Currently, the plays of William Shakespeare are viewed as great English literature, and viewed as "high culture". However I heard someone say that Shakespeare was writing "bawdy, violence filled plays written to entertain a mostly drunken and illiterate rabble". Indeed, I've heard that Shakespeare's plays are full of vulgarity and references to sex, which would back up this idea.

So what was it during Shakespeare's time? High Culture (like the opera would be today?) or the 15th century equivalent of the film "The Hangover"? Or somewhere in between? What sort of people went to Shakespeare's plays when he was alive? Kings and Bishops? Or middle class and working classes folks? What did the snooty people at the time say about Shakespeare? "Down with this sort of thing?" or "Marvelous!"?

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    His work actually didn't garner much attention during his life. This question gives you some insight: literature.stackexchange.com/questions/142/…
    – DForck42
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 17:39
  • @DForck42, very true. We would probably focus far more on Christopher Marlowe's works if he'd lived long enough to write more. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Marlowe
    – Artemis
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 13:07
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    If you get chance go to a performance at the rebuilt Globe in London - especially one in costume/period. Being up close and the jokes and asides to the audience make even a Shakespeare comedy funny. If you've only had to suffer through reading them in Lit class - you suddenly see the point
    – none
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 15:47
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    Indeed, I've heard that Shakespeare's plays are full of vulgarity and references to sex, which would back up this idea. Heard? Have you actually read/performed in/attended any of them? That stuff's right out there for everyone to see, and some of it's even in language that we can still understand today, such as the infamous interlude in Macbeth about alcohol and its effects on male sexuality. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 14:08
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    @Mason Wheeler: Re "Some of it's even in language that we can still understand today", who are you calling "we"? I don't know about the rest of you, but I can understrand Shakespeare (in audio recordings, like the Arkangel Shakespeare) much better than many contemporary TV shows. It's really not that difficult: there's some changes in vocabulary, and unfamiliar references, but they're easily looked up.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 4:21

3 Answers 3


As I recall from my readings, the floor of the theatre was where the masses sat, when they attended. Most would probably be drunk, considering the state of water sanitation at the time beer was the favored drink over raw water, and most would probably be ill-mannered. The well-to-do when they attended sat in the box seats above the "rabble", so that should give you an idea of the crowds and attendance. Plays pandered to both audiences, in some ways like the children's movies of today that can garner attention from kids and adults with similar material.

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    I agree. Shakespeare's plays were designed to appeal to the masses as well as the higher class educated folk. Adults and children alike, often. The Simpsons is a great modern example, I feel, as it targets adults and children alike, and can be both high-brow and base, often at the same time!
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 20:53
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    South Park falls in the same class. It's crude, by almost any standard, but many of its episodes raise profound critiques on the nature of society and Mormons.
    – Dante
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 7:50
  • Yeah, South Park somewhat less so I think. It tends to be slightly more crass compared to the early Simpsons episodes, and although the issues may be genuine and contemporary, the humour was less high-brow. But yeah, general point is fair.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 22:16

There wasn't such a huge distinction between high culture and low culture at the time, especially in the early english drama. Some of the earliest english drama, including the mirable and mystery plays, were put on by guilds, and had a rather amateurish quality.


Shakespeare wrote for popular and aristocratic audiences both.

Like other theater companies of the era, Richard Burbage's company (of which Shakespeare was a part) depended upon patronage by members of the aristocracy; it was known at various times as "The Lord Chamberlain's Men" and "The King's Men" to reflect who its patrons were.

Shakespeare's plays were most often performed to large crowds. The Globe Theatre and Blackfriars were built to accommodate different social classes. There were also private performances of Shakespeare's plays to the court of King James. Some of Shakespeare's plays included content aimed at pleasing his patrons; for instance, the play Macbeth, in contrast to the sources Shakespeare drew from, portrayed Macbeth's claim to the throne as entirely illegitimate, and includes a scene that is largely flattery for King James and his ancestors (that is, Macbeth's second meeting with the witches, in which they show him the line of succession of Scottish kings that leads up to King James.)

Shakespeare's intellectual background is often contrasted with Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary playwright who had been a scholar at Cambridge. However, while Shakespeare was not a university scholar, he was widely read, and his plays drew on a variety of classical and contemporary literary sources.

Of course, much of the content of Shakespeare's plays can be understood without classical education, and include physical comedy, sexual humor, and action scenes, that would appeal to a wide audience; and we know his plays drew large audiences.

Several of Shakespeare's plays include a play-within-a-play, most famously Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream; the latter, particularly, gives a stylized glimpse of different social classes interacting through the theatre, and reacting to different aspects of the story.

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