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 this over other humors. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona (III.i.121) the Duke says to Valentine, "Thou art a gentleman of blood." In King John, II.i. 151, the Bastard speaks of "the rich blood of Kings." Bolingbroke in Richard II describes Richard as "a happy gentleman in blood and lineaments" (III.i.9). The plays more often intimate choler by portraying gentles becoming angry than by naming the humor. Richard II asks Bolingbroke and Mowbray to "purge this choler without letting blood" (I.i.153). Claudius in Hamlet is noted as having choler (III.ii.315, 319). Lear is said to be in his "infirm and years" (I.i.303). Non-gentles3 are marked by a choleric prevalence of phlegm and melancholy. "Phlegm" does not appear in the Shakespearean vocabulary, and "phlegmatic" occurs only once (The Merry Wives, I.iv.79); but coldness—common to both phlegm and melancholy—is often mentioned, frequently in connection with blood (e.g., Timon of Athens, II.ii.225; Coriolanus, V.i.51), where it imports something unworthy of gentry and endemic to villeins. The expression "villainous melancholy" (King Lear, I.ii.147) stigmatizes Galenic melancholy as a disease of the non-gentles; it would differ from the fashionable pseudo-Aristotelian melancholy linking Olivia, Orsino, and Viola of Twelfth Night and other gentles like Hamlet. From bodily coldness, either phlegm or melancholy, came many unadmirable qualities of the villeins by a devastating analogy: as fire and air are high (in relation to earth and water) and as choler and blood are similarly high (in relation to melancholy and phlegm), so gentles, high by legal status and reputation, have the heat of the higher elements and their temperaments; and non-gentles, low by legal status and reputation, have the coldness of the lower elements and their temperaments. From bodily coldness came cowardice (Richard II, I.ii.34), fear (1 Henry IV, IV.iii.7), barrenness (2 Henry VI, II.iv.3), lack of honor (3 Henry VI, I.i.184), sickliness (Antony and Cleopatra, III.iv.7), decay (Sonnets 6, 11), and other undesirable states and attitudes. Villeins dominated by coldness in the forms of phlegm and melancholy could hardly be expected to be passionate, a state reserved in its many manifestations for the gentles, given heat of body by reason of blood and choler. Nor could villeins distinguish themselves by discursive reasoning—the distinctly human faculty—since their functions are vegetal (nutrition and reproduction) and animal (capacity for sensation and ability to move in space) with some exercise of the highest of the animals' faculties, fantasizing. In the well-known body/state analogy, the king was the head, and the peasantry were the stomach and other visceral organs. Hence "the fool multitude" (The Merchant of Venice, II.ix.26) and numerous similar expressions in which Renaissance English is rich.
This poor and indeed subhuman physiological view of life had much of its basis in assumptions concerning the liver, the manufacturer of blood. A whitish liver (i.e., which produced little or no blood) signified cowardice in war (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.50; The Merchant of Venice, III.ii.86), ineptitude in love (Twelfth Night, III.ii.66), and much else. If churls were cowardly, as by their coldness they would naturally be, their livers were thought to be white as milk. In the liver were distilled the generative spirits, thought responsible for nutrition, growth, and reproduction. If there was left blood enough to go to the heart, vital spirits were there produced; they were sent through blood vessels to supply the body with the heat of life. A further change might occur in the brain where vital spirits became subtilized into animal spirits, which caused, among other things, emotional attitudes and served, according to Gassendi, as "a sort of diffused brain." (It is to be noted that there are inconsistencies in Galen and in medical tradition in the treatment of "spirits.") Although Shakespeare never once distinguished between generative, vital, and animal "spirits," he would presumably incline to think that lowborn people lacked animal or animating spirits, these being regarded as characteristic of the gentle classes. When Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 129 "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action," he seems to imply that unworthy sexual activity—because gentles are involved—wastes all three kinds of spirits. If non-gentles like the Clown and Mopsa engage in the same acts, the only loss would presumably be of generative spirits. Thus Galenic naturalism as reflected by Shakespeare and by other exponents of hierarchical thought served with remarkable susceptibility the interest of the gentle classes.
