‘A thousand townsmen, gentlemen and whores, porters and servingmen’, would ‘together throng’ in Shakespeares day, to watch his plays, according to a poet who was there.
Other sources have the audience including the 'Groupies' of that time, keen to share their favours with the stars, including Shakespeare himself, who began his theatrical career as an actor before graduating to become the world’s greatest playwriter. (There is no evidence of plaster casts being taken, but lack of evidence doesn’t mean lack of the action - like the elusive Higgs-Boson particle being searched for at vast expense at CERN, near Geneva.)
The rumbustious and turbulent spirit suggested by these observations cannot be felt in the birthplace of Shakespeare: Stratford - upon-Avon has been stripped of any character and authenticity it might have once carried, any remaining socially seditious sentiments have been air blasted out like the last few feathers of a Bernard Matthews mass market turkey, leaving it a tasteless lump of a town - with one exception: the rejuvenated Royal Shakespeare Society’s Swan Theatre, or at least the recently revamped interior, since the exterior still looks like an early multi-story car park.
The stage and auditorium, whilst being completely covered and protected from the elements,unlike the theatres of Shakespeare’s day, still manage to convey to the audience a sense of being almost in the action,on show to the other members of the audience in the way that the gallants of his day were as they sat on stools at the edge of the stage, commenting on the action and the poetry.
Elena and I had booked a bargain break in Stratford to catch The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s feminist comedy, in which the women come out on top and the men are mostly fops, or seedy sots, debauched or dolts, deluded or deranged.
The production was hilarious, chaotic, tears and laughter nearly had me tumbling from my steep and precarious cheap seat onto the stage below. We had the feeling that had this happened, the actors and audience would have merely guffawed and dragged me off the stage, but only if I obscured their view or their movements, otherwise I’d have been left to enjoy the performance from there.
After the show, emotionally and physically satisfied in a way that one rarely is by the cinema, we went off in search of a good traditional pub and some good pub food. But Stratford has succumbed to the temptation to appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than do a bit more work in search of the highest common factor of the tourist market. Tat and trivia everywhere, the pubs more like big TV viewing rooms than restful drinking dens, which is what they should be, surely?
In these sad surroundings, from the verbal gymnastics of William Shakespeare we were now confronted and assaulted by the inane and moronic bleeps and blasts of the world of screen entertainment, to which were glued the dull and glassy eyes of the screen based generation.
We fled from these hollow shams and eventually found the oldest pub in England, built in 1470- The Old Thatched Tavern, which had resisted the temptation to modernise itself with plastic and interactive entertainment.
We had found an oasis of authentic fifteenth century England, and all we needed was a decent genuine ale and some traditional food. But they had run out of beer, and we couldn’t get a table.
‘Oh there’s nothing so dreadful, morbid or drear,
as to stand at the bar of a pub with no beer’
So goes the traditional Australian refrain, which sprang into my mind, and which we sang to the astonished barmaid, because back in WS’s day, folk lived, we believe, more intensely, always closer to the edge and end of life, they were hence more alive, they shouted, and sang and swore, fought and fucked, laughed and loved.