bridget Escolme (2005) has argued, the moments of audience address in Shakespeare’s plays are the moments that give shape to the characters on stage and to our attitudes towards them, moments that raise fundamental questions about how and who we are. But audiences’ interactions with a performance are shaped by extra-textual matters as well: playhouse architecture, performer interactions, the personal lives of spectators (see Knowles 2005 for a persuasive account of the myriad factors shaping audience reception). All these elements come together in affecting the two-way interactions between audience and performance.

Many (though not all) of the performances I discuss in this chapter are not typical of Shakespearean productions, especially in their conscious efforts to highlight the interactions between actor and audience. But if they are atypical, what seems different about them showcases more effectively those elements of making theatre and making audiences that are true for all productions.

Audience address: in text and on stage

The most obvious place to start thinking about audience is in those moments where they are clearly being addressed. Roles like that of the Chorus in Henry V, Gower in Pericles, Time in The Winter’s Tale, and Rumour in 2 Henry IV exist to present the play to the audience; they speak directly to the spectators, influencing their perception of the story. As their names indicate, they are less characters than roles, appearing not so much as full-fledged people than as windows into the play. They are not, of course, necessarily transparent windows. Rumour identifies his bias from the start, but leaves unsaid what the connection might be between the rumors that he tells us are being spread and the action that follows—what is the connection between history and theatre and rumor? The Chorus is even slipperier, presenting himself as a neutral master of ceremonies who will help the audience imagine the real story behind the actors’ fictions, addressing the audience in order to encourage them to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (H5 Pro. 23). But is his the only point of view in the play? Compare his speech at the start of the third act extolling the heroics of all English men, “For who is he, whose chin is but enriched / With one appearing hair, that will not follow / These culled and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?” (3.0.22-24), with the scene forty-five lines later, when Nim, Bardolph, and Pistol expressively refuse to follow Henry once more unto the breach at Harfleur. The Chorus might directly address the audience, but the play stages actions that present an alternate point of view, one that is less boosterish of Henry and more cynical about his motives and actions.

We are, of course, generally taught that Shakespeare’s characters do not lie to the audience, or to themselves: when they speak in soliloquy, they are speaking what is true to them. In the opening scene of As You Like It, after Oliver has fought with his brother Orlando and set him up to lose in the wrestling match, he speaks alone on stage and confesses,

I hope I shall see an end of him, for my soul—and I know not why—hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and, indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be so long. (1.1.139-45)

The speech is, in part, plot information. The audience is likely to be wondering why Oliver treats Orlando as he does; here Orlando explains it. He hates Orlando because everyone else loves him, though he also insists that he does not know why he hates him; there both is and is not reason for that hatred, but the speech emphasizes that hatred is at the heart of Oliver’s actions. There are other addresses to the audience that have the same effect of commenting on a character’s actions. In Taming of the Shrew, what is Petruccio up to in refusing to let Katherine eat? He tells us in a soliloquy mid-way through the play:

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour. (Shrew 4.1.171-73, 189-90)

And now we know what Petruccio is doing: he is taming Katherine, just as one might train a falcon.

The question to ask about these moments of direct address is not why is the character saying these lines, but why is the character saying these lines to the audience. If the purpose of moments such as these is to provide plot information and explanation, then why not have the character explicate his actions to another character onstage? Could Petruccio not divulge his strategy to Grumio? The last lines of Petruccio’s speech help us understand what is lost if it were delivered to another character: “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak. ’Tis charity to show” (4.1.191-92). The speech does not simply state information but draws the audience into the situation, making the audience complicit in Petruccio’s actions, or at least making them question their relationship to those actions. Delivered to another character, the challenge of Petruccio’s last lines stays within the fictional world of the play; delivered to the audience, the challenge expands to us all. The inclusion of the audience also shifts the responsibility for a character’s actions. By including us in his strategy, and by staying silent when questioned, do we become complicit in Petruccio’s treatment of Katherine? Bridget Escolme, in her study of the effects of audience address, argues that when a performer shares his or her process with the audience, speaking to them and involving them in the performance, a spectator becomes invested in that character.  In her account of watching Antony Sher’s Macbeth, Escolme wonders at her inability to pass judgement: “I can’t judge Macbeth because I feel partially responsible for the figure he becomes in the act of performing to me” (2005, 4). (See the next section for more on audience response to Petruccio’s soliloquy.)