Shakespeare's works reflect the severall degrees in bloud"4: the business idea that are of "there his drama is suiting rewards and punishments to blood quality. His plays persistently intensify the dominant Elizabethan view that heredity, much more than exposure to learning or good example, determines human individuals. To be sure, the quality of blood both before and after birth was subject to various exterior conditions.5 Shakespeare's gentry presumably observed the "rules" of health and heredity as then understood, usually recensions of Hippocrates and Galen. On the other hand, the base-born—uninformed, deluded, impulsive, and poor—were ignorant of such teachings or were compelled to ignore them. The essential difference between Shakespeare's treatment of gentry and base-born and the physicians' and physiologists' approach to human nature was precisely this: unlike Shakespeare, Renaissance medical writers were not (in theory) class-oriented. Exceptio regulam probat: Ambroise Paré6 felt it necessary in his discussion of infection from gunshot to comment that this malady was common to all classes. Gout was noted as a disease especially afflicting the wealthy and the noble.7 Villeins were sometimes thought more susceptible to the plague.8 In The Byrthe of Mankynde, Eucharius Roesslin stated that fertility in noblewomen is promoted by "a good halfe hour" of bathing "in halfe water, and other halfe Redde Wine."9
Shakespeare's gentry usually have the benefit of physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, and medical books,10 whereas his base-born seem to have had these advantages fitfully or not at all. The plays imply and occasionally make explicit the important differences between the eugenically estimable diet of the gentry and the wretched cold scraps on which other ranks were obliged to subsist. They reflect the great care taken to provide gentry with spouses thought to be of good blood and the little attention to blood-lines on the part of base-borns, whose very name associated them with bastardy. The Shakespearean plays make these differences seem inherent in the order of nature. As one does not argue that water runs downhill, it would be wrong to affirm that Shakespeare's mind was persistently given to employing his plays as vehicles of eugenic propaganda or that, by making apparent the differences between the classes and the masses, he was striving to prove a point or add something to the total impact of his works. Despite the fact that one has reason enough to regard eugenics as a component of the main theme of 1 Henry IV, Henry V, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and certain other plays, Shakespeare's gentles usually move with the certainty of the cyclical return of the seasons and in accordance with heavenly hierarchy and harmony.
Another important difference between Shakespeare and the physicians is that the poet sometimes felt no particular obligation to indicate the medical and physiological aspects of his characterization, and at other times he causes his characters to utter remarks that in quite unscientific language restate medical teachings found somewhere, not necessarily everywhere,11 in the treatises of his times. For example, the poet usually declines to mention the idea that Elizabethan gentles thought of their forebears as observing, in John Huarte's words, "an order and consent in naturall things, that if the fathers in time of procreation, have regard to observe the same, all their children shall proove wise, and none otherwise."12 Their youthful parents13 partook of goats' milk or other "hot foods" "six or seven daies before their companying,"14 which was preferably not during the summer.15 Copulation ideally took place at the end of the second sleep16 and certainly not under the influence of the south wind;17 it was thought to be violent enough to draw blood from all quarters of the father and mother.18 These and other observances imply that fast-flowing, sweet-tasting, red blood "in consistence meane, between thicke and thin,"19 became semen, which, states Jacques Ferrand in Erotomania, or a Treatise of Love, "is nothing else but Blood, made White by the Naturall Heat, and an Excrement of the third Digestion."20 At the time of conception occurred a "battle" between the father's semen and the mother's, the victory usually going to the youthful father, from whom children had their essential life.21 Pregnant wives eschewed salt They avoided tight meats.22 clothing that might deform their infants.23 They and their families, according to Andrew Boorde, avoided living in houses by "standyng waters, stynkyng mistes, and marshes,"24 a point perhaps related to Duncan's praise of the siting of Macbeth's castle, in Macbeth, I.vi. 1-9. Moderate sleeps, said Boorde, nourish the blood;25 but immoderate sleeping lightens the brains, engenders "impost-humes," and instigates sin.26 John Makluire27 held that excessive eating was degenerative, a point not without congruence with the characterization of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. "Corporali and base exercise," declared Giovanni Nenna, "doth bring contempt unto the nobility of bloud and convert it into his contrary,"28 a doctrine bearing tangentially on Ferdinand's work as a piler of logs. Shakespeare differed from Sir Francis Drake, who said, "I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman."29 Certainly one does not observe Shakespeare's other crested ones involving themselves—they were like Capt. John Smith's gentlemen—in "corporali and base exercise." Illicit sexual relations vitiated the blood,30 an idea hovering over Prospero's warning to Ferdinand (The Tempest, IV.i.15-23). From observance of these (and other) rules and caveats came first-class human beings who could keep much of their innate quality even under severe deprivation, as the youthful Antony did (Antony and Cleopatra, I.iv.56-71).
