Imagining Shakespeare’s Original Audience, 1660-2000: Book Review


9781137379955The latest volume of Shakespeare Studies, 45 (2017), includes my review of Bettina Boecker’s monograph:

Imagining Shakespeare’s Original Audience, 1660-2000: Groundlings, Gallants, Grocers Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Here is an extact from the review:

Christopher Norris once noted how A.C. Bradley and F.R. Leavis seem to take on the perspectives of Othello and Iago, respectively, in their reading of Othello. (1) We are familiar with the idea that readers see plays from the point of view of certain characters, but Norris was alert to the way that the characters’ positions are used as a function of criticism. Bettina Boecker’s contention is that critics often see plays from the point of view of certain audiences. Or at least critics imagine Shakespeare’s original audience as they investigate the plays. This imagining can have a profound, and often unacknowledged, affect on Shakespeare criticism.

As this book shows, the way this imagining functions reveals a lot about the processes of reading Shakespeare. Boecker’s task is to read selectively through over 300 years of criticism to examine how Shakespeare’s original audience is imagined. She traces the way that this imagining works in terms of the critics’ arguments and their perspectives on the plays, the institution of the theater, the playwright, and the role of literature more broadly.

In the Introduction Boecker excuses herself from including an account of current thinking on early modern theatergoers, saying that she did not want to write “a Whig history of Shakespeare’s first audiences–from the ‘errors’ of older criticism to the ‘truth’ as uncovered by us, the living” (11). Boecker’s investigation, then, tries to be unpartisan, and is something of a gift for researchers as it leaves a certain amount of work still to be done and thought through. As Boecker states, “every generation of critics since Dryden has credited itself with being in possession of the truth about Elizabethan audiences, regardless of the fact that this truth, at least from the perspective of the later-born observer, has always been a truth with a purpose” (11). Boecker’s task in this book is not to imagine Shakespeare’s original audience once and for all, but to survey and test past imaginings of this audience in Shakespeare criticism.

Find out more about the book.

The journal volume also includes a large section on Forum: Playhouses, Plays, and Theater History: Rethinking the 1580s.