If it seems obvious while reading the text that Oliver’s and Petruccio’s lines are addressed to the audience, other moments in Shakespeare’s plays are less clear-cut. When Lear finds himself arguing with Goneril over the behavior of his retinue, he expresses his outrage over the insult:

Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—ha, waking? ’Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (Folio text, 1.4.191-95)

Within the fictional world of the play, these are questions addressed to the other onstage characters, with the fallacy of his outrage punctured when (in the Folio version of the play) the Fool answers his final question: “Lear’s shadow” (1.4.196). But in performance, are those questions that also take in the audience? Does Lear turn to the audience to include them in his address? Does the audience consider themselves addressed even if Lear does not look at them? If we are addressed, how is our relationship to Lear and to Lear affected?

The moments in which a character explicitly or implicitly addresses the audience are moments that obviously create space for a production to speak to its audience and for the audience to speak back. But it is helpful to remember that unspoken moments can invite in the audience; problems in character motivation, for instance, can create a gap that an audience fills with its own sense of consistency. Leontes’s outsized jealousy often proves a stumbling block in The Winter’s Tale: why is he so convinced that his wife is having an affair with his best friend? How can he dismiss her and their infant daughter so quickly? The playscript does not provide words to obviously answer these questions, but that absence need not be a block for the audience. In the 2009 production I saw directed by Sam Mendes for The Bridge Project, those questions were not answered explicitly, but were called attention to by the production’s repetition of the haunting lullaby that Leontes hummed when tucking his son in at the start of the play and instinctively reprised when he briefly comforted his infant daughter before putting her aside and turning away. That soundscape, in drawing on the audience’s own experiences of parenthood (ticket prices and venues meant that the audiences in Brooklyn and in London included many adults of parenting age), used those audience memories to generate a sense of both of Leontes’s loss in refusing his baby and of investment in that baby’s welfare. What is left blank in the text is filled in the production by the audience’s emotional response. (See Hartley 2010 for an exploration of the phenomenology of theatre that makes both possible and necessary such responses.)

These examples have all been focused on the connections made with audiences by looking at the text for openings to invite them in. But it is also important to look at the theatre into which you are inviting them. How will the auditorium and the surrounding space shape the audience’s expectations and experiences of the performance? The theatre in which I saw The Winter’s Tale, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, was built originally as a playhouse, then converted to a movie theatre in the 1940s, and abandoned in the late 60s. BAM converted it back to a theatrical space in 1987, renovating much of the performance space while leaving remnants of the theatre’s faded past visible in the architectural details and peeling paint. The result is a space that is both grand and faded, one that lends itself to a privileged nostalgia and that helped create the sense of longing that pervaded that production of The Winter’s Tale.

