Participatory Audiences in Elizabethian Theater: An Interview with Matteo Pangallo (Part Three)



Today, we talk about “fan service” in somewhat ambivalent terms -- the ways that creators compromise their own visions in order to be more responsive to audience feedback. What evidence do we have that these theatrical companies were responsive to the feedback of their audiences?

The nature of playmakers’ response to feedback from the audience depended greatly upon the nature of the audience providing the feedback. Obviously, if an aristocratic patron or the monarch responded with feedback, the playmakers would likely seek to satisfy their demands, especially if those demands were censorial in nature. If a single regular paying spectator sought a particular experience at the playhouse, though, there was likely little chance of that coming to fruition except in the case of the few playgoers whose own plays did manage to make it to the boards.

At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, if large masses of paying spectators wanted to see something specific, they could have a great effect. And that was, in some ways, a new phenomenon for cultural producers: Shakespeare’s theater was the first mass-market commercialized culture industry in England.

This commercialization of the stage gave rise to a tension among playmakers. Some believed that, as “professional” artists, they were beholding to no person but themselves and thus they were the ones to tell audiences what they should want, rather than the other way around. “To judge of poets is only the faculty of poets,” ordained Ben Jonson, who would have certainly shared in the modern ambivalence about “fan service”.

Other playwrights, however, display a responsiveness to what the audience wanted and even may have thought of the audience, not as a force requiring them to compromise their art, but rather a collaborative artist in its own right; interestingly, many of these were dramatists who had learned to write for the stage through prior experience as actors, including Shakespeare.

Today, lines from Shakespeare’s plays are sprinkled throughout our everyday language, become taken for granted figures of speech. Is there any evidence whether contemporary playgoers adopted and performed catch phrases from the plays to each other or otherwise claimed them as resources beyond the theatrical setting?

Playgoers and play-readers frequently borrowed phrases from the plays that they saw and read, both by Shakespeare and by other writers. We know about this practice from commentary (usually negative) from satirists and even professional playwrights who mocked amateur poets, would-be lovers, socially pretentious courtiers, and other textual consumers for stealing language from plays. Playwrights in particular repeatedly mention (again, usually negatively) playgoers sitting in the audience with notebooks, jotting down lines that they liked.

Because plays were performed in repertory and because audience members usually frequented the same playhouses, it would not have been uncommon for spectators to memorize parts and even know some lines better than the actors, who were often being exchanged between troupes and had to memorize even more parts. Ben Jonson, the consummate professional playwright, complained of the “idol”-worshipping playgoer who, while waiting for the star actor to enter, “repeats…his part of speeches and confederate jests in passion to himself.”

In one induction scene (a kind of short skit performed before the play proper and which usually provided metatheatrical commentary on the performance, the players and playhouse, or the audience), John Webster presented a spectator character who “hath seen this play [so] often” that he could “give [the actors] intelligence for their action.”

Many years after the Puritans’ 1642 closure of the professional theaters, Edmund Gayton wrote wistfully of a time when playgoers and playmakers came together in taverns, where the actors would stage impromptu repeat-performances at the playgoers’ requests and the playgoers would then go home “as able actors [of the material] themselves.”

The best direct evidence we have of how theatrical consumers borrowed from professional plays comes from surviving commonplace books (personal diaries in which textual consumers wrote down short passages from works they read or saw, organized under subject headings). Laura Estill’s 2015 Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century English Manuscripts is a fantastic study of how readers and spectators of plays copied down passages they liked and, at the same time, often altered the text in order to make it fit their own particular context or needs.

Today, the threat posed by audience discourse to the creative control of the author often gets reduced to concerns about “spoilers.” Were “spoilers” a concern in 17th century theater? If not, what other concerns did artists who increasingly saw themselves as professionals have about the public responses of audiences to their work?

The modern notion of “spoilers” did not seem to exist in the early modern period—probably because most plays were based upon already familiar narratives and sources, and because the repertory system ensured that most plays (at least the successful ones) dominated the performance schedule. In one play by Ben Jonson, two “audience members” from the induction scene return between each of the five acts to provide their own commentary on the play as it progresses; after the fourth act and before the fifth and final act, the more judgmental of the two suggests that the players end the play at that point because the plot is so predictable he knows already how it is going to end.

Perhaps the closest evidence to an early modern concern with the modern notion of “spoilers”, though, is in the prologue to The Roaring Girl, collaboratively written by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. The play was based on the life of the celebrated contemporary cross-dressing pimp, fence, and thief Mary Frith (also known as “Moll Cutpurse” and “Tom Faconer”). Because of Frith’s fame, Dekker and Middleton express some worry in their prologue: “each [spectator] comes / And brings a play in his head with him: up he sums / What he would of a ‘roaring girl’ have writ; / If that he finds not here, he mews at it.”

Notwithstanding that example, most other concerns expressed by professionals focused, more prosaically, on audience members calling out or interrupting the performance (to the chagrin of many writers, King James was known to walk out of plays he did not like or even fall asleep during the performance).

More tellingly, some playwrights were also concerned about the “correct” interpretation of various conventions or devices. For example, when John Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess failed, the playwright accused the audience of misunderstanding what the genre of “pastoral tragicomedy” was supposed to include: “the people,” Fletcher remarked sarcastically in the preface to the printed edition, “having ever had a singular gift in defining, concluded [that, as a tragicomedy, it would] be a play of country-hired shepherds in gray cloaks, with curtailed dogs on strings, sometimes laughing together, and sometimes killing one another, and, missing whitsun ales, cream, wassail, and morris-dances, began to be angry.”

