The Before Shakespeare Guide to [The] Theatre Etiquette

[Come and behave (well?) with these tips in mind at our upcoming event on the Curtain playhouse at hackney House on 21 July.]

Just as writers in twenty-first century New York have opinions on how other people should behave in theatre spaces, so early modern London has its fair share of advice to spectators.  Whether you are a noblewoman, an ironmonger’s apprentice, or a “spanglebaby” (Thomas Dekker’s best term for a young, Elizabethan fashionista [Satiromastix, 1602, E3r]), here, we give you the lowdown on what to do if you’re preparing for an afternoon out at The Theatre (that one in Shoreditch) or another “Legitimate” or “Illegitimate” playhouse in the capital…

Sit down.  Or don’t.

In several outdoor theatre spaces, you can “pay one penny at the gate, another at the entry of the Scaffold, and the third for a quiet standing” (William Lambard, Perambulation of Kent).  You can sit if you can afford it, I suppose, otherwise there’s space to stand with the masses in the pit, and you can even stand in pricey lords’ boxes and overlook the stage action.  In the indoor playhouses, standing can be a bit of an issue, so it’s perhaps best to avoid sword fights with fellow audience members by paying attention to the sightlines of the aristocracy and heeding Captain Essex’s example: in 1632, Essex and his wife sat in a “box in the playhouse at the Blackfriars,” when one Lord Thurles came upon the stage, “stood before them and hindered their sight.  Captain Essex told his lordship they had paid for their places as well as he and therefore entreated him not to deprive them of the benefit of it.”  The correct etiquette in this situation should be obvious… “Whereupon the lord stood up yet higher and hindered more their sight.  Then Captain Essex with his hand put him a little by.  The lord then drew his sword and ran full butt at him, though he missed him, and might have slain the Countess as well as him” (English Professional Theatre 413a). This guide hopes to help you avoid life and death situations such as this on your early modern afternoon out.

One could always go further and pay some extra pennies to sit upon the stage itself.  This has several advantages: “First, a conspicuous Eminence is gotten, by which means the best and most essential parts of a Gallant (good clothes, a proportionable leg, white hand, and the Persian lock, and a tolerable beard) are perfectly revealed”; second, you may “engross the whole commodity of Censure” in sneering at the scene before you.  But be warned, “Present yourself not on the Stage (especially at a new play) until the quaking prologue hath (by rubbing) got colour into his cheeks, and is ready to give the trumpets their Cue, that he’s upon point to enter: for then it is time, as though you were one of the Properties or that you dropped out of the Hangings to creep from behind the Arras with your . . . three-footed stool in one hand . . . For if you should bestow yourself upon the vulgar, when the belly of the house is but half full, your apparel is quite eaten up, the fashion lost, and the proportion of your body in more danger to be devoured” (Thomas Dekker, Gul’s Hornbook [1609], C2v-C3r).

Shut up. Or don’t.

Playwrights do enjoy it when you listen to their plays.  John Lyly has pleaded with audiences on behalf of his boy players that, even if spectators have “an universal mislike” of the performance, “yet we may enjoy by your wonted courtesies a general silence” (“Prologue at the Blackfriars,” Campaspe [1583]).

But of course you have to respond to the action, and the playhouse wouldn’t be a playhouse without “women’s cries, and shouts of boys, / Such as the troubled Theaters oftimes annoys” (Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene 4.3.37).

It’s also important that you know when is the appropriate time to respond to performance: “It shall crown you with rich commendation to laugh aloud in the midst of the most serious and saddest scene of the terriblest Tragedy: and to let that clapper (your tongue) be tossed so high that all the house may ring of it [. . .] At first, all the eyes in the galleries with leave walking after the Players, and only follow you” (Dekker, Gul’s C3r). Naturally, there are some tragedies that just don’t bear jesting about, in which case public emotional display is encouraged: “How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his Tomb, he should triumph again on the Stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding” (Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless [1592],F3r).

Sit still. Or don’t.

The jigs and songs that occur at the end of plays in some outdoor performances naturally encourage you to engage in “tumults and outrages” (Middlesex General Session of the Peace “for Suppressing of Jigges at the ende of Playes, 1612).  Things are perhaps a little more demure in indoor spaces, though there are always spectators who lack subtlety, such as that “Affecting Asse” who within the playhouse “never walkes without his Looking-glass / In a Tobacco box, / Or Diall set, / That he may privately confer with it,” and there’s regularly a playwright in the audience (like, say, John Webster) advertising himself as a contemplative writer by fidgeting: “who’d know him? / Was ever man so mangled with a Poem? / See how he draws his mouth awry of late, / How he scribs: wrings his wrists: scratches his Pate” (Fitzgeoffrey, “Notes from Blackfriars,” [1617] F4v, F6v).  And if you’re at The Theatre of an afternoon and the opening of the play’s a little slow: just leave!  “[We] went to the Theatre to see a scurvy play set out all by one virgin, which there proved a freemartin without voice, so that we stayed not the matter” (Richard Madox, [1582], EPT 268).

