Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Women and Crowds at the Theater

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Women and Crowds at the Theater

Article excerpt

AUDIENCES at the early modern theaters from Shakespeare's time up to the closure of 1642 were different from modern spectators in two distinct ways. First, they behaved as crowds, not as individuals, and second the female element in their composition influenced their behavior more strongly than the witnesses of the time were prepared to admit. The prejudice behind the early testimonies, and the effect of spectator behavior and female presences, need a careful and a cautious examination.

The chief problem with the available testimonies is that so much of it is obviously prejudiced. A great deal throughout the period was written by men about how plays could so easily corrupt women. As early as 1577 John Northbrook, after targeting the newly built Theatre and Curtain playhouses (82), wrote the following in his eloquently titled pamphlet A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine playes, or Enterluds, with other idle pastimes, &c., commonly used on the Sabbath day, are reproved by the Authorities of the word of God and the auntient writers: "If you will learne howe to be false and deceyve your husbandes ... howe to playe the harlottes, to obtayne one's love ... shall you not learne then, at such enterludes howe to practise them" (92.) Anthony Munday wrote a similar diatribe in 1580.

That men and women went to plays for sex was a constant sneer. It became enough of a cliche to be repeated to Thomas Platter, who, in his Travels in England (1599), noted of whores that "although close watch is kept on them, great swarms of these women haunt the town in the taverns and playhouses" (175). So Dekker in Lanthorne and Candlelight, 1608: "Pay thy two-pence to a Player, in his gallerie maist thou sitte by a harlot." Men expected all married women seen at plays to be corrupted or at least corruptible. John Lane (Tom Tell-Troths Message, 1600, sig.F3r), Henry Fitzgeoffrey (Satyres, 1617, sig.E8v), Robert Anton (The Philosophers Satyrs, 1617, sig. I3v), Richard Brathwaite (Anniversaries Continued, 1635, sig.A6v), and Thomas Cranley (Amanda, 1635, sig.F2r) all made such claims. Of course, in a crowd the attention of the men hunting for a whore is unlikely to be supported by the play. The women, on the other hand, both before and after they brought themselves to their customer's notice, could afford to concentrate on the story.

Male fear of the moon-like changeability of women featured in versifying through the 1630s to 1642 and after. But Thomas Brande, in a letter about recent events in London dated November 8, 1629, showed the more basic male fear, the one that in 1642 helped to secure the closure of all playhouses for eighteen years. He argued that all women are weak, and those who show themselves in audiences or on the stage itself, as Moll Frith did in the Fortune's Roaring Girl, proved the women's vulnerability. Now the Blackfriars had actually put women on its stage. And despite the favorable audience reaction to women on stage, Brande wrote that "certaine vagrant French players, who had beene expelled from their owne contrey, and those women, did attempt, thereby giving just offence to all vertuous and well-disposed persons in this town, to act a certain lacivious and unchaste comedye, in the French tonge at the Blackfryers" (Bentley 1.25). Brande and Prynne after him in Histromastix claimed that London was corrupted by foreign women exhibiting themselves on stage. The King's Men used to move from playing at the Globe to the Blackfriars in winter, so giving it to a French company in November was a concession to their French queen and her French visitors.

Curiously, after William Prynne lost his ears and his freedom for attacking women on stage, a later visit by a French company was better received. On February 15, 1635, a French company performed for Henrietta Maria at Denmark House, and two days later at her invitation for the king and court in Whitehall. Although it was Lent, when plays were banned, the players then transferred the company to Beeston's indoor Cockpit. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.