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


Scholars in the fandom studies tradition have noted the use of “fan” to refer negatively to women in the 19th century who went to see the players rather than the play, that is, who were obsessed with the actors. Here, you seem to suggest that playgoers were interested in the playwrights, in the techniques they used and the ways they constructed their stories. Can you tell us more about what drew these audience members towards such an avid fascination with theater during this period? To what degree might we call such participants fans?

To write a play while not a professional (that is, internal) member of the theater industry, one needed three things: time, literacy, and some interest in, if not understanding of, how theater worked. We have plenty examples of non-professional writers (many women and, again, mostly aristocratic) writing plays meant expressly for readers and not for performance. These so-called “closet dramas” usually conform to the model of classical drama, in both drawing their content from ancient Greece and Rome and following the style and structure of plays from that period.

The writers I work with, on the other, wrote very much in the tradition of the popular contemporary stage. They were not interested in obtaining a readership for their plays; they wanted a performance. They were also, however, atypical.

Most other dedicated playgoers of the popular theaters did not write their own plays. That alone sets them apart as “fanatics”. From their plays, as well as their paratextual commentary (in prologues and epilogues, dedicatory epistles, prefaces, and so forth), we often see them taking heightened interest in performance, both how plays were prepared for the stage and how they were enacted (and received).

So even if we accept the conventional wisdom that most playgoers merely went to the theater to experience some kind of emotional or mental escapism, these specific playgoers have left us evidence of their interest in emphatically not escaping the playhouse but, instead, seeing and understanding the artifice behind the art.

Each playwriting playgoer, of course, was unique in his own particular interests and motivations in writing a play, just as each individual playgoer was unique in his or her own particular interests in attending the plays. This, though, is one reason that I find their work so valuable.

As I mentioned, most earlier studies of the early modern audience rely on the aggregate view—either by looking at general demographics of who was in the audience or by taking a professional’s play (usually Shakespeare’s) and generalizing outward from what it contains in order to make broad assumptions about the audience. Each playwriting playgoer, however, provides a granular view, a single case study that recovers from the sea of cultural consumers the too-often overlooked individual.

In fandom studies, we often cite Shakespeare as the example of a literary figure who often borrowed plots and characters from other pre-existing works. How widespread was this form of dialogic or appropriative response to the plays of this period? Did your amateur writers build directly onto existing plays or did they tend to write within more broadly designed genres they thought belonged on the stage?

Professional playwrights, such as Shakespeare, routinely used existing works of history, prose, poetry, and drama, as well as, occasionally, real-life incidents for sources. The pressures on these dramatists to produce material that was both likely to be popular with audiences and relatively quick to write necessitated this kind of dependence on known sources (though some, including Shakespeare, did from time to time invent their own plots).

Occasionally, playing companies would even “appropriate” one of their own older plays by hiring a playwright to revise it substantively and update it for new audiences. Some playwriting playgoers also drew their plots from existing materials, though more of them came up with their own original narratives. In some instances, as with Walter Mountfort’s 1632 The Launching of the Mary and John Clavell’s 1629 The Soddered Citizen, the writer drew upon their own personal life experiences for incidents in their plays.

Most amateur playwrights closely followed specific generic, narrative, and even poetic conventions typical of the playhouses and playing companies that they patronized, though on occasion they would deviate from those conventions in potentially telling ways. For example, by the 1620s, the use of rhyme on stage was considered clumsy and old-fashioned; the professional playwrights who wrote for the elite, fashionable troupe known as Beeston’s Boys in the late 1630s not only avoided dramatic rhyme but actually mocked it in their plays.

But in 1639, the London lawyer and dedicated playgoer Alexander Brome wrote for the troupe a play called The Cunning Lovers, in which he filled the verse with innovative and often highly elaborate rhyming. Remarkably, Brome’s play was a great success, which suggests that sometimes the commercial writers were not always entirely in touch with what every member of their audiences wanted.

But as far as using professionals’ plays as sources for their own plays, there is little evidence of the practice in the period—which is perhaps the greatest difference between modern writers of fan fiction and early modern playwriting playgoers.

Sometime between 1622 and 1624, the antiquarian and politician Sir Edward Dering—famous as a lover of literature and the theater—adapted into a single play the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, evidently for one of the many private, amateur performances his family and servants staged at his home; the extant manuscript shows that he took a free hand in adapting the plays, cutting text, changing lines, and adding new lines. The extent of such appropriation and adaptation of professionals’ plays for amateur contexts, such as household entertainments or university performances, is not entirely known, though judging from the fact that Dering’s is the only surviving manuscript that records such a production, they were evidently rare.

Perhaps the closest early modern equivalent to the appropriative practices of modern fan fiction might be found in the “drolls” of the Interregnum period. When the theaters were closed by the Puritans, from 1642 to 1660, out-of-work actors would often stage short skits based on the old plays of the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries. These typically took characters and scenarios out of the plays and incorporated them into new, usually comic, sketches. The authorship of these skits is generally a mystery, but some were evidently written by people who had no formal, professional attachment to the old commercial theaters. For example, most of the twenty-seven drolls in the 1662 The Wits, or Sport Upon Sport (the frontispiece of which is the dust-jacket art for Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater), are traditionally attributed to the publisher and bookseller Francis Kirkman.