Responding to the past: The Globe’s restructed playhouse

Reactions to moments like what I have just discussed depend in part on what other cues an audience is picking up on their relationship to the performance and on how performers conceptualize their relationship to the audience. For while there can be signs in the text of direct address, there are no signs of how an audience might respond and no guarantee that an audience will react the way in which a performer expects. In her Shakespeare in Production edition of The Taming of the Shrew, Elizabeth Schafer records a range of performance strategies that have been employed for Petruccio’s taming soliloquy, discussed above. As she explains in her note, “This is a crucial speech which will affect how the audience feel about the treatment of Katherina” (Schafer 2002, 180). But her edition also records the resistance that audiences can put up to what they see and hear on stage. In the archival video of the 1978 Shakespeare in the Park production in New York, when Petruccio paused after “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak,” a woman in the audience is recorded “shouting out and suggesting Petruchio [sic] try a little tenderness”; the actor playing the role, Raúl Juliá, “suggested that would be less dramatic but added ‘I thank thee for thy advice’” (Schafer 2002, 183). This anecdote is revealing in many ways: it touches on the place of gender equality in the late 70s, on the popularity of Otis Redding, and on the star appeal of Raúl Juliá. But it also reveals how audience response is shaped by the nature of the performance; most observers would agree that it’s rare for a spectator to shout back at a production, but observers would also agree that audience behavior at a free, open-air performance is different than in a mainstream, indoor theatre.

Shouting back at a production is extreme, but other indications of audience response are not, and thus might be more suitable to exploring what factors shape the reception of a performance. To that end, I want to consider a moment in a 2008 performance of King Lear done at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. (1) This moment comes late in the production, in the last act. By this point in the performance, the audience has seen the division of the kingdom, riotous knights, naked wretches mingling with the audience during the storm scene, and—most horrifyingly—a sexualized blinding of Gloucester, in which the plucking out of his eyes turns into an act of foreplay for Cornwall and, especially, Regan. Cordelia has reappeared into the story, dressed in a modest grey dress with a wimple-like head covering, and has been reunited and then captured with her father. Goneril and Regan have battled for Edmund’s attention, Regan has been poisoned by Goneril, and Albany has discovered Goneril’s love for Edmund and their plot to kill him. After Edgar’s defeat of Edmund, Goneril laments, “Thou are not vanquished, / But cozened and beguiled” (5.3.143-44). At this line, Albany turns to her with his response, “Shut your mouth, dame” (144), and the audience laughs—not a chuckle, or a murmur, but a full-throated laugh, accompanied by cheers and applause.

Why does the audience laugh? What is funny about this moment? I don’t recall that the actor playing Albany set up this line as a laugh point. Nor do I recall this line in other productions getting such a reaction. So what is happening here? One possibility is that the line is funny because it sounds so very modern, so very much like how we talk today. It doesn’t use words like “cozened” or even “vanquished”, there’s no “thy”, there are no metaphors about names being “By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit” (Lear 5.3.112). Instead, “shut your mouth” is something colloquial and accessible, something an angry person today might say to someone who has betrayed them.

One possible understanding of this moment, then, is that “shut your mouth” can provoke laughter in the shock of its familiarity. It is also possible that the audience laughs because they are relieved that Goneril is finally getting her comeuppance. She’s been plotting against Albany and planning not only his death but those of her father and sisters. Is this the moment the villain gets caught, and good triumphs? It can get a laugh not necessarily because it’s funny, but because it is a moment of release from the tension driving the accumulation of bad deeds, an audience endorsement of Albany’s judgment against Goneril. But this is also a deeply gendered moment in a text that is full of slanders against women and in a production that flattened out any nuances of female behavior; in this King Lear, Regan and Goneril are especially evil, and Cordelia is especially good—a dynamic that does no favors to the audience appeal of any of them. The laughter and applause of the audience at this moment feels not only directed against Goneril, but against Goneril as a woman, a woman who has been held up by Lear and by this production as emblematic of all women’s unkindness. Edmund’s revelation as a villain is not greeted nearly as enthusiastically as Goneril’s as a villainess. Much of that is due to the dynamics of the playscript; those dynamics are further exaggerated by the choices of this production.

In the early years of the Globe, journalists reviewing its productions tended to judge the Globe audience as having the wrong response, looking down on them as tourists jollying up their London visit by pretending they were at a Disneyland experience rather than appreciating the theatrical importance of Shakespeare (see Prescott). It can be tempting, from the perspective of a Shakespeare or theatre scholar, to feel that an audience fails to appreciate a performance; Helen Freshwater provides many examples of the sort of tensions and disdain that can run these lines (42-55). The moment I have described could certainly be seen as the audience failing to get what was happening in the play; it could equally be described as a failure on the production’s part to get what Shakespeare was trying to do. But neither explanation addresses the ways in which meanings accrue in a performance through a variety of routes.

