Thursday, February 09, 2006

Public Performances

So much of the debate about Shakespeare (who he was, what he thought, what he meant) would disappear in a cloud of smelly smoke if people would only remember he was writing plays for Public Performance in Elizabethan/Jacobean England.

The words would have been said in front of a live audience – so what do we think the audience was like?

Well, it was mixed: socially, gender, and almost certainly, religiously: Shakespeare knew he had some Catholics in the audience – he quite possibly had Jews too. Race? Recent research suggests there was a black community in London – some of whom were free servants – the sort of people quite likely to be seen amongst the groundlings. But their being in the audience is pushing what we know a little. Foreigners – we know they were there –a number of pieces of evidence for the theatre’s very existence is from documents provided by foreigners.

His plays were performed at court – in front of the Queen/King – the Protestant King/Queen of England – and an audience of courtiers, ambassadors and servants – who undoubtedly were mixed to varying degrees (for goodness sake, politics is a lot more pragmatic than we like to believe).

In the audience, both at court and in public, would have been the ’thought police’ of the time – Walsingham’s spies in Elizabeth’s reign – looking for evidence of subversion and attempts to undermine the state.

There would have been ’serious’ Protestants – very sensitive (and knowledgeable) to the inclusion of Catholic doctrine. Some of these would have been converts from Catholicism – so knew Catholic doctrine inside out.

It was an audience that was used to listening to serious issues debated – to the rhetoric of the Protestant pulpit, to the debates, for those who went to school, over the meanings of words and actions, of the application of thoughts from the Latin and Greek masters: Above all else, to plays which presented issues and ideas for thought and contemplation – and arguement – and which expected an actively thinking audience.

This is in stark contrast to what we find today in the usual audiences in cinemas and theatres, or in front of the television.

So, how the (beep, beep, beep) could Shakespeare have hoped to ’hide’ in the plays anything like secret Catholic – or any other - sentiments?

The unsaintly Greer (bbke): The propoganda possibilities of the theatre were enormous, as both secular and religious authorities were aware. (pg. 26, SHAKESPEARE A Very Short Introduction).

There had been a long line of anti-catholic propoganda plays – which, of course, contain Catholic doctrine and elements: This does not make them secret supports of the Catholic church – they are included to ’put down’ the very things they show.

By Shakespeare’s time, the more blatent use of the theatre for propoganda purposes had shifted – partly because the plays had done their job, partly because the threat of a Spanish/Catholic invasion had faded.

Now, let us think about the ghost in Hamlet.

I have seen, several times, the arguement that this proves Shakespeare and his audience believed in purgatory: Therefore he was a Catholic.

No, Shakespeare expects most of his audience to think – this is a ghost – it says it has come from purgatory – there is no purgatory – therefore it is not telling the truth about itself.

Ah, I hear, but it does tell the truth, Hamlet’s father was killed by his uncle – the witches in Macbeth also tell the truth – for evil purposes. The truth is told by the ghost to lead Hamlet into damnation.

Modern audiences are doubtful about the ghost and it’s meaning: Greer (bbke) again: We no longer feel, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries did, the ubiquity of Satan, . . . (pg 56).

I am not a Christian and so have no personal ’axe to grind’ in this – but I do think an awful lot of hot air and wasted ink is generated, (and twisted meanings) by people trying to claim Shakespeare as supporters of their frequently limited views.

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