Previous studies of this subject have neglected Renaissance physiological considerations that intimate Shakespeare's class-bias to be rational rather than magical, superstitious, or idiosyncratic; and no study of Shakespeare's treatment of human blood to my knowledge has appeared. Ernest Crosby31 has disapprovingly noted class-bias in Shakespeare's plays without bothering with the genetic basis; Samuel A. Tannenbaum in "Shakespeare's Caste Prejudices"32 has attempted to refute Crosby by unconvincing evidence drawn from Cymbeline. Felix E. Schelling in "The Common Folk of Shakespeare"33 takes the view that the poet was not prejudiced against any class of his fellow citizens. Schelling's article loses value because he regards Holofernes, Sir Hugh Evans, Sir Oliver Martext, Friar Lawrence, Friar Francis, Dr. Caius, Gerard de Narbon, and Cornelius as non-gentles when in fact as teachers, clergy, and physicians they are gentlemen, like Baldock in Marlowe's Edward II, by right of university degree if not by blood. Leonard Darwin in "Nature and Nurture in Shakespeare's Plays" has taken the unexceptionable position that "Shakespeare fully realized the importance of inborn qualities"34 though one need not follow Darwin in supposing that the poet would have been an advocate of eugenic reform.35 Albert H. Tolman has noticed as a property of royal blood Perdita's evidence of education without herself being educated. John W. Draper in "Bastardy in Shakespeare's Plays"36 has discussed the Elizabethan tendency to think of the lower classes as sharing the "base effects" of bastards. G. Wilson Knight37 has mentioned the qualities of royal blood to be seen in Cymbeline. I Henry IV so heavily underscores the premise that blood will tell as to require a delineation of the play's main theme to subsume this idea.38 Krieger in A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies,39 concentrating on the "pretensions" of gentles, whom he labels "aristocrats," predictably scouts their claims to superior blood as "fantasy"; he makes no attempt to see Elizabethan gentles in or out of Shakespeare's plays from their point of view. In the following basic discussion and in the one prefixed to the next chapter, I should like to abstract the conditions and consequences of human blood deemed good and bad as they inhere, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, in the Shakespearean plays; and I shall bring analogous Renaissance opinion to suggest that Shakespeare is not isolated or idiosyncratic or superstitious or fantastic in his various positions on blood and behavior, his differentness lying in the emphasis and impact as seen in his unrelenting class-consciousness. I am well aware that my presentation will render this treatise in the view of perhaps many readers as tunnel-vision verging perhaps on a monomania not greatly unlike, mutatis mutandis, the Marxist view of Shakespeare (not that this body of criticism is entirely unified). But preoccupation with good blood is really Shakespeare's, and it is shunted away from common and learned notice by virtue of the poet's brilliant characterizations and his memorable rhetoric as well as by the democratic reader's will to believe the best he can of the poet. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's plays suggest with few exceptions that the poet especially desiderated the potentialities inherent in the bright red, hot, thin, fast-flowing, sweet-tasting blood of divinely sanctioned kings, and rated every departure from this blood, by the extent of its divergence, as a diminution in human quality, the great dividing line being that between gentry (including royals, of course) and base-borns.
