Malcom Evans, ‘Deconstructing Shakespeare’s Comedies’, in Alternative Shakespeares (ed. John Drakakis), (Methuen: London, 1985)
Why do we go to spectator events? What’s in an audience?
Recently I went to see my first Rugby Union match, seeing the bemusingly-named (to non-Welsh people) RGC1404 trounce Bridgend 47-14. As a side note, always alert for a Shakespeare connection, I found that the 1404 refers to the national hero, Owain Glyndwr, that Glendower who bored Harry Hotspur to death in 1 Henry IV:
“He held me last night at least nine hours
In reckoning up the several devils’ names
That were his lackeys: I cried ‘hum,’ and ‘well, go to,’
But mark’d him not a word. O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house: I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.” (1 Henry IV, III,i)
So, back to RGC’s Eirias Stadium in Colwyn Bay. Aside from the gratifying win for the home team, one of the things that interested me was the ‘tribes’ in attendance: the casual visitors; the regular supporters, mostly men, who looked neither right nor left but focussed, quietly and intently, on the action; the families, wearing branded-beanies and chattering over their half-time flask; the women who clearly had come dressed not to watch but to be seen, and not for the chilly weather; and a group of male supporters who had come to be heard. The Welsh singing voice is a cliché, but between 10 and 20 men piped up every now and again with something not just tuneful, but in harmony, too. All the tribes coalesced into the audience, the atmosphere for the game. They were as much part of the spectacle as what was happening to the oddly-shaped ball …
As audience must have been in Shakespeare’s day …
I’m very conscious that Shakespeare wrote not for posterity, but for money. And that the theatre was a relatively new and exciting form of entertainment: a liminal location where figurative ‘conversations’ could be had about dangerous ideas like politics, religion and royal succession; where you could go to laugh or cry, to hear but also be heard, to see but also be seen. Noisy, smelly, and above all, alive. Shakespeare’s audience, from the petty criminals and prostitutes in the pit to the blades who – incredibly, to our minds – paid to actually sit on stage, was as full of exotic tribes as my rugby match was.
Our modern Shakespeare performances, by contrast, are much more focused on the action than the audience – we are usually far more well-behaved and attentive, apart from the spawn of the devil who insist on using their mobile phones. (They are another type of audience member who go only to be seen at the event, even if it is vicariously, via their social media pages.) But, like every other, live public spectacle we have tribes, as I saw when I visited The Globe in the summer: foreign tourists, students or aspiring actors taking notes, the casually curious, and a theatre tribe I’ve only ever encountered at Shakespeare performances:
The Arden Ass.
Malcolm Evans’ description, in the middle of a fairly dense critical essay, made me laugh out loud, recognising these men – and in my experience they have nearly always been men – who laugh first, loudly and knowingly:
“there was always something odd about Shakespeare’s comedies, particularly the early ones, which has made their canonization conditional, part of an apprenticeship alway to be redeemed by something else. Their linguistic doodles, unhealthy self-proddings, and obsession with finding as many ways as possible of referring to the genitals and cuckoldry have […] promoted in audiences at the subsidized theatre a type of mis-timed rhetorical braying otherwise heard only in parliamentary broadcasts, a cheer-leading prompt set off less by the performance than by a familiarity with the Arden notes.”
This seemed especially timely, given my recent and sometimes tortuous tussles with those early comedies. Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m looking at YOU in particular. I liked the quotation so much that I read it out to my other half. Regular readers will recognise what a foolish, naive move that was – almost needless to say, I spent the next half-hour defending myself against the charge that I was a prime example …
Shakespeare quotation taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org