||This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (July 2010)|
A groundling was a person who frequented the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century and was too poor to pay to be able to sit on one of the three levels of the theatre. By paying one penny, they could stand in "the pit", also called "the yard", just below the stage to watch the play. Standing in the pit was uncomfortable, and people were usually packed in tightly. The groundlings were commoners who were also referred to as stinkards or penny-stinkers. The name 'groundlings' came about after Hamlet referenced them as such when the play was first performed around 1600. At the time, the word had entered the English language to mean a small type of fish with a gaping mouth - this becomes pertinent when we realise that from the vantage point of the actor playing Hamlet, set on a stage raised around 5 feet from the ground, the sea of upturned faces may indeed have registered as something akin to wide-mouthed fish. Those who had paid to sit in the raised galleries would also have shared in this image, which clearly became popular enough to stick until this day. They were known to misbehave and are commonly believed to have thrown food such as fruit and nuts at characters they did not like, although there is no evidence of this. They would watch the plays from the cramped pits with sometimes over 500 people standing there.
There might also be "cut-purses" in the crowd, who would cut the piece of string that attached a purse to a woman's clothes and snatch the purse without the women being aware of the theft. The gentry would pay to sit in the galleries, sometimes using cushions for comfort. Rich nobles could watch the play from the Lords' Rooms above the Tiring House at the back of the stage. Theatre performances were held in the afternoon because there was limited artificial lighting. Men and women attended plays, but prosperous women would often wear masks to disguise their identity. The plays were extremely popular and attracted vast audiences to the Globe. The audience capacity was estimated at 3000, including the 3-tied galleries and Lords' rooms. In 1599, Thomas Platter mentioned the cost of admission at contemporary London theatres in his diary:
"There are separate galleries and there one stands more comfortably and moreover can sit, but one pays more for it. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door. And in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost."
- Gurr, Andrew Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p.21 ISBN 0-521-54322-3