How did literary observers of this period write about and think about the role of the audience in the theatrical performance? Did they adopt metaphors of orchestration and absorption that imply a passive spectator or was there a more participatory model available to them? To what degree were they defensive about the audience’s interventions and to what degree did they embrace spectators as collaborators?

Just as today critics divide between views of audience experience as one of either passive consumption or active engagement, of either leaning back or leaning forward, in the early modern period playwrights, other writers, and even play consumers themselves had differing opinions about what the experience of playgoing involved, or should involve.

Some accounts of playgoing gentlemen emphasized their passivity and idleness in the playhouse, with playgoing as a mere pastime or even waste of time. In Sir Humphrey Mildmay’s diary, for example, he repeatedly refers to his attendance at playhouses as one of “loitering” and “losing a whole day”.

Antitheatricalists—commentators, usually Puritans, who opposed theaters in general—often emphasize the, as they saw it, dangerous tendency for audiences to succumb docilely to the experiences witnessed on stage, as if audiences were incapable of recognizing the fiction of the performance. One of these commentators, Stephen Gosson, who had once been a playwright and actor himself, wrote contemptuously of the raptly attentive audience falling into a kind of hypnotic stupor and being literally orchestrated by the events on stage as if they were mere puppets: when one of the actors in the play shouted, “the beholders began to shout”, when another actor rose up, “the beholders rose up…on tip toe”, when one swore, “the company [audience] swore”, and when two characters departed to bed together “the company presently was set on fire” to sleep with whomever they could find. (A more humorous, probably fictional, account related by Edmund Gayton describes a butcher at a play becoming so absorbed by the action of a play about the Trojan War that he climbed up on the stage, drew his club, and started beating the actors playing the Greeks.)

Some professional playwrights, too, argued that the “proper” mode of consuming a play was one of passive acceptance; Ben Jonson and Richard Brome, for example, frequently admonished their audiences to avoid any attempts to interpret or otherwise actively impose spectatorial control upon the plays that had been written for them. This was a kind of bid for occupational closure, a way to ensure that the field of playmaking, and playwriting in particular, became professionalized.

One of the most common ways of expressing this idea was in the form of the banquet metaphor: playgoers were likened to people attending a feast, each bringing their own different and often conflicting desires and tastes; because it would be impossible to satisfy each individually, the cook (the playwright) is invested with sole authority for preparing the meal and the consumers are required simply to accept what has been prepared for them.

For other playwrights and commentators, however, there were occasions when inviting collaboration from the audience was seen as advantageous. Some of these instances may have simply been deference to the paying consumers, such as publisher Richard Hawkins’s insistence that the actors of a play were only the “miners” of the material and the consumers (in this case, readers) were the “skillful triers and refiners” of that raw material. Dramatist Henry Glapthorne referred to his audience, not his actors, as the “skillful pilots” who were to “steer” the “untried vessel” of his play.

Just as the advocates for audience passivity employed the banquet metaphor, those who argued for audience engagement turned to a figurative image of their own, the “bee and spider” metaphor used by commentators on scriptural reading: according to these commentators, while both the bee and the spider drink from the same flower, the former makes from it sweet honey while the latter makes deadly poison. Similarly, it is not the playmaker who produces meaning for the playgoer, as theatrical apologist Sir Richard Baker put it, but the playgoer who produces meaning, just as “it is not so much the juice of the herb that makes the honey or poison, as [it is] the bee or spider that sucks the juice.”

Frequently used to refute charges from antitheatricalists that plays taught or instilled immorality, the “bee and spider” metaphor (though, of course, entomologically incorrect) essentially posited that it was playgoers themselves, not the play or its makers, who were responsible for what they took out of the content of the plays.

Another common metaphor used by those who believed in an actively engaged audience was the theatrum mundi commonplace, which, to quote its most famous usage, in Shakespeare’s ca. 1599–1600 As You Like It, stated, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” The playwright and fierce defender of the stage Thomas Heywood expanded on this in his 1612 treatise An Apology for Actors, arguing that “God and nature” are the playwrights who fill the “Theater” of the world with actors; crucially, though, God also “doth as spectator sit”, effectively creating what the critic Anne Barton described as “the double position of dramatist and audience”—in the theatrum mundi metaphor, the playgoer is also the playmaker.

But perhaps the best known expression of the idea that the audience has a crucial role to play in the active creation of dramatic meaning in the playhouse is found in the choral speeches that appealed directly to playgoers’, as Shakespeare put it in his ca. 1599 Henry V, “imaginary forces” in order to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Throughout the 1590s and early 1600s, there were a number of plays, including Shakespeare’s later Pericles, in which choral figures addressed the audience and, acknowledging that the limited materials of the playhouse were inadequate for representing scenes such as overseas travel or tremendous battles, requested that each playgoer individually use his or her capacity to imagine what could not be physically presented on stage.

Importantly, most of these appeals appeared in plays written by actors who had become playwrights; as the new generation of playwrights trained by apprenticeship took over in the 1610s and after—that is, as the field of playwriting became even more professionalized—these invitations to the audience to participate in the making of dramatic meaning vanished.

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.