In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, the Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make hearts race after more than 400 years.
The renowned theater company has started measuring the pulse of audience members as they are confronted by some of the most harrowing scenes ever written by Shakespeare in the Roman tragedy "Titus Andronicus" to see which audience members pass out or vomit at the play's shocking cruelty.
The comparative study is being carried out in the theater and at a live-streaming of the play in a cinema in Stratford – the town in central England where Shakespeare was born in 1564.
Many participants in the study, including 60-year-old scientist Sharon Faulkner, said they were more engaged in the theater.
"It appeals to all of your senses. Rather than just visual and hearing, there are the smells. So I think it's much more real," she said.
Fellow volunteer Jamie Megson said he was more affected by the interaction between characters than moments of extreme violence such as severed heads being brought on stage.
"It's the acting that's the more shocking element, the emotions that they're showing that's the more intense element, more than the gore and shock factor," he said.
The other group will be in a cinema watching the live telecast. /VCG Photo
Faulkner and Megson said theatergoers can be passionate about a performance but are usually unaware of their pulses, as black heart rate monitors were strapped to their wrists.
"The biggest reaction is the fight or flight – basic human instinct," said Pippa Bailey from Ipsos Mori, the research firm that is helping to conduct the study.
"When something happens you either stay and you fight or you run when the adrenaline comes," she said.
Participants are monitored during the performance and afterwards take part in an exit interview.
"We're doing voice recordings where we will analyze that to see people's emotional engagement in what they're saying by looking at both the choice of words and the sentiment in their voice," Bailey said.
Although the full results from the study are not expected until later this year, an initial analysis showed heart rates rising as audience members become aware a moment of violence may be imminent.