The quality, amount, and degree of warmth of the blood make Shakespeare's characters what they are. Birth, stars, airs, foods, ages, thoughts, and actions all register in the blood, rendering this element the cause and talisman of what may be expected of human beings. Because of Orlando's strength, nobility, and putative longevity, John W. Draper40 speculates that he was born under Jupiter's influence; but this simply means that Orlando's humor is sanguine—he has much hot blood. On the other hand, Edmund and the usurping dukes of As You Like It and The Tempest have astral complexions of melancholy and choler,41 conditions correlated with reduced amounts of red hot blood. As in all groups, whether stars, trees, animals, minerals, or whatever, there were among the varieties of human blood a zenith, a nadir, and degrees between. The prime blood is, of course, the "blood royal" (1 Henry IV, I.ii.155-156), of which Duncan's "golden blood" (Macbeth, II.iii. 118) is exemplary. Physically, "the rich blood of Kings" (King John, II.i.351) is abundant in ideal kings even in old age, as Duncan's is (Macbeth, V.i.44-45). It is "thin and wholesome," as the Ghost of Hamlet père says (I.v.70) that his was before "cursed hebenon" was poured into his ears, but it is not watery (The Rape of Lucrece, 1.1748). Because of its thinness it is fast flowing. It is red (Macbeth, II.iii. 118; The Rape of Lucrece, 1.1742), not darkish or black (The Rape of Lucrece, 1.1743). Royal blood would presumably be the sweetest tasting of all human blood. Its temperature would be, ideally, warmer than all other human bloods. Because this is so and because fatigue did not in theory attach to royals, the vigor of their sexual intercourse would, as self-justifying Edmund says of bastards, beget offspring of "more composition and fierce quality / Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed, / Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops / Got 'tween asleep and wake" (King Lear, I.ii.12-15). But the blood of royals would not be so hot that it could not be governed by reason, which is the condition of Troilus' blood according to Hector's allegation (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.115-116). To be sure, the King of France in All's Well That Ends Well says, "Strange is it that our bloods, / Of color, weight, and heat, poured all together, / Would quite confound distinction, yet stand off / In differences so mighty" (II.iii. 125-128). As the King says, it is strange; but it is so. Gentry in Shakespeare's plays, especially royals, are usually very conscious of the quality of their blood and speak of it often and others speak of it, whereas the base-born do not mention their blood, and others disparage it or hint at the "gross" blood of the peasantry and yeomanry. It is natural and therefore right that royals, with due regard to "the severall degrees of bloud," should govern men of lesser blood. More generally, blood in a well-ordered state equals rank in society (1 Henry VI, II.v. 128).
Gentility, including royalty of course, had no necessary relationship to economic status (Twelfth Night, I.v.297-298). Furthermore, it had no real connection with Christianity although attempts were made to discover class notions in the Bible, as in George Meriton's A Sermon of Nobilitie demeaning Nabal, for example, as "a foolish clowne" and Laban as "a frowning clowne";42 nobles are "better Sonnes of God."43The Gentleman's Academie labels Cain and Cham "churls," Seth and Noah "gentlemen," and Jesus the "only absolute gentleman."44 Even the Geneva Bible occasionally bears the marks, especially in the use of "fellow" (e.g., Acts 7:5), "churl" (e.g., Isa. 32:5), and "goodman" (e.g., Acts 12:39), of class-consciousness on the part of its translators. Shakespeare, of course, does not expressly label Christ's blood as "gentle" nor does he designate Biblical reprobates like Judas as "clowns," "fellows," "churls," or "villains"; but, . . . he amalgamates the ethical merits and demerits of Christianity with those of his physiology. This merging of two value systems whose roots differ toto caelo is notably seen in The Winter's Tale, I.iv.417-419; and it is generally diffused throughout the corpus of Shakespeare's plays.
The high blood of the gentry was partly sustained by "high feeding" (cf. All's Well That Ends Well, II.ii.3) and, per contra, by avoiding the diet of the hinds (cf. As You Like It, Li. 19). Other than wine and certain plebeian exclusions, it is impossible on the basis of the Shakespearean plays to specify ingredients of the gentle diet. One may safely infer that it centered upon heated dishes (Cymbeline, II.iii.119; Coriolanus, IV.v.35) of commodious size and quality, i.e., not fragments or scraps (Coriolanus, IV.v.35; King Lear, II.ii.15-16). Here, for the sake of Renaissance opinion, to elucidate what Shakespeare leaves obscure (eating doves and making love are connected in Troilus and Cressida, III.ii.139 ff), one may cite Huarte's often reprinted Examination of Men's Wits on the foods of gentles who intended to become parents. "Hote meates," i.e., aphrodisiacs, were advised because they were believed to "encrease much seed" and to draw blood from semen for all parts of the body including the remote brain. Besides goats' milk, Huarte thought that "White bread made of the finest meale, and seasoned with salt . . . Partridges . . . and Kid" were apt foods for parents who "shall breed children of great understanding."45 If therefore, Huarte went on, "the meat be delicat and of good temperature, of such is the bloud made; and of such bloud such seed; and of such seed, such braine."46 He held that "there is no child born, who partaketh not of the qualities and temperature of that meal, which his parents fed upon a day before he was begotten."47 Eryngoes,48 soft eggs, partridges, pigeons, quail, "green geese," and especially wine were genetically estimable because possessing interior heat they went readily into good blood through "decoction" in the stomach, then through "sanguinification" in the liver, and then to semen by action of the organs of generation. This process did not notably detract, by reason of the heat required for decoction, from the radical and fluid heat of the body as did foods and beverages bad from a eugenic point of view. Shakespearean gentles, however, because their blood is high, could usually eat the food of hinds as Orlando does, or even eat food unfit for human consumption, as the youthful Antony did (Antony and Cleopatra, I.v.56-71), and still maintain their quality or most of it.