For instance, in exploring this moment of audience response, ought we to consider the impact of the reconstructed playhouse? In a theatre building that prides itself on its Renaissance construction, how much of the audience response is shaped by how it conceives Renaissance culture? What sort of cues are audiences getting from the playhouse (and its description in the program) that might allow for this response? Might the acceptance of the play’s nasty stereotypes of women be licensed by what the audience imagines is the appropriate “Renaissance” response?

A second moment of laughter from a Globe production is helpful to consider here, this time focused on Rosalind in a 2009 performance of As You Like It: “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak” (3.2.227-28). (2) Unlike “shut your mouth”, this line is obviously intended to be a laugh line. What I found surprising was that it got such big laughs, and applause, too. I don’t recall that the actor playing Rosalind hit that line any harder than any of her other laugh lines. And I don’t recall other productions getting the same huge response at that moment. In the same summer’s Royal Shakespeare Company production, at the performance I saw, the line got some laughs from the audience, but scattered laughs, mixed in with some mutters of disapproval (which seemed to me to be directed not toward the actor, but toward the audience’s laughter at the stereotype). And in the 1998 Globe production, the same line also got only scattered laughs. At the 2009 Globe performance I saw, however, the audience response was enormous, so much so that it reminded me of the King Lear that I saw there the previous summer.

As You Like It, of course, has a very different gendered dynamic than King Lear. It has its misogyny, including the slanders against women that Rosalind voices in the persona of Ganymede-as-Rosalind. But it is not generally a play that encourages a black-and-white view of women. Why, then, such an enthusiastic audience endorsement of the stereotype of the woman who cannot hold her tongue?

The answer, I think, lies in part in the contemporary note that I noticed in “shut your mouth.” This As You Like It was a version that played up the comedy with plenty of anachronistic mugging from Touchstone—at his entrance into Arden he does a sarcastic, but recognizably modern, arms-in-the-air victory dance (a dance that went sour when he stepped in some shit). And when Jaques explains the meaning of “ducdame” (2.5.53), he gestures so that the fools called into a circle are not the foresters (as is typical), but the Globe audience. In these ways, and in others, the production encouraged a participatory identification, setting up a dynamic in which the audience moves back into a Renaissance frame of mind, but moves back through the presentness of the play, through moments that are recognizably familiar. Jokes such as the seeming stumble Touchstone made when talking about “Your ‘if’ is the only pacemaker—peacemaker, not pacemaker” (5.4.91-2) reinforce the immediacy of the performance both by letting audiences feel the thrill of thinking they saw a mistake by the performer and by reminding them that this is a twenty-first-century actor playing to twenty-first-century spectators. (3)

These anachronistic moments help the audience see themselves in the play. But they might also give license to a politics in the audience that is not set free in other venues. What attitudes do audiences bring with them to reconstructed theatres and how might those politics might play out? If a theatrical space that looks early modern—that sells itself as being connected to original practices—is a safe haven for at least some audience members to give voice to anti-feminist sentiments, what does that mean for actors and directors who might not intend for those politics to come into play, or who might wish to counter those politics? I want to emphasize that I am not insisting that the plays need to be staged as feminist, or through any particular political discourse. But an awareness of audience responses is a necessary part of creating a theatrical event. And for performances in reconstructed theatrical spaces, the question of what assumptions an audience brings to that space—and how their gender politics are shaped by that space—needs to be further explored.

