Fine Literature in Shakespeare's time
April 2, 2011 4:14 PM   Subscribe

I've heard from more than one academic source that Shakespeare's plays weren't considered particularly "high art" in his time, being somewhat more on the level of TV sitcoms of today. How accurate is that assessment? If it is accurate, what was considered highbrow literature at the time and why?
posted by telstar to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
THEATRE was considered something less than "art" in Elizabethan London; it doesn't really have anything to do with Shakespeare, per se. I'd say the assessment was "not inaccurate." Poetry was the "highbrow" literature of the day.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 4:22 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't know the answer to this, but I do know that you have to be careful about assuming that "highbrow" and "lowbrow" are categories that have existed throughout time. There's a really interesting book that argues that the distinction between popular and elite entertainment didn't exist in America until the late nineteenth century, for instance.
posted by craichead at 4:24 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Well... sort of. Whether it was highbrow or no, Shakespeare was still very well respected in his day and a number of his plays premiered at the various Inns of Court, sometimes with Elizabeth herself in attendance. James I made his troupe something like the official royal performers. But really, I think I'd go with craichead and say that the "high" and "popular" categories we recognize today didn't really exist then.

This makes a certain amount of sense, when you think about it. Printing was still in its infancy, and mass printing would not really develop until the later part of the eighteenth century. And no one had any means of recording or reproducing sound, let alone video, for another three centuries. Even pictures were pretty hard to reproduce accurately, and printed images other than engravings only gradually took on sophistication. Live performances of various sorts and paintings were pretty much all you had.

The Globe Theatre had three levels of seats, but also a large expanse where the "groundlings," i.e. common folk, could watch the performances. Theatre may not have been considered on the same "level" as poetry, but that didn't stop everyone from going.
posted by valkyryn at 4:32 PM on April 2, 2011

When you say 'highbrow', do you mean what the richest and most influential people were enjoying, or what the most educated people were? A good example of the former would be 'The Faerie Queene', and the sort of mock-pastoral parodied by Marlowe in 'The Passionate Shepherd To His Love, whereas the latter answer would most likely have been latin and greek texts.
posted by piato at 5:19 PM on April 2, 2011

(If you want to split that difference and use 'what lawyers were enjoying', you might end up with Shakespeare's own Troilus & Cressida - "never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar" - which is innovative and experimental to a modernlike degree but also has lots and lots of jokes about poo, so it's not really a comfortable fit with highbrow either!)
posted by piato at 5:33 PM on April 2, 2011

How accurate is that assessment?

In high school, one of our texts was about the actual history of Shakespeare - the man, his times & so on - and it pointed out that the Globe Theatre was a rowdy kind of place, where the majority of the audience just stood in a sawdust-covered pit in front of the stage, drank beer & generally heckled or commented aloud about the play.

The comedy interludes that appear in most or all of the plays were specifically designed to give this theatrical moshpit a bit of relief between the heavier drama.

Whether or not a distinction between highbrow & lowbrow existed, there's no dispute that the plays were part of popular culture with a broad appeal.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:15 PM on April 2, 2011

I also have heard what you have heard. A number of his jokes were bawdy, and meant to appeal to the baser elements of the audience.
posted by troywestfield at 6:19 PM on April 2, 2011

High art is not restricted from bawdy, base jokes even now. Consider Shakespeare, for example.
posted by rikschell at 6:43 PM on April 2, 2011 [12 favorites]

I think it's also worth noting that Shakespeare had royal patrons, and wrote to keep them happy, especially in the histories (e.g., Richard III was not actually a hunchback). This wasn't at all odd for the time, but doesn't sit easily with the modern distinction between high and commercial art.
posted by momus_window at 6:51 PM on April 2, 2011

The Wikipedia entry mentions that unlike many of the other popular writers of his time, Shakespeare was not university educated, and was thus seen as something of an upstart.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:43 PM on April 2, 2011

High art is not restricted from bawdy, base jokes even now. Consider Shakespeare, for example.

Or DuChamp, or Banksy, or James Joyce, or Thomas Pynchon.
posted by empath at 7:47 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Wikipedia entry mentions that unlike many of the other popular writers of his time, Shakespeare was not university educated, and was thus seen as something of an upstart.

