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Theatre and community after the first Brexit

Was the Church of England’s break with Rome in the 1530s the first Brexit?

While Henry VIII may have considered the original break as a matter of reclaiming ‘sovereignty’ from the Pope, it soon developed further economic and spiritual ramifications. Over the following decades it became profoundly important whether you were Protestant or Catholic: you risked persecution for either, depending on who was on the throne. By the time Elizabeth I became queen, the fault lines that would eventually give rise to the English Civil War were already beginning to show.

As Dr Ben Morgan described in his Engaging with the Humanities talk on 1 March 2017, England under Elizabeth was a society that had undergone ‘extraordinary seismic shocks’, one that was at odds with its own past. The queen’s pragmatic decision not to ‘make windows into men’s souls’ was one way of attempting to heal (or at least paper over) those divisions, because, as Dr Morgan said, ‘people had to live together’.

This context sheds an intriguing new light on the Elizabethan theatre and its relationships with the different communities that it served and created.

For most modern audiences, the dominant image of the Elizabethan theatre is the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. While the seating mirrors society by being arranged in a clear hierarchy, the theatre is fundamentally a shared space, and democratic in the sense that everyone has a sight line and no one is invisible to anyone else. People of all ranks would go to the theatre to see and be seen – and yet it was firmly located outside the city walls, along with ‘other vices’ such as prostitution, bear-baiting, circuses and gambling side-shows. Both inside and outside, the theatre was ‘its own separate, shadow community’, not quite respectable, that reflected London back to itself.

Before theatres, of course, plays tended to be performed in inns and taverns – with food and drink being served throughout. Forget the immediacy of a thrust stage compared with a proscenium arch, in a tavern the audience was even more obviously close to the action. Indeed, as Dr Morgan suggested with the famous picture of ‘Wee Three Loggerheads’ – a portrait of two fools, in which the third person is probably the viewer – ‘if you go into a tavern, you are becoming part of the world of foolery.’

Perhaps this was why the theatre attracted such criticism from puritan thinkers of its ‘real representations’ and ‘ocular demonstrations’: the audience is not just watching but actually involved in the drama that is happening right in front of them. Interestingly, dramatists and poets were shut out of Plato’s Republic for a similar reason. In their defence, Aristotle argued that theatre is almost medicinal: catharsis is a means of purging people of difficult emotions.

Shakespeare also introduced the idea of a play as ‘medicine’ in the story of Christopher Sly that frames The Taming of the Shrew. The drunken Sly is tricked by a nobleman into believing that he too is a Lord who has somehow lost his memory. His ‘doctors’ advise him to hear a play to cure his ‘melancholy’. As Dr Morgan said, ‘It’s all very chemical’: Sly, like the tavern audiences, is led into theatre through drink, and he watches the play in an altered state of mind.

Many of the viewers of early drama would have had more in common with Christopher Sly than the mischievous lord, and be more comfortable in the world of the tavern than with the nobility. The story of Katherina and Petruchio still holds some difficulties for modern audiences, but imagining it being performed in a tavern suggests some different ways of looking at it.

For example, Dr Morgan pointed out that the scene in which Petruchio torments Katherina by denying her dinner would have taken place at about 5.30pm, when the meal was already being prepared and the audience could smell the food. This would have given an extra piquancy to the sight of someone suffering from hunger. But what would have been their reaction to a Katherina who, like Meryl Streep in the 1978 Shakespeare in the Park production, responded to the offer of a pig’s foot – perfectly decent sixteenth-century pub grub – with ‘Yuck’? In the 1981 documentary about that production, Streep explains that Katherina is ‘the sort of person who goes to her sister and says “I like that – give me it”, and takes it; she says to her father, “I want that – you give me it” … nobody’s ever denied her anything.’ She’s a spoilt rich girl who turns up her nose at the sort of food that the audience is eating.

As always with the Engaging with the Humanities talks, these ideas suggested new ways of thinking about the world we live in now. Are social media tools a new way of creating communities in our own divided society? How much do we view other people and their problems through the lens of our own experience? What does it mean to share a space, and how do we learn to live together?


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Dr Ben Morgan is Lecturer in Early Modern English Literature at St Catherine's College, University of Oxford, as well as the Modern Languages Coordinator for Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation.