Last Updated 28 Jul 2020

Shakespeare with Professor Ken Tomkins

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In at least four plays of the Shakespeare Canon, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Richard II, and Romeo and Juliet, the function of class structure and economics governs the conduct of the characters and provides a central conflict that moves each story towards it's climax. Shakespeare wrote these plays with the social class system in mind. Audiences from all economic levels of society viewed these plays, which included characters from each social set as well.

The economic fortunes of certain classes is influenced by life at court and the political and social commentaries which are imbedded in particular plays reflect the injustices which were common practice during those times. Dutiful daughters, regarded as second-class citizens, rebel against advantageous marriages, kingdoms are overthrown, commoners discuss royal figures with derision, and characters reject court life and tyranny. Economics is a fine web that supports different characters and the destinies they are to fulfill.

One not born to an economically advantaged world cannot fulfill that destiny. 1 We, as audience, are invited to court to learn the mannerisms of the nobility and we experience banishment into the "green world"2 countryside, with its resulting restoration of social order. Audience Audience is one key to understanding the function of class and economics in William Shakespeare's plays. We generally understand that he wrote his plays for economic gain as well as for artistic expression; therefore, we cannot afford to overlook his audience, and the potential impact they had upon his writing style.

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His audience was comprised of the three-tiered social structure and there had to be something in each play to charm them all. Class and economics determined the set-up of the theaters in that time, so it is not an issue that could be ignored by this playwright; rather he echoes it in his works. Separation from the masses was assured by the seating arrangements. The top tiers were reserved for royalty and the middle areas were for the landed gentry, while the floor seats where the "groundlings" viewed the proceedings resemble our modern-day mosh pits.

In that time, it would have been unthinkable for the lowest class to be seated in seats above the other social strata and it is interesting that this seating arrangement has shifted over the centuries. Shakespeare made sure to guarantee his patron base by appealing to the people who financed his plays. Frequently the most important roles were kings and queens or nobles. The acting out of the schemes that take place in court life was undoubtedly familiar and welcome to members of that class.

Shakespeare targeted women as consumers because they are historically strong patrons of the arts, while men probably enjoyed gambling and carousing more. In that patriarchal society, class, and expectations restricted women's actions. As characters in Shakespeare's dramas, they challenged their long- accepted roles. The "groundlings" were satisfied because they, like our society today, liked to see the nobility in disarray. There is an entire sub-culture of gossip publications and news shows that deal exclusively with the nobility of our time, Hollywood actors, and sports personalities.

Much interest was generated to the same end in Shakespeare's time. The peasant class thrived on scandal that involved the nobility. Shakespeare made sure to include as much court-inspired strife as was possible, without ostracizing that particular set of patrons. He was able to get away with it because the lords and ladies, the middle-class, enjoyed gossip even more that the plebeians did. In As You Like It, and Richard II, he portrays the usurpers in an unflattering light, while the true Duke and King respectively, gain the audiences pity.

This is a very delicate matter, groundlings can enjoy watching nobility fall, and the nobility can watch the usurpers get their own back. The plays satisfy a variety of audiences. Class Conflict Class conflict is a function of Shakespeare's work because, without it, there is no conflict to be resolved. It is the driving force behind many of his plays. Conflicts always start in the court setting, and cannot be resolved until the natural order of each monarchy is reinforced or put back in place. There can be no subversion at the end.

The role of class in Romeo and Juliet reflects royal determinations regarding the family rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues. The play opens with an angered prince and closes with one. Apparently, with both families on the same higher social level, the fighting between them is not something that should happen at this altitude. They are playing out their feud at the street level, which is demeaning to both families. "From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. " (1. P. 5). The word, "unclean," suggests that they have tarnished their images.

The prince re-emphasizes this image in his admonishment, "Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel-"(1. 1. 82). The prince is a minor character in this tragedy; he has not many lines to speak. It is clear to all that he controls the social order in the following quote. "And then will I be general of your woes, And lead you even to death. "(5. 3. 219). The drama that occurs in his kingdom is subject to Royal will and dictates. A Midsummer Night's Dream starts in the human court and ends with the balance of power in the Fairy court.

