Shakespearean drama frequently displays a vital concern with social constructions and the dynamics of class conflict, a fact that has elicited considerable interest among critics in the late twentieth century. Typically, commentators have studied Shakespeare's portrayal of class interaction in the histories, including 2 Henry VI and Coriolanus, that involve the dramatic clash of high and low classes. In addition, the rise of cultural criticism has been accompanied by fruitful studies of social issues in such comedies as A Midsummer Night's Dream, All's Well That Ends Well, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which have been consistently interpreted along class lines. While critical analysis of social conflict has generally centered on these two genres, shades of Shakespeare's concern with the structure of society can be found throughout the tragedies and, to a degree, in the late romances. A principal topic related to social class has focused on the opposition of aristocrats and the underclass, and Shakespeare's frequent inversion of class hierarchies for dramatic effect. Other areas of critical interest on the subject include the origins of social divisions, the nature of the emerging middle class, and the significant relationship between language and social rank in Shakespeare's works.
While the origins and relations of class have been commonly studied and documented by historians, some recent literary scholars have endeavored to provide insights into these subjects as Shakespeare perceived them. David Shelley Berkeley (1984) describes the theoretical split between characters of noble and low-birth based upon Renaissance notions of heredity, or "blood." Berkeley argues that behind Shakespeare's characters lies the conception of the four humours—the prescientific theory that diverse ratios of blood, phlegm, and other natural substances in the body determine an individual's disposition. According to Berkeley, Shakespeare subtly employs this scheme of humours to ennoble his characters of aristocratic birth and to vilify the baseborn. Other critics have attempted to gauge the extent to which Shakespeare's dramas—whether they are set in ancient Rome, sixteenth-century Venice, or elsewhere—can be said to reflect Elizabethan and Jacobean England, with its mingling of individuals of varied social ranks. Ralph Berry (1988) offers an extensive linguistic study of Shakespeare's view of social order. He examines analogies between the social structure of the Roman plays and that of Shakespeare's England, investigates the panoramic view of society presented in the English histories, and explores the relationship between sex and class in the comedies.
The important subject of the poor in Shakespeare has also received a good deal of critical attention in recent years, much of which reflects the vocabulary of marxist commentary that is now firmly established in critical discourse. William C. Carroll (1992) discusses Shakespeare's creation of a counter discourse that exists alongside the rhetoric of the establishment in such plays as 2 Henry VI, King Lear, and The Winter's Tale. Derek Cohen (1993) examines criticism that views Shakespeare's portrayal of the poor as sympathetic, and explores the dynamics of class hatred at work in 2 Henry VI. Similarly, Germaine Greer (1994) studies the makeup of Shakespeare's audience—which is traditionally thought to have included members of widely disparate social classes—and argues that the plays do not always look upon the lower classes disdainfully or exclusively from above.
Shakespearean comedy further provides a rich source for the study of class relations, which frequently presents disruptions or inversions of the social order. Analyzing the verbal exchanges between aristocrats and commoners, Thomas Moisan (1991) observes the blurring of class distinctions that occur in such exchanges, but notes that Shakespeare generally mutes the subversive power of these inversions by always righting the social hierarchy. Peter Holbrook (1994), using A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew as examples, describes comic reversals of high and low that fuel the plots of these plays. Other commentators consider the darker elements of class in the comedies. John M. Love (1977) views rank as a source of corruption, particularly in relation to the figure of Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. Many critics have also examined Shakespeare's portrayal of the middle class in his comedies. Among them, Rosemary Kegl (1994) studies the distinct character of the bourgeoisie as it is represented in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the relation of this emerging class to the socially disruptive forces of language and gender.
David Shelley Berkeley (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare's Plays: The Best Blood," in Graduate Studies, No. 28, January 13, 1984, pp. 9-27.
[In the following excerpt, Berkeley examines the theory of class bias associated with heredity—or "blood"—as it exists in Shakespeare's dramas.]