Foregrounding spectatorship: The Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies

So far I’ve been considering how audiences shape the meanings they find in and take from performances. But it is also possible to see audiences as more immediately being part of a performance. The Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Roman Tragedies is one example of how audiences can become part of a performance in ways that complicate both what they are watching and the act of watching. Roman Tragedies is a six-hour performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra that toured internationally in 2009-2010. Directed by Ivo van Hove and featuring a cast of actors as well as stage technicians who video and project live action and recorded clips, the production also centrally involved audience members who are invited onto stage, where they can sit on sofas to watch the live performance and the video playing on monitors, and where they buy and consume food and drinks. (Christian Billing’s review of the production, which he saw in its London venue, provides a detailed and thoughtful description of how the performance worked.)

It might be tempting to describe this as participatory theatre, the sort of communal, empowering enterprise that is often associated with Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre. (See Freshwater for a history of this theatre movement and a thoughtful critique of its limitations, pp 55-76.) And many of the reviews and buzz surrounding the show had to do with the movement of the audience, which was treated, correctly so, as a novelty for Shakespearean theatre. But the effect of this audience movement situated spectators not as participants in the drama, but as fractured consumers of it. Audience members did not interact with the actors, even when seated next to them. And much of the time, especially for those seated on stage, spectators preferred to watch the videos playing on the screens in front of them, rather than the live actors next to them. Even when occupying the same space, audience and actors did not share the stage.

One effect of this was to highlight the ways in which all spectators see different performances. Even in traditionally designed theatre, one individual audience member will react to and understand a performance differently than another audience member. In Roman Tragedies, each member of the audience experienced the production from a different perspective, whether that perspective came from where in the theatre or stage they were sitting or from which monitor they were watching. (Of course, spectators were not required to move around during the performance, and there were certainly people who chose not to do so. I was one of those: when I saw the production in Montreal, I stayed in the same seat in the auditorium for the whole six hours.)

While highlighting the multiple perspectives of the audience was one result of the audience staging, a more prominent effect was to situate the audience as passive consumers of the spectacle and politics being played out in the performance. For even while the audience moved to and from the auditorium to the stage, they did so at the behest of the production: loudspeaker announcements urged audience members to come on stage after the first twenty minutes and shooed them back to their seats for the final hour of the performance. The audience’s movements were both encouraged and circumscribed in ways reflecting the production’s larger themes. In reshaping Shakespeare’s plays for his Roman Tragedies, van Hove not only updated the mise-en-scène to a modern world of politics (complete with power suits, Senate hearings, and omnipresent media broadcasts), but he cut out all the scenes of the plebeians: there were no citizens listening to Coriolanus’s plea, no murdering Cinna the Poet, no guards querying Antony’s effeminization by Cleopatra. Any direct addresses to the citizens in Shakespeare’s plays were staged as being spoken into television cameras, videos that were then broadcast back to the audience on monitors. That offstage citizenry was replaced by the onstage bodies of the audience, but rather than talking back or rebelling in any of the mob-like ways that Shakespeare’s plebeians do, the audience of Roman Tragedies remained silent and docile, consuming food, news, and spectacle. By bringing the audience on stage and into proximity with the actors, van Hove and Toneelgroep emphasized how removed we are from political centers of power today, and how much we have ceded our voices and actions to the lulling comforts of mediated watching. The presence of the audience is a crucial part of how Roman Tragedies makes its meanings, but it works by striking a balance between staging the audience to itself, both incorporating them into the play’s mise-en-scène and keeping them at an arm’s length from the action.

It is possible, in my description of this production, to see its treatment of the audience as slightly hostile, as if the production were using the audience against itself. But that would misunderstand how central the audience was to the performance’s success. There was nothing underhanded about how the production worked; there was no expectation that the audience was participating in the action of the play, that there was room for spectators to shoot back as plebeians. And if the production created a passive audience as part of its deliberate exploration of politics and culture in the early twenty-first century, it also forged strong connections with the audience. Part of those connections resulted from the duration of the marathon performance: the six hours spent in a shared space as part of a shared experience yoked together performers and audience. That joint effort was highlighted when, in the final play, the actor playing Enobarbus unexpectedly left the theatre to agonize in public (on the street outside the theatre in Montreal, in the Barbican carpark in London) before returning to the theatre to commit suicide. With a videographer trailing him and catching the confusion of bystanders, projecting both the actor and the real-world spectators for the theatre audience to observe, the moment separated those who were within the fictional world from those who were not. Those real-world spectators walking down the street did not know what to make of the man weeping to himself in Dutch. The theatre audience did, or thought they did, but how different were they from the outside spectators? How much do we know what we are seeing, whether we are inside the theatre or out?

