Audience and social attitudes

Find out what society was like in Shakespeare’s time.

Who went to the theatre?

Everybody! Just like today, theatre tickets cost different amounts depending on where you sat. Merchants could buy stools in boxes next to the stage, which were expensive but not too flashy. Nobles bought seats on the stage because they could be seen by the whole audience. They went to the theatre to show off their clothes and be admired by the lower classes.

A seat in the gallery on the first or second floor cost two or three pennies, and for a penny more you could have a cushion. Even poor people could afford to go to the theatre – a standing ticket in front of the stage cost just one penny. People who stood were called ‘groundlings’. Hamlet refers to them when he’s complaining about actors who ‘split the ears of groundlings’ by shouting too loudly.

The only person who did not go to the theatre was Queen Elizabeth I herself – but she loved plays too. She ordered plays to be written and commanded special performances at court. Twelfth Night was commissioned by the Queen – to be performed as part of the celebration of the Twelfth Night after Christmas, which was the end of the Christmas celebrations. This timing is the only reason for the play’s name – it has nothing to do with what happens in it!

Did you know?

  • The groundlings could wander about and talk during the performance if it wasn’t interesting enough. They could also buy snacks, like meat pies, and drinks, like ale, from sellers in the theatre – a tradition which still goes on with interval ice-creams.
  • The audience might buy apples to eat. If they didn’t like the play, the audience threw them at the actors! This is where our idea of throwing tomatoes comes from – but ‘love-apples’, as they were known, come from South America and they weren’t a common food at the time.
  • The groundlings were also called ‘stinkards’ in the summer – for obvious reasons!