The Life & Times of a Groundling

By Corrie Glanville

In nearly every depiction of Elizabethan England from Shakespeare in Love to the more recent film Anonymous, the audience of the famed Globe Theatre has been portrayed as a brawling, heaving, unwashed rabble who came to be known as “groundlings.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a groundling is “a frequenter of the ‘ground’ or pit of a theatre; hence, a spectator (reader, etc.) of average or inferior tastes, an uncritical or unrefined person.”

The ‘pit’ refers to the open air yard of the Globe Theatre, built in 1599, where one could pay a penny to stand and watch the show; a seat cost two pennies, and the best seats, three pennies. The other popular open air playhouse of the time was The Rose Theatre and on an average day, 2,000 to 3,000 people attended the Rose and The Globe to see the latest plays.

But the theatres were not the only ones making money off the groundlings; the Globe was surrounded by lively market stalls selling food, drink and various goods. (No, Broadway theatre lobbies were not the first ones to hawk merchandise.) Young people especially enjoyed the bustling atmosphere, which invariably provoked grumbling that apprentices were avoiding work to go to the Globe. Above the theatre was a flag pole that would often employ color-coded advertising; a black flag would denote tragedy, a white one meant comedy and a red one, a history. When the play was about to begin, a trumpet would call the audience to find their places.

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