Conclusion: making and being made

I started off this chapter by listing some of the questions that I was going to leave unanswered. Do audiences receive meanings or make meanings? Should we think of audiences as a collective body or as discrete bodies? What is it that takes place between spectator and actor? The different moments in plays and productions that I have highlighted suggest different answers. The laughter in the Globe King Lear and As You Like It seems to me not created through a partnership between performer and audience but through external factors that impose their conditions on both. On the other hand, the audience’s proximity to and absence from the action of Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies was deliberately fostered by the performers in order to create their production’s meaning in cooperation with their spectators. In all those performances, my individual response and position as a member of the audience separates my discrete self from responses of other audience members; at the same time, the sense of a collective enterprise shaped my reactions to the performance and the other spectators.

I have, in these examples, spoken specifically of my reactions to these performances: I did not find anything to laugh at in Goneril’s or Rosalind’s lines, I did not move around the theatre to explore the angles from which I might have approached Roman Tragedies. I have tried not to assume what others have thought or felt, raising questions rather than making statements about their possible responses. But as insistent as I have been about this, it remains a difficult rhetorical strategy to put into practice: the temptation to speak authoritatively about how an audience reacted or what they felt is a strong one. And there are some good reasons for this desire to speak of the audience as a collective body rather than a gathering of discrete persons. One of the hallmarks of live theatre is that we experience it collectively: as a collective of performers and a collective of spectators. The difference between seeing a performance as part of an audience, as opposed to on your own, is obvious to anyone who has spent time seeing both movies in a cinema and on a screen in your living room. The presence of other spectators and their audible responses shapes how we, in turn, respond, whether our reactions are the same or different from those surrounding us. Performers, whether theatre, music, dance, comedy, or politicians, speak of audiences on a particular night responding differently than on other nights—laughing at different moments, bringing a different energy, being more or less responsive, more or less engaged. Given this collective nature of the audience, we cannot entirely dismiss their generalized experience, even as we must also remember that no individual spectator will have the same response as another.

Given the number of examples I have provided from productions that, in their foregrounding of audience awareness, might seem to be atypical of Shakespearean theatre, I want to share one more instance from a more traditional production style, one in which the stage is lit and the audience watches from seats in a darkened auditorium. In this 2006 production of Measure for Measure at the Folger Theatre, the linchpin of the production came when Mariana begged Isabella to join her in asking for Angelo’s life to be spared. It is a moment that is often perplexing. Angelo has betrayed and disdained Mariana at every turn; were he to be executed after their marriage, as the Duke has planned, Mariana’s honor and her wealth would be restored. Isabella, in turn, has no desire to help Angelo, who has shamed her, betrayed her, and killed her brother. In most productions, I have experienced this moment as yet one more instance in which the two women are made to jump through hoops to satisfy the Duke’s own needs. But in this performance, something shifted for me. The moment was staged with Mariana on her knees facing the Duke and the audience. When Mariana reached out her hand to Isabella to join her, the blocking made that moment register as an invitation to the audience as well: the success of the play hinged on Mariana’s convincing us to move beyond bitterness and revenge toward the hope of love and redemption. It is the only time in which I have felt Mariana to be the emotional center of the play, and in a production that was consistently strong and interesting, it is the moment that has continued to stay with me. Part of its success is how it was staged: it created an opening for the audience to see itself as part of the action and resolution of the play. It also drew on a powerful performance by Michele Osherow in the role of Mariana, one of the few characters in the production who was at all likeable; Osherow was also the play’s dramaturg and a friend of Aaron Posner, the director, extra-textual roles that might have helped create the dynamics that allowed her to take a central role despite the small amount of time the character is onstage.