"Upstart" is a wonderful word because one of the first printed references to Shakespeare uses precisely that word, for precisely that reason:

"...for there is an upstart Crow... [who] is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."

But the critic who wrote those words, Robert Greene, wasn't really much of an arbiter of "high art." To get an idea of who Greene was, Stephen Greenblatt has a wonderful argument in his "Will In The World" that this same Greene was a major inspiration for the character of Falstaff. (Anyone interested in these topics, btw, could hardly beat Will In The World, btw, for something to read.) If anything was high art in Shakespeare's time, it was long-form poetry like "The Faerie Queene."

But note! Shakespeare wrote poetry like that as well: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare wrote obscene humor for the groundlings and was part-owner of and chief playwright for the King of England's personally-sponsored theater company. The high-brow/low-brow distinction simply didn't exist.
posted by lewedswiver at 10:17 PM on April 2, 2011

I can't remember the citation for this, but the highest brow literature had a good chance of not surviving, because for those high status (aka independently wealthy) writers who didn't have to write for a living, their literature was passed around in manuscript form. Printing - and thus making your work accessible to the public - was considered a bit vulgar.

Shakespeare had audiences of all classes. But, then again, so do contemporary sitcoms and romance novels and action films.

if you're talking elite/highbrow regarding education, rather than class, then by the very fact that Shakespeare wrote in English makes him not highbrow. Academics wrote in Latin, because it was high status, but also because then scholars from all over Europe could read their work. (I wish they still did - then I would only have to learn one other language to read scholarship, not 3 or 4 or more.)

I'm not so sure I agree with the people who say that there was no distinction between high and low culture at the time - or rather, I might say that there were high and low cultures (plural). Most Upper class men, for example, would be educated in Latin and have access to a world of scholarship and reading that wouldn't be available to lower class men, or most women of any class. Clergy, who were themselves increasingly university educated, often had a different understanding of religion than many of their parishioners - and many would denounce rituals important to the lay calendar (like may poles, etc). Rural-urban distinctions are important, too - Londoners could go to the theatre, but plays were rare in the countryside. Even handwriting differed - I have seen 17th century documents that a very good historian of law swore were early 17th century; it's just that the rural handwriting was so archaic compared to what most educated, London-based clerks produced.

that said, things do cross these boundaries, and shakespeare was one of them.
posted by jb at 11:30 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing that there wasn't that much of a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow at the time: the plays were for all levels of society, They would put on special performances for royalty, but any commoner could turn up to the Globe and watch a play standing up as a "groundling" for very little money.

Plays were very popular entertainment, and a highly competitive business. I can't remember the statistics, but from the size of London and the number and size of venues, a very large fraction of the population of London must have been going to the theatre at least once a week, or more. It was like renting a DVD now or going to the movies in the Fifties, a regular form of entertainment for regular people, but something that the elite would do as well.

(My view is that's what made Elizabethan theatre so creative. The audiences were going regularly and got bored easily: they demanded and got constant innovation. If you compare that to modern Broadway or West End musicals: they're so expensive that people can only go rarely and are wary of anything different that might be a waste of the colossal ticket price, and so they don't really develop much.)

In social terms, Elizabethan society didn't have so much of a class system in the modern sense, but a rank system where there were a large number of different ranks, each with a definite status. If you were in the aristocracy, you knew your exact place in the order of precedence (when you would file into a place on a state occasion) and you knew exactly who was above you, and exactly who was below you. But even at the lower levels of the society, if you were a Freeman you knew that you were higher than a Villein and lower than a Yeoman. If you were walking down the street and saw a Yeoman approaching, you would have to "give him the wall" and let him pass on the inside. But if it was a Villein coming, you could just march safely towards him knowing he'd be the one who had to jump into the street.

In Shakespeare, the last line of a scene is always spoken by the highest ranked person present. It seems like a bizarre rule to us, but the Elizabethans were acutely aware of rank distinctions.

Now I think that one of the consequences of the rank system is that paradoxically there was less of what we might think of as class solidarity. People going to the theatre didn't have to worry about whether they would be mixing with a bunch of stuck-up upper class snobs, or whether they'd be lowering their own status by mingling with with the lower class, because everybody knew exactly what their status was. Your rank was pretty rigid: not totally immutable, but it was a difficult, formal process to change it.

So if you look for instance at the recent Sucker Punch thread for instance, there's a lot of status anxiety with people ostentatiously proud of not liking dumb action movies, or else daringly proud of their slumming despite the risk to their status. But there wouldn't have been anything like that with an Elizabethan about liking a Shakespeare play: that was acceptable for all levels.

But where you sat or stood was highly dependent on your status. Royals and high nobles wouldn't go to the theatre: they'd expect the actors to pack up and come to them. Moderate nobles would get seats actually on the stage so they could get up close, and be seen by others. Those below them would sit in the galleries at the sides, and the lower orders would stand as groundlings. I've been to the reconstructed Globe a few times though, and I think you actually get the best view as a groundling, though shorter people might disagree.

The book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is pretty good at putting things in context.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:46 AM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thanks to everyone for the enlightening expositions here. I marked jb as best answer because he mentioned that less mainstream literature probably wouldn't have been printed, which is my "new learned thing" for the day. The idea that the power of reproduction is really at the root of it seems pretty believable...the highbrow stuff simply didn't reach as big an audience and didn't survive the ages as well the cheap-o printed material did. Thanks again, all!
posted by telstar at 1:18 AM on April 3, 2011

he idea that the power of reproduction is really at the root of it seems pretty believable...the highbrow stuff simply didn't reach as big an audience and didn't survive the ages as well the cheap-o printed material did

This isn't necessarily true. Manuscript circulation of materials meant they were copied and recopied many times - just not at the rate or speed that printed texts could be. Libellous verses about the duke of Buckingham (James I's favorite courtier) survive in archives and libraries across the world, despite the fact that they were so scandalous that the state would have wished to suppress them.

jb is right that print carries a stigma at this time - however it's not as simple as "high" literature being produced in manuscript and ballads and other "low" art being produced in print. There is lots of crossover between the two categories. The stigma of print was already breaking down by the end of the sixteenth century and while you often find ritual apologies in printed works for going so low as to actually publish something, it is a literary trope more than anything else by the time you reach the seventeenth century. Two (academic, but readable) books to look at if you are interested (the links will take you to relevant pages in Google Books):

Harold Love, Scribal publication in seventeenth-century England.
Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern England.

Also lots of "cheap-o printed material" also doesn't survive. Huge numbers of ballads, chapbooks, ABC primers, etc have ended up in rubbish bins, on fires, or used as toilet paper by comtemporaries (these too are common literary tropes in contemporary works, particularly the scatological fate of many cheap books). An early newspaper of 8 pages cost 1 penny, cheap enough that even a struggling wage labourer (if they could read) might afford one every so often, and cheap enough that it could then be passed on to a friend or thrown away. We are lucky that some contemporaries get addicted to cheap print and collect and preserve huge quantities of it; but that can give the false impression that everyone did that.
posted by greycap at 5:45 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Greycap gives the citation I was forgetting (Love's Scribal Publication) - and rightly corrects my assumption that printed would survive better than manuscript. I'd forgotten about all that emphemeral stuff, which is silly because I spent ages looking for some of it a while back. Greycap
is much more of an expert on literature in this period than I am - also verstegan.

As for the rank/class thing: I think the idea that Tudor/Stuart society was arranged in ranks is something that elite writers of descriptions of society liked to claim was true, but reality was a lot more messy. I write about yeomen all the time, and I couldn't have told you that they stand above freemen in rank - rather, I imagine the urban would
look down on a country rube for not being up on the latest fashions (as has happened through all time).

The nobility would have had clear ranks; the gentry would be ranked, but less clearly (recently read about a guy in c1620 complaining that he was being disrespected as a gentlemen) and in the lower 2/3 of society ranks could be so fuzzy we might as well call them classes. That doesn't mean that people thought of themselves as being in classes - when they talk about it, the talk about the "better sort" and the "poorer sort" and "rich" and "poor" -- but that's relational - in a village, a yeoman would be "better sort" but on the national scene he would be poorer. (Of course, lots of positioning was done - when writing a petition about how someone did you wrong, you obviously go on about how poor you are, to get sympathy). There were constant challenges to the concept that richer people were better - thus the famous rhyme from the middle ages "when Adam delve and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" which was repeated throughout the 16th century. Concepts of a middle class (not too rich, not too poor, just right) seem to have come later, though; Keith Wrightson dates it to the civil war period and rhetoric like John Lilburne's.
posted by jb at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2011

greycap: do you think that those elite manuscript versus would have been less widely read at the time than printed or performed material? I don't know what print runs were like at the time, but I imagine still in the hundreds if not thousands.
posted by jb at 11:46 AM on April 5, 2011

It's hard to tell really given what does and doesn't survive. The print run for a quarto pamphlet is around 1,500 copies at the very maximum - this is the highest given technological constraints before it starts to get unprofitable for printers and booksellers. That amount could be printed in a day or two. Obviously copying out a manuscript 1,500 times takes longer - but if you compare one scrivener copying it, compared to a network of 5 friends copying their copy and sending it on to 5 friends again, and so on, the distribution quickly scales up. And of course there is oral circulation, too, which goes for both print and manuscript - for example ballads being sung to others, or pamphlets being read out in the workplace or the tavern.

In short, print is always going to be able to produce more copies more quickly. But the difference between print and manuscript for certain kinds of short publications (I'm thinking particularly of libels and ballads here) is not as pronounced as one might immediately think.
posted by greycap at 12:45 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's been estimated that in Shakespeare's London, between the 1560s and the 1640s, over fifty million visits were made to playhouses. This was mass entertainment, no doubt about it. But within the playgoing audience, there were important social distinctions which had a big impact on the way Shakespeare wrote his plays.

In Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, Andrew Gurr argues that the London playhouses fell into two types: the 'public' playhouses or amphitheatres, which were partly outdoors, with a central yard that was open to the sky (if it rained, you got wet), and the 'private' playhouses or halls, which were indoors, fully sheltered from the weather, and fully seated, with no standing area. The public playhouses were cheap (the basic admission price was just one penny, or twopence for a seat in the gallery), but the private playhouses were much more expensive, charging between three and six pence for entry, or two shillings and sixpence for the best seats nearest the stage. Not surprisingly, there was a big social divide between these two types of playhouse. The public playhouses catered for a popular, plebeian audience (servants, apprentices, etc), while the private playhouses had a more elite clientele (citizens, gentry and their wives).

So how did this affect Shakespeare? Well, the King's Men, the acting company that Shakespeare belonged to (and in which he was a major shareholder), was of course based at the Globe Theatre, one of the public or amphitheatre playhouses. But in 1609 the King's Men acquired a second theatre at Blackfriars. This was a private playhouse, where the cheapest admission price (sixpence) was equal to the most expensive admission price at the Globe. In other words, Shakespeare and his company were moving upmarket. And this shift upmarket (which the King's Men had been planning for years -- they'd first tried to acquire Blackfriars in 1596, around the time that Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice) had a marked effect on Shakespeare's language. The language of his later plays makes much greater demands on the listener; Frank Kermode argues in Shakespeare's Language that it is 'simply inconceivable' that contemporary audiences could have followed every sentence of a play like Coriolanus, even though they would have been swept along by the action.

Shakespeare could write popular, crowd-pleasing entertainment if he wanted to, but as he grew older he seems to have grown more willing to take risks, and to write plays that were more intellectually challenging (more highbrow, if you like), aimed at the more attentive and discerning members of his audience, or what his fellow playwright Ben Jonson called the 'quicker apprehension' of 'learned ears'. And jb's point about manuscript vs print reinforces this, since as far as Shakespeare's poetry goes, he seems to have gone for the 'elite' option of manuscript rather than print circulation; Francis Meres famously referred to 'his sugred Sonnets among his private friends', which suggests that the sonnets were circulating in manuscript well over ten years before they appeared in print.
posted by verstegan at 2:53 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

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