Sonnets & Chill: What did Shakespeare’s audiences do when the theaters were closed?

One person reading a letter to another person with a dog
Speed reading Launce’s letter : [two gentlemen of Verona, act III, scene 1] [graphic] / J. Gilbert ; W. Thomas, sc. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART File S528t7 no.10 (size XS)
All right, enough. We’ve all heard how super-productive William Shakespeare was when the plague shut down his theaters: He wrote his epic poems Venus and Adonis and Lucrece during the epidemic of 1592-1593, and “all of [his] Jacobean plays, from Measure For Measure through Coriolanus” during or not long after later outbreaks.

But surely the real question is: What did Shakespeare’s audiences do while the theaters were closed?

For early modern audiences, theater wasn’t just a source of entertainment. It was a source of news and gossip; a place to forge connections; a nexus for both familiar locals and visiting strangers; a gallery in which anyone could not only see but be seen; and a pulsing energetic venue in which the great rubbed both metaphorical and literal elbows with the great unwashed.

In other words, Shakespeare’s theater was the internet of its day.

Though our theaters today are also closed (as are our cinemas, sports arenas, restaurants, and other large non-essential gathering places), the internet remains robust for many of us most of the time. We’re able to binge visual entertainment via streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and continue to maintain (and in some cases expand) our communities via Zoom and Facebook Live in the form of virtual happy hours and digital performances.

When I think how much more stressful our present lockdown would be without the internet, I realize how horrible it must have been for Shakespeare’s audiences when their central hub of connectivity was closed down.

So what did they do? Very similar things to what we’re doing. They practiced social distancing, sometimes forcibly as entire families could be boarded up in the same house if one family member displayed plague symptoms.

They played games that probably included chess and blackjack. Chess was already at least 100 years old in the late sixteenth century, and according to several gaming sources, blackjack was first mentioned by its alternate name “Twenty-One” by Shakespeare’s contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.

Two people playing chess
Arthur Saul. The famous game of chesse-play. 1640. Folger Shakespeare Library. STC 21774

They probably read poetry, too, thanks to an amazing 16th-century technological gadget called books, the market and demand for which, it seems to me, may well have been increased by the lack of and desire for them during the plague isolation of 1592-3. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI, Part 2 were all published in quarto form in 1593 and 1594, and these might well have enabled family readings aloud amongst the well-to-do. The very first record we have of an amateur Shakespeare private performance is from the 1620s, in fact, but they must have been happening prior to that.

And such restrictions as closed theaters bolstered the development of what was known as the “closet drama,” a play not intended for public performance on a stage but rather to be read aloud as a solo or group activity. In the same way that many of our contemporary theaters are experimenting with online presentations of the theatrical experience, early modern audiences practiced very similar experiments in community engagement and entertainment.

(But did they have Richard Burbage reciting sonnets and soliloquies in the public square as Sir Patrick Stewart is doing now online? And were there baby booms nine months after every plague breakout in Shakespeare’s day? Further investigation is warranted.)

If Shakespeare’s audiences really are similar to us, maybe we can take encouragement from them. Once Shakespeare’s theaters reopened, audiences returned to see the companies that survived (not all of them did). Maybe that means we too will head back to the theater, realizing, as the Elizabethans did, not just the value of that shared communal experience, not just the pleasure of the stories being told or the personal connections being forged, but the absolutely vital necessity of it.