On a good day, Shakespeare’s company sold 3000 tickets for one show. His plays appealed to all kinds of people. Romance, fight scenes, and bawdy humor worked as well back then as they do now. Admittedly, the double entendre French venereal disease joke doesn’t always slay a modern audience, but the groundlings would have loved it.
During Shakespeare’s time, the groundlings were a great audience for bawdy jokes. A groundling was originally a small fish that lived low in the water with a gaping mouth that could be seen from above. The upturned faces of the audience who stood in the pit of the Globe reminded at least one person, Shakespeare, of the fish. Hamlet used the word to describe them, and it stuck.
Groundlings paid a penny to stand in the pit by the stage. If you paid another penny, you got a seat in the lower galleries that surrounded the yard. Add more pennies and you got a cushion or a better location. The groundlings were working men, tradesmen, servants and apprentices. Accounts written at the time described people who smelled of garlic and beer. The audience could buy oranges, apples and ale while they watched the show. Sometimes the apples flew if the audience was unhappy, but maybe not for Shakespeare’s plays. We hope not. However, Shakespeare’s audiences were involved, and there must have been a different feel to that mass of humanity standing right next to the action.
We hope our audiences won’t throw food at our actors, but we want them to have the intimate feel of a groundling next to the stage. They should cheer for the heroes, boo the villains, laugh with the clowns, and ache for the lovers. It’s how Shakespeare was meant to be watched, at least when he wrote his plays. It’s good to be a groundling.