Eat, drink, and take that pipe out of your mouth. 

There are plenty of nuts and fruits to sample, as well as ale and wine, during performances, and refreshments are of course available from the inn bars and brewhouses adjacent to playing spaces.  Be wary not to be too conspicuous in your consumption of food, or especially of tobacco, lest you upset visitors unfamiliar with English indulgence: “At these spectacles [bear-baitings], and every where else, the English are constantly smoking tobacco; and in this manner, they have pipes on purpose made of clay, into the farther end of which they put the herb, so dry that it may be rubbed into powder, and putting fire to it, they draw the smoke into their mouths, which they puff out again, through their nostrils, like funnels, along with it plenty of phlegm and defluxion from the head” (Hentzner’s Travels ed. Walpole 30).

Queue patiently and in an orderly fashion.

If behaviour fails to meet acceptable standards, beleaguered owners of playhouses such as John Brayne and James Burbage will be hauled before magistrates to answer for the “popular assemblies, major affrays, insults, tumults, and numerous insurrections and diverse other malefactions and enormities of many ill-disposed persons” (loose trans., LMA MJ/SR/0225/4, April 1580). Don’t be that person.  Also avoid hanging around the outside of playhouses with “great multitudes of people” assembled “by occasion and pretence of . . . meeting at a play” (BL Lansdowne MS 71, 12 June 1582). “Sundry great disorders and inconveniences have been found to ensue” to London “by the inordinate haunting of great multitudes . . . to plays, interludes, and shows, namely occasion of Frays and quarrels, evil practices of incontinencies . . .” (BL Lansdowne MS 20, 1575; also 6 December 1574; LMA JORS 20, fo.187v).  If you need to loiter, there are plenty of taverns, brothels, and gaming houses in the vicinity of playhouses where you can kill some time. Or dancing houses, fencing schools, and bowling alleys.  Or churches.

Be youthful.

These are not just adult pasttimes.  In fact, of those haunting plays, there are “great multitudes of people, specially youth.”  Of course, this brings content warnings and age advice about plays’ “unmeet contracts, the publishing of unchaste, uncomely, and unshamefast speeches and doings [. . .] unthrifty waste of the money of the poor and fond persons, sondry robberies by picking and cutting of purses, uttering of popular, busy, and seditious matters, and many other Corruptions of youths” (BL Lansdowne MS 20, 1575; also 6 December 1574; LMA JORS 20, fo.187v).  Yet nonetheless, “While Playes are used, half the day is by most youths that have liberty spent upon them . . .” (Henry Chettle, Kind-Hart’s Dream [1592], C3r).

However, opinion is inevitably split on the matter.  Some people advise against bringing youngsters into playhouses, because “they corrupt the youth of the City, and withdraw Prentices from their work.”  Thomas Nashe notes that anyone of such a mindset no doubt “heartily wish[es] they might be troubled with none of their youth nor their prentices; for some of them . . . . never came abroad, but they are in danger of undoing”: you can’t keep apprentices permanently cosseted and held at home! Indeed, “as for the Corrupting of them when they come, that’s false: for no Play they have, encourageth any man to tumults or rebellion, but lays before such the halter and the gallows, or praiseth or approveth pride, lust, whoredom, prodigality, or drunkenness but beats them down utterly” (Nashe, Pierce Penniless [1592], F3v-F4r).


The dream for any player and playwright (though it left Michael Drayton “unmoved”), and so correct etiquette for an approving audience member after a performance is the ringing sound of applause: “With those the thronged Theaters that press. /  [. . .] With shouts and claps at every little pause, / When the proud round on every side hath rung” (Michael Drayton, Idea, Sonnet 47; Poems [1605] CC4v)

Though sometimes clapping a “round” either side of the theatre doesn’t quite fit the quality of the performance (or the shape of the playhouse!).  Lyly hopes for a “soft smiling” rather than very loud laughing or “misliking” of the show (Sapho and Phao [1584], “Prologue at the Blackfriars” A2r).  Many prologues, though, invite the sound of clapping, which is a sign of hunger for more performances…

Though maybe you don’t want more performances.  If you disapprove, feel free to hiss either during or after the performance and the players will get the message: “I  / Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.186-88).

What’s the point of all this? Play!

Why devote such “strength of study” to this “loss labour and no other end”?

To these I . . . reply
In as plain terms as may be: ‘Tis a lie.
Here’s but Pate-pastime: Playhouse Observation,
Fruits of the vacant hours of a Vacation.
Then (say all what they can) I am sure of this,
That for Play-time, it is not spent amiss.
(Henry Fitzgeffrey, “Notes from Blackfrars,” [1617] F7v)

Enjoy theatre as you like it.

Once we have all
Been jovial.


Callan Davies

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