The Playwrights and the Audience

  • Rebecca Yearling


Theatregoing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was essentially a new kind of cultural activity. The drama of the previous era had been an occasional, often haphazard affair, but now the experience of playgoing had been formalised and professionalised. Audiences were larger, playgoers were more sophisticated, and expectations were higher.


Private House Late Sixteenth Fair Hearing Private Theatre Critical Induction 
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  1. 1.
    Bruster and Weimann note that the idea of the theatre as a shop, and drama as a commodity to be bought, had first appeared in prologues in the early 1580s, in such works as Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (c.1581). As they comment, this attitude helped to develop the idea of the audience’s ‘right’ to judge, in their role as paying customers. Douglas Bruster and Robert Weimann, Prologues to Shakespeare’s Theatre: Performance and Liminality in Early Modern Drama (New York: Routledge, 2004) pp. 73–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    The term ‘critical induction’ is Thelma Greenfield’s. In her 1969 The Induction in Elizabethan Drama she divides early-modern inductions into four basic categories: the ‘critical’, the ‘occasional’, the ‘frame play’ and the ‘inductive dumb show’, and defines critical inductions specifically as ‘inductions which present realistically situations of play production. [… T]hey analyse the play and its audience.’ Thelma N. Greenfield, The Induction in Elizabethan Drama (Eugene OR: Oregon University Press, 2001) pp. xiii–xv.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) p. 69.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Later in his career, Jonson’s attitude towards the audience in his paratexts becomes more variable: he is less prone to posing as an authoritarian, and more prone to suggesting the possibility of compromise. In the induction to Bartholomew Fair (1614), for example, the Scrivener announces that this play is written to suit ‘the scale of the grounded judgements here’ (43): designed, in other words, to please not the superior, educated critic, but rather the common playgoers in the pit. The Scrivener then writes up a contract, which ‘legally’ restates this claim, promising that ‘every person here have his or their free-will of censure, to like or dislike at their own charge, the author having now departed with his right’ (64–6). The contract further assures the audience that they will receive good entertainment from the author, on the condition that they stay in their places, use their own judgement rather than being influenced by the opinions of others, refrain from finding personal applications in the characters, accept that the play observes only proper literary decorum in any profanity or obscenity that might be perceived, and expect no more than is reasonable. That said, critics cannot agree about whether this change in tone in the paratexts suggests a new respect by Jonson for his spectators in his later works. Alan Fisher, for example, argues that, on the contrary, the Bartholomew Fair contract is a gesture of ‘open contempt’ on Jonson’s part towards the audience and their tastes. In this induction, Jonson does not suggest that the audience might take anything of real worth from his play; instead, he simply seeks to control their physical movements and limit their ability to misunderstand and censure unfairly. Alan Fisher, ‘Jonson’s Funnybone,’ Studies in Philology 94.1 (1997): p. 83.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    The history of Histriomastix is somewhat obscure, and Rosalyn Knutson has argued that it may not be Marston’s play at all as, in her view, it is not in his usual style: ‘it lacks not only the marks of Marstonian prosody and imagery, but also the topicality of Marstonian allusions’. Knutson’s argument is interesting, but not conclusive: she ignores the fact that if Marston wrote the play, it was very early in his career, when he might not yet have established his familiar dramatic style. Moreover, it is possible that in Histriomastix Marston was reworking an older play, which would explain some of its apparently ‘un-Marstonian’ elements. Its pageant-like qualities and heavy symbolism certainly feel old-fashioned for the late 1590s. Third, as Philip Finkelpearl suggests, Histriomastix may well have been written under specialised circumstances — perhaps for the Inns of Court — which might explain some of its oddities. As Finkelpearl points out, the exceptionally large cast required by the play would seem to put it beyond the capabilities of an ordinary acting company. Histriomastix ‘require[s] the kind of manpower that only an academic environment could supply’. Meanwhile, Bednarz, Lake and Cathcart give highly convincing analyses of the play in which they argue that it does fit with Marston’s known work in terms of its themes, preoccupations and techniques. They conclude — and I agree — that it seems likely to have been either a Marstonian rewriting of an earlier work or a piece by Marston that was then ‘lightly overwritten by another hand’. Rosalyn Knutson, ‘Histrio-Mastix: Not By John Marston’, Studies in Philology 98 (2001): pp. 359–77;Google Scholar
  6. Philip J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple: An Elizabethan Dramatist in His Social Setting (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) pp. 120–3;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. D.J. Lake, ‘Histriomastix: Linguistic Evidence for Authorship’, Notes and Queries 226 (1981) pp. 148–52;Google Scholar
  8. James Bednarz, ‘Writing and Revenge: John Marston’s Histriomastix’, Comparative Drama 36.1 (2002): pp. 33–5;Google Scholar
  9. Charles Cathcart, Marston, Rivalry, Rapprochement and Jonson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008) pp. 10–12.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    For discussions of this induction and Doricus’ role as a mouthpiece for Marston’s own views, see John Scott Colley, John Marston’s Theatrical Drama, Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Jacobean Drama Studies 33 (Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1974) p. 106;Google Scholar
  11. James Bednarz, Shakespeare and the Poets’ War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001) p. 172;Google Scholar
  12. Anthony Caputi, John Marston, Satirist (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1961) p. 159.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    This apparently deliberate commitment to self-concealment and dissemblance has, understandably, troubled those critics who want to find the voice of ‘the real Marston’. Morse Allen, for example, claims that Marston usually put into his plays characters who were intended as authorial mouthpieces, characters who ‘usually act[] and talk[] as it may be supposed Marston himself would have done in like circumstances.’ However, we do not, in fact, know how Marston did act or talk, and so Allen’s argument is inevitably a circular one: he chooses a character that he thinks was created in Marston’s own image (usually a cynical satirist of some kind), and reconstructs the image of ‘the author’ backwards from this. We cannot, in fact, know whether Marston himself was remotely like Feliche in Antonio and Mellida, or Planet in Jack Drum, or Quadratus in What You Will. Morse S. Allen, The Satire of John Marston ([1920]; New York: Haskell House Publisher Ltd, 1971) p. 129.Google Scholar
  14. See also O.J. Campbell, who is similarly prone to reading certain characters or speeches in the plays as expressions of Marston’s ‘real’ feelings — commenting, for example, of Albano’s speech in WYW 3.2.1023–49 (in which Albano claims that ‘The soul of man is rotten / Even to the core’), ‘Clearly, it is Marston himself who speaks these words’. Oscar James Campbell, Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (San Marino CA: Adcraft Press, 1938) p. 168.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    Jonas A. Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1960) p. 87.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    Douglas Lanier, ‘Satire, Self Concealment, and Statecraft: The Game of Identity in John Marston’s The Malcontent’, Pacific Coast Philology 22.1/2 (1987): pp. 35–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Rebecca Yearling 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rebecca Yearling
    • 1
  1. 1.Keele UniversityUK

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