Social order always returns to whoever was the rightful owner. We can make an argument that in the end of Richard II, the wrong king is in power, but we must remember that Richard himself upset the divine right of succession by stealing away Bullingbrook's inheritance and name. Richard upset the class system, and he pays the price. It is interesting that these Henriad plays focus on placing the "Ideal Christian King" in power. Richard, while the object of pity in the end, obviously was not such a king because he was the catalyst for change, and he paved the way for the "New Man. "3

The fortunes of all in Richard II depend upon who is in power; indeed, the change of power changes not only the economics, but also the life status of the characters Bushy and Green. This theme is still prevalent today, the change in power structure extends down the power line, only now instead of losing one's life, administrative employees lose their positions, which in political life, is the death of one's career for a time. Class, Social Rank & Freedom Class serves the function of determining degrees of wealth and freedom in many plays. Mapped out, it looks something like the following: 1.

Royalty & Nobility- (ruling-class) they enjoy great power and authority that is limited only by the expectations of their subjects. The magnificence of these offices is sadly linked to the loss of freedom. They are subject to the severe maxims that govern this class, which include their personal conduct, lines of succession, and ability to marry. The role that government fulfills also affects the economic stability of their subjects. When speaking to one another they use the more formal poetry, and when they speak to someone below their station, they tend to resort to a simpler prose form of speech.

As rulers, they are also targets, everyone will come out of the woodwork to overthrow them or create stress for them. Duke Sr. in As You Like It, holds forth, " Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? " Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? " (2. 1. 2-4). 2. Middle-ranks- (landed gentry and merchants) The survival of the middle ranks depends upon the survival of the highest ranks, that is changes in power are reflected at this level because they are the supporting class.

As gentry, their lives can be forfeit or spared, their lands can be confiscated or returned, and their titles bestowed or revoked. As merchants or citizens, they can experience economic changes that can enhance or deplete their fortunes. Their speech patterns also vary according to their conversations, just as we use different language with our bosses than we do with our peers, so did they use prose when speaking with lower classes and poetry with those in the upper ranks.

3. Lower-ranks- (peasants and laborers)- This class of society "enjoys the most freedom and their lives are the least bruised" by whoever is in power, as they never alter their position in society. No matter who is in power, their privileges and fortunes do not change. They have the least expectations placed upon them and do not have to strive to impress any one outside of their social class other than the people who employ them (Reynolds). 4 In each of these plays, the complicating action starts in the court as the ruling classes that will affect the families and country around them, make catalytic decisions.

Since Shakespeare introduces most of his characters in the first act, the complicating actions hinge upon the fact that the primary characters never resist the opportunity to make a better outcome for themselves. Luckily, they forge ahead on their ill-advised paths; otherwise, there would be no end to the first plateau of each play. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we have two sets of Royals: the King and Queen of the fairies, and the Duke, Theseus and soon-to-be Duchess of Athens. Egeus needs permission to send his wayward daughter to a nunnery or her death, for her refusal to marry Demetrius.

Her refusal is a blatant upset in the social order, mirrored in the fairy world by Tatania disobeying Oberon. Only when the conflict is resolved in the fairy world can it be resolved in the human world. 5 In this particular play, the Fairy King and Queen are the uppermost level of classes. Their actions are affecting those classes below. The decision made by the Duke forces the young characters departure from the court to the "green world. " The tension begins with his proclamation: "For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself To fit your fancies to your fathers will;

Or else the law of Athens yields you up (Which by no means we may extenuate) To death or vow of single life. "(1. 1. 120). "Extenuate" is a very important word in this passage, as it explains the rules that the upper classes must live by. Theseus seems to care about Hermia, and almost appears to be pleading with her to make the right decision, because he cannot mitigate the rules. Bound by the traditions of his office, he cannot resolve the problem. Once the Fairy world is back in order, and the lovers are in love with their rightful partners, then only can Theseus pardon their behavior.

It is an empty pardon, for the highest ruling class already resolved the conflict. Another line that reveals the importance of class is, "Know of your youth, examine well your blood. "(1. 1. 68). Said by Theseus to Hermia, it is telling that bloodlines are important and come with a specific set of expectations that must be fulfilled. Hermia and Juliet struggle from the dictums of their class, they are pre-destined to execute their duty under the patriarchal system, and they go to extreme measures to escape their restrictive environments.

