Read Not Dead remembered: what have I learned?
In this, my final blog about Read Not Dead, I’ll be reflecting on finishing my six-month research fellowship and what I learned from collecting data about over 200 plays. It’s flown by in a whirl of numbers and spreadsheets as I try to keep a handle on what, at times, feels like an absurd weight of information. But in between inputting dates, venues, authors, and performances, I’ve had the chance to consider some wider issues about Shakespeare’s world.
The first thing that comes across – overwhelmingly at times – is the true richness and sheer productivity of the theatre scene in Renaissance London. We estimate that around 3,000 plays were written and performed between 1567 and 1642 and while the majority of them don’t survive, the explosion of the London theatre scene in this period is truly astonishing. As the number of theatres increased, the number of audience members nearly doubled between 1574 and 1624 from 200,000 to almost 400,000. All those people aren’t going to want to see repeats of the same plays over and over (just as we don’t want to see our TV schedules filled up with re-runs), so the demand for new plays was unprecedented.
One of the questions I got asked during this project was in response to my claim that Read Not Dead exposes audiences to rarely-performed plays which turn out to be hidden gems: surely some of these plays have been forgotten for a reason? Presumably there are some plays which, when resurrected, aimlessly flop right back down again? And of course, the honest answer to this is: yes. There are absolutely some dreadful Renaissance plays. But I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t provide us with something – be it a good joke, an insight into the social tensions of the era, a motif that keeps recurring through the works of a particular writer, or even just a bit of story-telling acted by enthusiastic performers.
For me, it’s this last example that really sticks with me, because we so often overlook the value of so-called ‘mediocrity’. Not every piece of theatre has to be a masterpiece for it to be important or insightful or simply enjoyable. Sometimes you just want a bit of entertainment for a couple of hours, and that’s fine. In the days before TV, cinema, and Netflix, theatres were where you went for your entertainment. On some days, you’ll appreciate a heart-rending, cathartic tragedy which ponders the meaning of existence; on some days, you’ll want a sophisticated gender farce; often you might just be in the mood for a spot of surface-level escapist melodrama.
There is often a sense within the canon of English literature that the cultural outputs that come down to us from previous generations are products of a kind of social Darwinism: a survival-of-the-fittest which is essentially self-perpetuating in its logic. The thought process of ‘This is the selection of plays which we still have scripts for, so they must have been the best ones otherwise they’d have been forgotten’ quickly extends to ‘Shakespeare’s plays are performed most often, therefore they must be the best’. The value of Read Not Dead is that it allows us to look beyond the limits of canonicity and traditional popularity, enabling us to reassess examples of popular entertainment within the unique environment of Shakespeare’s Globe. The database on which I’ve been working will be a lasting record of this and will help keep our explorations in play-making not just ‘read not dead’, but alive and kicking.
Read Miranda’s previous blogs about Read Not Dead – Data collecting dispatches from the front line, or ‘HOW many recorded performances of The Jew of Malta?’and Keeping Read Not Dead alive.