Q: Did floor-standers attending Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe refer to themselves as “plebes”? Is that a word Shakespeare wrote down anywhere?
A: We’ve seen no evidence that standees at the Globe were referred to as “plebes,” either by themselves or others. And as far as we know, Shakespeare never used the word “plebes” in his plays or sonnets.
Standees at Elizabethan theaters were known as “groundlings,” a word that we’ll discuss later in this post.
Shakespeare did use the shorter term “plebs” once in Titus Andronicus, a play set in the latter days of the Roman Empire. In Act IV, scene III of the tragedy, written in the late 1580s or early 1590s, Clown uses the term in speaking to Titus:
“I am going with my pigeons to the tribunal plebs.” The reference is to the tribunus plebis (Tribune of the Plebs, or People), a Roman body open to plebeians, or common people, as opposed to patricians.
In addition to “plebs,” the more familiar term “plebeians” appears in Titus Andronicus and three other Shakespeare plays: King Henry V (circa 1599), Coriolanus (c. 1605), and Antony and Cleopatra. (c. 1607). But all those appearances specifically refer to common people in Roman times, not those in Elizabethan England.
However, the word “plebs” (it rhymes with “webs”) took on a wider sense around this time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The ordinary people, the populace; (derogatory) the mob.” And it’s possible that standees at the Globe may have been referred to that way, though we haven’t seen any written evidence to support this.
The OED’s earliest example for this more general sense is from a poem about the death of a Lord Chancellor: “Plebs. / The common people they did throng in flocks, / Dewing their bosomes with their yernfull teares, / Their sighs were such as would haue rent the rocks.” From “A Maidens Dreame. Vpon the Death of the Right Honorable Sir Christopher Hatton Knight” (1591), by Robert Greene.
As for the Globe, standees in the “pit” or “yard” of the theater, the area surrounding the stage, were referred to as “groundlings,” since they stood on the ground instead of sitting in the galleries.
Shakespeare uses the term in the 1604 second quarto of Hamlet. In his advice to the Players, Hamlet says, “O it offends mee to the soule, to heare a robustious perwig-pated fellowe tere a passion to totters, to very rags, to spleet the eares of the groundlings.”
Thomas Platter, a Swiss physician who visited London in 1599, saw plays at several theaters. In his diary, Platter says that “daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.”
“The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view,” Platter goes on. “There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. 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.”
In Thomas Platter’s Travels in England 1599, Clare Williams’s 1937 translation of the diary’s German text, Platter writes that during his London visit he attended a performance of a play about Julius Caesar at an unnamed theater:
“On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.”
Some scholars say Platter probably saw Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at the Globe, while others say he may have seen another play about Caesar at the Rose. Both theaters had thatched roofs and were across the Thames from the City of London.
Getting back to etymology, the first of these words for a commoner to show up in English was the noun “plebeian,” which was originally used in translating the classical Latin plebeius, a member of the plebs or common people in ancient Rome. The first OED citation is from a translation of the Latin in Livy’s History of Rome:
“Na plebeane will tak þe dochter [daughter] of ane patriciane but [without] hir consent.” From Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books From the Founding of the City), Book IV, Chapter 2, a 1533 translation by John Bellenden, edited by William Alexander Craigie in 1903.
In a couple of decades, according to OED citations, “plebeian” took on a more general sense: “A person not of noble or privileged rank; one of the ordinary people, a commoner. Now usually derogatory: a person of low social status, a common or vulgar person.” We’ve expanded the earliest OED citation:
“it is grit abusione to them to gloir in there nobil blude, for i trou that gif ane cirurgyen vald drau part of there blude in ane bassyn it vald hef na bettir cullour nor the blude of ane plebien or of ane mecanik craftis man” (“it is a great abuse for them to glory in their noble blood, for I believe that if any surgeon will draw part of their blood in a basin, it will have no better color than the blood of any plebeian or any manual worker”). From The Complaynt of Scotland, an anonymous political tract written around 1550 and edited by Alasdair McIntosh Stewart in 1979.
As for “plebe,” it meant one of the ordinary people of ancient Rome when it first appeared in English in the 16th century. So “plebes” and “plebs” had the same classical meaning at first.
The earliest OED citation for “plebe” refers to the patricians’ policy of excluding plebeians from power in Rome: “The patricij many yeares excluding the plebes from bearing rule, vntill at last all magistrates were made common betweene them” (De Republica Anglorum: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England, 1583, by Thomas Smith).
The dictionary’s earliest example for the modern sense of “plebe” as a new cadet at a military academy showed up in the US in the early 19th century: “My drill master, a young stripling, told me I was not so ‘gross’ as most other pleibs, the name of all new cadets” (from the Military and Naval Magazine of the United States, October 1833).
The first Oxford example using the normal spelling is from the June 1834 issue of the same magazine: “I was reckoned, already, as one of a class of cadets. To be sure, it was the ‘plebe class’; but what of this?”
Finally, Shakespeare would have referred to the Globe as a “theater,” not a “theatre.” Here’s the Duke of York in Richard II: “As in a Theater the eies of men, / After a well-graced Actor leaues the stage, / Are ydly bent on him that enters next” (Act V, Scene 2, First Quarto, 1597).
The spelling “theater” was dropped in Britain between 1720 and 1750, the OED says. Today “theatre” is the only spelling recognized in Britain. In the US, “theater” is the traditional spelling but “theatre” is now equally acceptable, as we say in a 2012 post.