"Bloud Has Degrees—Royalty Down"
Some have described the conventional outlines of Renaissance physiology in relation to psychology,1 and others have focused upon Shakespeare's reflection of "the sympathies and concordances between body" in Galenic naturalism.2 Here one departs mind from and the oft-translated Galen and his English Renaissance redactors and from modern describers of Shakespeare's body-oriented psychology to suggest how the poet bends the inherited mix of physiology and psychology, neutral in class matters, to enhance his gentle characters and to shed a bad light on other ranks.
Persons of Shakespearean plays are compounded, as everyone knows, of the four humors, usually in a state of imbalance: blood (like air) hot and moist, choler (like fire) hot and dry, phlegm (like water) cold and moist, melancholy (like earth) cold and dry. The plays rather often link gentles with blood, usually suggesting this as a humor of quality linking the generations rather than as a predominance of...
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William C. Carroll (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Language, Politics, and Poverty in Shakespearian Drama," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 44, 1992, pp. 17-24.
[In the following essay, Carroll studies the speech and political views of the underclass in Shakespeare's plays.]
In an essay published in Shakespeare Survey 38, the historian E.W. Ives analysed the ways in which history and literature mutually illuminated (or did not) each other in the study of Shakespeare. After reviewing the distressing conditions of poverty during Shakespeare's lifetime, Ives concluded that 'to the historian, the remarkable thing—and a contrast to Shakespeare's sensitivity to the realities of politics and the Court—is the distance there seems to be between his plays and the socio-economic realities of Elizabethfan] and Jacobean England'. Coriolanus, Ives notes, 'stands alone' as an exception, and in any event 'takes very much an establishment point of view'. Yet it is possible, Ives concedes, 'to show by a study of language and imagery that Shakespeare was aware of much of this, but it gave him few explicit themes'.1 There is much to agree with in Ives's essay, particularly his argument that 'the reaction against literary evidence in history has gone too far',2 but there is so much to disagree with in the passages...
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John M. Love (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Though Many of the Rich are Damn'd: Dark Comedy and Social Class in All's Well that Ends Well," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 517-27.
[In the following essay, Love contends that All's Well That Ends Well is a dark comedy associated with the corrupting power of class.]
However distinctive their separate approaches to the play, twentieth-century critics have largely agreed that the suspicions of Johnson, Dowden, and most Augustan and Victorian critics that All's Well that Ends Well is a "dark" comedy were ill-founded, and that an audience might safely take its cue from the King's final words, "The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet."
In 1922, W. W. Lawrence argued that the Elizabethan audience would have recognized the Clever Wench of folk tales in Helena, and the motifs of the Healing of the King and the Fulfillment of Tasks in her labors to win Bertram. Thus, her reconciliation with Bertram would have served to dispel any shadows that Shakespeare might have introduced into the story.1 Lawrence's view of the play prevailed throughout the thirties and forties, and the archetypal criticism of the play that John Arthos and G. Wilson Knight began in the mid-fifties derives in part from Lawrence at the same time that it incorporates dements...
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Barnaby, Andrew. "The Political Consciousness of Shakespeare's As You Like It." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 373-95.
Examines "the related issues of social standing and displacement, aristocratic conduct, and the moral bounds connecting high and low" in As You Like It.
Burckhardt, Sigurd. "The King's Language: Shakespeare's Drama as Social Discovery." The Antioch Review XXI, No. 3 (Fall 1961): 369-87.
Studies several of Shakespeare's plays as they dramatize the interaction of poetic and social order.
Carroll, William C. '"The Base Shall Top Th'Legitimate': The Bedlam Beggar and the Role of Edgar in King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 4 (Winter 1987): 426-41.
Notes the implications of Edgar's suffering as a noble son and heir who becomes an outcast beggar in King Lear.
Cook, Ann Jennalie. "Shakespeare's Gentlemen." Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West Jahrbuch (1985): 9-27.
Explores Shakespeare's presentation of "the privileged man" in his dramas.
Erickson, Peter. "The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor."...
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