What do the box office figures mean?

In this blog, I am looking at the day-by-day experience of the Rose theatre via the list of performances in Henslowe's Diary. Each item on the list contains a date, a play title, and a monetary figure. These figures must relate to the day's box office takings, and in this blog I discuss what they tell us about the changing popularities of the plays in the company's repertory.


Extract from W.W. Greg's transcript
of Henslowe's list of performances.
However, I don't want to mislead anyone into assuming that we fully comprehend these numbers and what they mean. Henslowe's Diary is a mysterious and confusing document, and there is much about it that we don't understand. There are puzzles within it that complicate (and may even undermine) what I'm doing in this blog. I'll describe these enigmas here, so that you can glimpse some of the complexities that scholars must wrestle with.



How full was the theatre?


In this blog, I write rather glibly about good box office and weak box office. But what counts as good,and how many spectators are we talking about?

Let's look at the range of figures Henslowe records. As of 19th April, 1592, we have seen that...
In his 1941 study, Shakespeare's Audience, Alfred Harbage proposed that since the figures never rise above the low 70s, we can assume that to represent the theatre's maximum capacity. Harbage used Henslowe's figures to estimate the capacity of the Rose theatre in 1592 to be about 2,500. In The Shakespearean Stage, Andrew Gurr describes more recent archaeological investigations of the Rose that come to a very similar conclusion, around 2,400. And in Shakespeare's Theatre, Peter Thomson estimates that a play earning 60 shillings might indicate an audience of something like 2,160, which gels with these numbers.

But of course, a full theatre was rare. The average for 1592 is 33 shillings, which indicates a less than half-full theatre. In a study of the 1595 figures, Harbage estimated that the average audience in that year was half-full and comprised about 1,157 spectators, and that fits well with what I'm saying about 1592.

So, when writing this blog, I assume that 75 shillings reflects a packed theatre, and that 7 shillings would thus reflect a 10% full theatre, and that the average performance attracted an audience of slightly less than half the theatre's capacity.

However, a couple of factors complicate this simple assumption...


The figures do not represent the entire box office


The figures in Henslowe's Diary probably do not represent all the money that the plays made. Henslowe scholars agree that they in fact refer only to Henslowe's share in the 'gallery takings'.

The 'galleries' were the seating areas of the Rose playhouse. According to the Swiss tourist Simon Platter, who visited the Globe playhouse in 1599, every spectator paid a penny to enter the theatre at an outside door (for comparison, as Peter Thomson notes, you could buy a quart of cheap beer for the same price). Once inside, the spectator could choose either to stand in the 'yard' to watch the play, or else pay an extra penny at another door to sit down in the gallery. And in some theatres, they could pay a third penny if they wanted to watch from one of the more private 'lords rooms'.

The reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London; the Rose looked similar to this but smaller. You can see the yard (standing area) and the galleries for seating. Click to enlarge. Photo by Matthew Kirkland

One theory about the figures in the Diary, proposed by W.W. Greg in 1908 and followed by most scholars, is that Henslowe split the gallery takings with one of his business partners, while the playing company itself received only the takings from the yard. A later theory (proposed by Neil Carson) is that the figures are not in fact income but expenditure: Henslowe is recording his payment of half the takings to the actors.

Whatever the exact situation was, the main thing to remember is that the figures only tell us how full the galleries were, not how full the yard was. In his study of audience capacity at the Rose, (described above), Alfred Harbage did attempt to take this unknown factor into account through guesswork. But we honestly don't know how much of a difference it makes. Perhaps if the galleries were half full, the yard tended to be half-full too. But perhaps not. And it might mean that the figures reflect taste as well as popularity: a play might receive low gallery takings because it appealed more to the kind of people who couldn't afford to sit.



Why did new plays receive the highest box office?


Another possible complication stems from the curious fact that debut performances of new plays always score the highest box office figures. This may not be a great mystery. In their studies, W.W. Greg, Alfred Harbage and Peter Thomson argue that the regular audience simply loved novelty, and the introduction of a new play was an exciting event that would draw mass audiences. The popularity of new plays was a well-known phenomenon at the time - in a 1606 comic pamphlet, Thomas Dekker jokingly refers to a crowd as large "as if it had been at a new play".

However, another explanation might be that the players charged higher entrance fees for debut performances. There is some evidence that the entrance fee may have been doubled when a new play was being performed. But then again, as Rosyln L. Knutson points out in The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, the fee that was doubled was the fee one for the outside door, not the gallery takings that Henslowe was recording, So, it seems that new play performances were more expensive and more popular; in her book Documents of Performance in Early Modern England, Tiffany Stern suggests that audiences flocked to pay extra because they enjoyed the privilege of being the first to 'judge' a play, and perhaps even affect whether or not it would ever be performed again.

In summary, the high box office at new plays may not literally represent a packed theatre - but it may, and the evidence of the period certainly suggests that it ought to.


Conclusion


Henslowe's Diary is an often baffling document, full of questions that cannot easily be answered. In his edition of the Diary, R.A. Foakes is at pains to stress how little we know.

Still, the figures recorded in the list of plays do have some value. They are clearly related to daily performances, they go up and down and must therefore relate in some way to the number of people who attended, and so must, to some degree, trace the shifting popularities of plays, even if there are complications that we don't know about.

So, my conclusion is that it may be a little misleading of me to describe the figures recorded in Henslowe's Diary as straightforward indicators of a play's popularity level. But then again, it may not.


Further reading


  • W.W. Greg, Henslowe's Diary, Part 2: Commentary (A.H. Bullen, 1908),  133-5.
  • Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (Columbia University Press, 1941), 26-36.
  • Peter Thomson, Shakespeare's Theatre (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 28-31.
  • Rosyln L. Knutson, The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613 (University of Arkansas Press, 1991), 23-5.
  • Neil Carson, A Companion to Henslowe's Diary (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 15-21, 40.
  • R.A. Foakes, Henslowe's Diary, 2nd edtn. (Cambridge University Press, 2002),  xxviii-xliv.
  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642, 4th edtn. (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 157-8.
  • Tiffany Stern, Documents of Performance in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 86-7.
  • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 64-8

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