But I also know that part of the success of this moment came from the specifics of my place as spectator. When I saw this production, my father was dying and I was struggling with that pain and loss. It was a time when a message about learning to move forward into the future with love and hope would have been particularly resonant for me. In thinking about how audiences are made by performances, and how performances are made by audiences, I cannot separate the two dynamics here. The difference between what this performance of Measure for Measure staged and what I saw in it perhaps cannot be delineated. And that is the greatest challenge of thinking about audiences and making Shakespeare. Each makes the other, and whether we are performers or audience, we will not have the last word.


Billing, Christian M. (2010) Review of The Roman Tragedies, Shakespeare Quarterly 61 (2010): 415-39.

Escolme, Bridget (2005) Talking to the Audience: Shakespeare, Performance, Self. London: Routledge.

Fishwater, Helen (2009) Theatre & Audience. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Greenblatt, Stephen, et al (eds) (1997) The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. New York: Norton.

Grotowski, Jerzy (1992) Towards a Poor Theatre. Ed. Eugenio Barba. First published in 1968. New York: Routledge.

Hartley, Andrew James (2010) “Page and Stage Again: Rethinking Renaissance Character Phenomenologically” in Sarah Werner (ed.) New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan. 77-93.

Kirwan, Peter  (2009) “As You Like It @ Shakespeare’s Globe” The Bardathon http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/pkirwan/entry/as_you_like_1_2_3/. Accessed 10 August 2010.

Knowles, Ric (2005) Reading the Material Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Prescott, Paul (2005) “Inheriting the Globe: The Reception of Shakespearean Space and Audience in Contemporary Reviewing” in Barbara Hodgdon and W. B. Worthen (eds) A Companion to Shakespeare and Performance (Oxford: Blackwell P), 359-75.

Ridout, Nicholas (2006) Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems. Cambridge: U Cambridge P.

Schafer, Elizabeth, ed. (2002) The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare in Production. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.


Bennett, Susan (1996) Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception. Second edition. London: Routledge.

Blau, Herbert (1990) The Audience. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP.

Kennedy, Dennis (2009) The Spectator and the Spectacle: Audiences in Modernity and Postmodernity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

McAuley, Gay (1999) Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. Ann Arbor, Michigan: U Michigan P.

Phelan, Peggy (1993) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge.


  1. I saw an evening performance on Wednesday, 23 July 2008, seated in the Lower Gallery.[]
  2. I saw a matinee performance on Friday, 26 June 2009, seated in the Lower Gallery.[]
  3. I refer to this as a seeming mistake because another spectator at a performance on June 13th describes the same joke on Peter Kirwan’s blog, The Bardathon. For more on why a performer would want to pretend to make a mistake, see Nicholas Ridout’s compelling analysis of audience responses to failure (129-60).[]

3 thoughts on ““Audiences” in Shakespeare and the Making of Theatre

  1. Did you really sit for all 6 hours for Roman Tragedies? Why? I’m going on Nov 16 & trying to gather tips about how to “watch” this show. Sounds quite amazing.

    1. It seems a bit odd, but yes, I really did stay in the same seat for the whole show. I did get up to stretch my legs and eat and use the restroom. But my own personal inclination is to avoid anything where I might have to interact with performers. It just makes my uncomfortable. Most other people I know went up on stage for part of the show or at least sat in different seats. But there were certainly other audience members who did as I did. I think you’ll just have to see how the spirit moves you! But I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say about it. For me, it was an incredibly energizing production. I really wanted to head up to New York to see it again, but just couldn’t couldn’t get my schedule to work.

Comments are closed.