Shakespeare had to write what his audience wanted, but he usually made them want what he gave them." Dr. Peter Hyland explores the depths of Shakespearean theatre and its audience through his research at Huron University College.
With the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars Playhouse, there is increasing attention to how the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were performed. At the time there were no theatre critics, and so the evidence is limited and complex.
There are more than 800 Early Modern plays still in existence; most of them are not performed or even studied today, yet many were more popular than Shakespeare's. What does this mean? Although we focus today on imagery and language and psychological depth, what attracted audiences to playhouses was often the performance of the actors and the spectacle of the staging. The centrality of Shakespeare today has in some ways distorted our understanding of how his plays were performed. My current research is on disguise devices (essentially a matter of performance) in Early Modern plays, which have a very complex set of implications about audiences and performance, but also about Early Modern society.
In Shakespeare's time, the Globe and the Rose sheltered rival theatre companies. For many scholars they represent a distinction between 'real art' and commercial hackwork. When the Globe was being excavated, the remains of the Rose were also available, but many researchers ignored evidence pertaining to theatre found in the Rose because they considered its audience and its plays inferior.
The tendency of scholars to focus on Shakespeare as the dominant figure and to neglect other playwrights has infected our understanding of the performance context as a whole. By focusing my research on the audiences and what they found entertaining in performance, on why theatres like the Rose drew in great crowds, on minor and not very literary plays, I am trying to show that there was much dynamic theatre beyond Shakespeare and, however minor they might be, these playwrights have a lot to tell us.
While the study of Shakespeare is a cornerstone in a university English degree, an understanding of his relationship with his contemporaries is essential. My courses do not focus on Shakespeare alone, but set him within the context of other dramatists who were also competing for the attention of audiences of that time. Shakespeare did what he did because of the marketplace for which he wrote, as did many others; it might have ended up as art, but it certainly began as commerce.
I try to make my students recognize that Early Modern theatre had significance in its culture far greater than we can recognize today. These playwrights were shaping identity. Their plays, consciously or not, dramatized and defined 'selves', in terms of gender, class and nation, while registering the shiftiness of the whole concept - that is why disguise is such a potent device. If we look at all this carefully we can see the beginnings of a history of who we are.
"Look About You, Anonymity, and the Value of Theatricality". Research Opportunities in Medieval and Renaissance Drama, 44 (2005), 65-74.
"Face/Off: Some Speculations on Elizabethan Acting". Shakespeare Bulletin 24, no.2 (2006), 21-29.
"Re-membering Gloriana: The Revenger's Tragedy." In Elizabeth Hageman and Katherine Conway (eds), Resurrecting Elizabeth I in 17th Century England. Madison: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press (2007), 82-94.
"'Clock Strikes' in Twelfth Night." Fourth Blackfriars Conference, American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, VA, October, 2007.