Juliet blithely wishes that Romeo would deny his name and fate, because she wants to eat her cake and still have it. If he were to refuse his name, she could avoid the "dutiful daughter" restraints, and retain her true love. Montague wishes his daughter to have a few more years on the planet before she is married off, but he submits to Paris' request because of the social climbing nature of society. Both he and his wife wish to make the most advantageous match for their daughter, and would marry her off immediately after the death of a kinsman no matter how socially unseemly it is.

The nurse character in Romeo & Juliet appears strangely unbound by the traditions of this level of society. Her place in the family is assured, as she has raised Juliet. Her place in the class system is as a "Natural". She speaks of sex and practical matters and is viewed as a "bawdy character," according to Tomkins. 6 Lady Montague seems to have a bit of trouble deciding weather or not this woman is worthy of joining in on family discussions of Juliet's future, but the nurse feels confident enough to meddle in their affairs.

Expectations of this character are mixed according to the players on the stage. Tatania also strays from the expectations of fairy society by taking a clown with an Asses head as lover, but this was not by choice, but rather by trickery. This is a blatant upset of social order. Bottom represents the lower human kingdom, the lower class, and the lowest of all possible levels, an animal used for the most menial tasks. Bottom, while not the lowest class of human, but close to it, is affected by the decisions of King Oberon and for a brief while enjoys being pampered, cosseted and loved by the Fairy Queen.

As an actor, Bottom's economic fortune is dependant upon the Duke picking the play of "Pyramus and Thisby" to view as his wedding's entertainment. We never find out if the rustics are paid for their work, but it is suggested that they gain something of value for being chosen. Banishment Romeo is destroyed by his banishment from Verona; it represents his banishment from his economic base as well as his social milieu. He equates banishment with death, "And world's exile is death; then banished Is death misterm'd. (3. 3. 21).

Banishment suggests rustication, or the stripping away of all economic and family scaffolding, typically in a country setting. In Shakespeare, all of important society lives in cities, certainly not in the country. 7 In As You Like It, not only is the Duke exiled from his duchy, he is exiled from comfort and he is leading the life of a different social order. Shakespeare, by his choice of speeches, shows us that court life is truly preferable in terms of creature comforts.

Orlando complains of his treatment by his brother Oliver, " For my part, he keeps me rustically at home, " and "Stays me here at home unkept; for call you that keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that differs not from the stalling of an Ox? "(1. 1. 7-11). Duke Sr. complains in a roundabout way, " Here feel we not the penalty of Adam, The seasons difference, as the icy fang And churlish chiding of the winter's wind-"(2. 1. 7). The symbols of office are of important economic importance in Richard II and represent something of a crisis to Bullingbrook.

Without the symbols of office, he is not truly king. He needs to secure those symbols because without them his character is still one exiled from his country and disinherited from his family line. He is a man without any social class at all without that crown (4. 1. 175-80). The young gentry in A Midsummer Night's Dream act strangely once they are out of the court setting. They, under the spell of the fairy kingdom, fight and act rudely towards one another. Lysander said, "Get you gone you dwarf; You minimus, of hind'ring knot-grass made; You bead, you acorn.

It appears that with the removal of the trappings of court, or higher society, former members of high society experience a breakdown of manners and class characteristics (3. 2. 327-9). The four plays that are discussed in this essay have countless references to the expectations of social class; however, it would take a much longer document to include them all. For our purposes, it is clear from the examples above, that Shakespeare deliberately used social class and economics as a function to move story lines along and to satisfy the needs of his audience.

According to Tomkins, "Silliness is not a class thing, it crosses gender and nobility lines. 8 The role that the ruling class played is most important, because it usually establishes the outcome of all the players in each performance. In the end, each character fulfills their own personal destiny according to the dictums of their identifiable economic sphere. It is also clear that Shakespeare's audience was aware of, and possible approved the preference of the court over the "green world. " If the "green world" were a preferable locale, story lines would end in that vicinity.

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