In a similar vein, when Jonson’s Catiline was hissed off the stage, the playwright complained that the problem was that audience members recalled “some pieces” of Roman history from their schooldays and were upset when the play did not include those bits. Jonson also fought a life-long battle to control how spectators interpreted any of his characters who could have been read as allegorical representations of real-life people—something with very serious ramifications at a time when playwrights were forbidden from presenting current political topics or politically important individuals on stage.

Overall, in their epilogue to The Roaring Girl, Dekker and Middleton provide a good general metaphor for professional playwrights’ worries about how consumers might influence, and thus ruin, their work. They tell the story of a painter who made a portrait and hung it out for sale; as passersby viewed it, they “gave several verdicts on it”, and each time the painter quickly modified the painting to suit each person’s opinion, “in hope to please all.” In the end, though, the painting became “so vile, / So monstrous and so ugly, all men did smile / At the poor painter’s folly.” If the playwrights also succumbed to such consumer creativity, Dekker and Middleton explained, “we, with the painter, shall / In striving to please all, please none at all.”

Contemporary audiences have much access to behind the scenes information about the making of their favorite films or television series, not to mention box office returns and industry trends more generally, enough so that hardcore fans often consider themselves to be insiders. What kinds of access did audiences of this period have into the factors shaping how and which plays are performed as opposed to the dramatic fictions unfolding on stage?

The most direct and pervasive influence audiences had in the commercial theaters was exercised through consumer choice. From the record-book kept by Philip Henslowe, the financier behind Shakespeare’s rival troupe, the Lord Admiral’s Men, we know the daily box-office receipts for the company off and on from 1594 through 1609. In addition to telling us about which plays were staged when (including many lost plays), the record-book provides insight into how quickly the company adjusted their repertory in response to plays that were flops (if a play was unpopular at its premiere it might be tried one more time several weeks later, on a different weekday, but if it remained unpopular it was abandoned and often sold to a printer for a small amount of money) and plays that were popular (the play would be restaged at regular intervals every few weeks and would sometimes end up with sequels or prequels, resulting in serial performances over two or more days). Beyond this, though, there are anecdotal accounts of playgoer behavior directly shaping programming decisions in the playhouse.


In 1613, a Venetian visitor attending a play at the Curtain playhouse wrote an account of the experience, observing that after the play ended, “one of the actors…asked the people to the comedy for the following day and he named one. But the people desired another one, and began to shout ‘Friars, Friars’” (“Friars” was presumably Robert Greene’s highly popular 1594 comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay). In James Shirley’s 1632 play Changes, a character refers disdainfully to gentlemen in the audience calling out in the middle of a play for a jig to be danced at the play’s conclusion.

Perhaps most dramatically, Edmund Gayton—again, writing several years after the theaters had been closed—recollected: “I have known. . . where the players have been appointed, notwithstanding their bills to the contrary, to act what the major part of the company had a mind to—sometimes Tamerlane, sometimes Jugurth, sometimes the Jew of Malta, and sometimes parts of all these, and at last, none of the three taking, they were forced to undress and put [off] their tragic habits, and conclude the day with The Merry Milkmaids [a comedy]. Unless this were done and the popular humor satisfied . . . the benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, oranges, apples, nuts, flew about most liberally, and as there were mechanics of all professions, who fell every one to his own trade, and dissolved [the] house in an instant, and made a ruin of a stately fabric.”

Gayton’s account (which is probably a bit hyperbolic) suggests an early modern playmaking process that was both more of a fragmented pastiche than the unified narrative modern audiences and readers are accustomed to and highly responsive to the threat, sometimes violent, of consumer intervention.

We do also have one play written by a playgoer in which the consumer imagines a playgoer efficaciously changing the performance plans of a professional troupe. In the induction to his 1635 Adrasta, John Jones has a playgoer get up on stage and interrupt the actor delivering the prologue; when he learns that the players plan on staging a satire, the playgoer chastises them for choosing something that will displease the audience (“Do you hear, prologue? Your author is a fool. Is he desirous to buy fame at such a rate that he will smart for it?”) and he goes backstage to explain to the players the kind of play that they should (and, in Adrasta, do) stage.

In my approach to the plays written by playgoers like Jones, I think of them as real-world manifestations of this interrupting playgoer, crossing the border between the audience and the stage and entering into the space of the professionalizing playmakers in order to shape (or, in

Dr. Matteo Pangallo ( is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Previously he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and, before that, held teaching positions at Bates College, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State University. He received his M.A. in Shakespearean Studies from King’s College London and the Globe, and Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Dr. Pangallo’s first book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), uses plays written by some of Shakespeare’s original playgoers as early modern “fan fiction” providing evidence of what those playgoers thought about the theater and how it worked. His current books projects are Theatrical Failure in Early Modern England and Strange Company: Foreign Performers in Medieval and Early Modern England

Beyond his academic work, Dr. Pangallo has worked as a theatrical director and dramaturg, including as the founding artistic director for the Salem Theatre Company, assistant director for the Rebel Shakespeare Company, and research assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

some cases, re-shape) the kinds of dramatic content they were producing.