Why should we concern ourselves with Shakespeare’s theatre and audience? The vast majority of his readers since the Restoration have known nothing about them, and have enjoyed his plays enormously. And if they have enjoyed without fully understanding, it was for want of imagination and of knowledge of human nature, and not from ignorance of the conditions under which his plays were produced. At any rate, such ignorance does not exclude us from the soul of Shakespearean drama, any more than from the soul of Homeric epic or Athenian tragedy; and it is the soul that counts and endures. For the rest, we all know that Shakespeare’s time was rough, indecorous, and inexpert in regard to machinery; and so we are prepared for coarse speech and primitive stage-arrangements, and we make allowance for them without thinking about the matter. Antiquarians may naturally wish to know more; but what more is needed for intelligent enjoyment of the plays?
I have begun with these questions because I sympathise with their spirit. Everything I am going to speak of in this lecture is comparatively unimportant for the appreciation of that which is most vital in Shakespeare; and if I were allowed my choice between an hour’s inspection of a performance at the Globe and a glimpse straight into his mind when he 362 was planning the Tempest, I should not hesitate which to choose. Nevertheless, to say nothing of the intrinsic interest of antiquarian knowledge, we cannot make a clear division between the soul and body, or the eternal and the perishable, in works of art. Nor can we lay the finger on a line which separates that which has poetic interest from that which has none. Nor yet can we assume that any knowledge of Shakespeare’s theatre and audience, however trivial it may appear, may not help us to appreciate, or save us from misapprehending, the ‘soul’ of a play or a scene. If our own souls were capacious and vivid enough, every atom of information on these subjects, or again on the material he used in composing, would so assist us. The danger of devotion to such knowledge lies merely in our weakness. Research, though toilsome, is easy; imaginative vision, though delightful, is difficult; and we may be tempted to prefer the first. Or we note that in a given passage Shakespeare has used what he found in his authority; and we excuse ourselves from asking why he used it and what he made of it. Or we see that he has done something that would please his audience; and we dismiss it as accounted for, forgetting that perhaps it also pleased him, and that we have to account for that. Or knowledge of his stage shows us the stage-convenience of a scene; and we say that the scene was due to stage-convenience, as if the cause of a thing must needs be single and simple. Such errors provoke the man who reads his Shakespeare poetically, and make him blaspheme our knowledge. But we ought not to fall into them; and we cannot reject any knowledge that may help us into Shakespeare’s mind because of the danger it brings.
I cannot attempt to describe Shakespeare’s theatre and audience, and much less to discuss the evidence on which a description must be based, or the difficult problems it raises. I must confine myself for the 363 most part to a few points which are not always fully realised, or on which there is a risk of misapprehension.
Shakespeare, we know, was a popular playwright. I mean not only that many of his plays were favourites in his day, but that he wrote, mainly at least, for the more popular kind of audience, and that, within certain limits, he conformed to its tastes. He was not, to our knowledge, the author of masques composed for performance at Court or in a great mansion, or of dramas intended for a University or one of the Inns of Court; and though his company for some time played at the Blackfriars, we may safely assume that the great majority of his works were meant primarily for a common or...