Shakespeare does specify wine as the gentle beverage and suggests beers and ales, especially small beer, to be lower class. The purest blood in Shakespeare's characters has its temperature, already notably high (but short, of course, of fever), enhanced by wine. Thus youthful valor and reproductive ability might be sustained some time past what would be usual for the base-born. "Clownes and vulgar men," according to Fynes Morison,49 could in Elizabethan England hardly ever procure wine, a deprivation whose cost they sensed. Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI shouts that when he is king of England, "I will make it felony to drink small beer" (IV.ii.73-74) and "of the city's cost, the pissing conduit [shall] run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign" (IV.vi.3-5). Pale or yellow wines, Sir Thomas Elyot50 declared in The Castell of Health, increase blood, purging its watery substance. In The Tree of Humane Life, or the Bloud of the Grape, Tobias Whitaker stated that "wine, especially Claret or red, is sanguified before it is taken."51 One of the amusing aspects of Falstaff from an Elizabethan point of view is his substitution of wine for blood.52 Falstaff, like Shakespeare's other old men, conventionally possesses little blood. Unfortunately for Sir Jack even sack, winiest of wines53 and recommended for the was an evanescent old,54 surrogate for blood: requiring continual infusions, this beverage imparted temporary relief from impotence and cowardice. Much like Falstaff, Gulielmus Gratarolus55 held that wine extracts ill humors from the brain and clarifies thinking; but for Gratarolus, wine begets virtue. Falstaff s basic condition defies both quantity and kind of this bibulous therapy: his sharp nose just prior to his death has been Hippocratically read as a sign that he has very little blood.56 Duncan's copious blood-supply, as noted by Lady Macbeth, marks him as Falstaff s opposite. The higher the blood, the more exemptions from common human frailties.
High blood endowed its possessor with many other unlabored advantages: an appearance of being someone important, the ability to learn rapidly, a wider range of emotions than the base enjoyed, some resistance to infections and poisons, the strength to enforce his own moral judgments, rational control of the passions (with the single exception of mutual love at first sight), and other excellencies. On the other hand, if degeneracy set in, gentry had a greater distance to fall than the base-born because more was expected of their blood.
High blood, to begin with the obvious, was supposed to invest its human container with an air of distinction that would manifest itself even in unlikely circumstances. Marina tells Leonine in Pericles, "You are well favored, and your looks foreshow / You have a gentle heart" (IV.i.86-87), i.e., your handsome face betokens you to have gentle birth and the virtues, especially pity, that attend this condition. "Beauty breedeth beauty" says Venus (Venus and Adonis, 1.167), and Theseus utters accepted doctrine in A Midsummer Night's Dream in advising Hermia that her father "composed your beauties" (I.i.48). Pericles, though naked from shipwreck, has no difficulty at all, what with his handsomeness, his blank verse, and his savoir faire, in impressing his station upon the fishermen, who give him a gown, an armor, and their blessing on his attempt to win the hand of the Princess by jousting (II.i), which, be it noted, they know to be open only to gentlemen. Marina's vibrations—her aura of gentility—reinforce her "holy words" to Lysimachus; and although she is apparently one of the girls in a bawdy house, she has no difficulty in putting off the Governor's importunities and redirecting his course of life (IV.vi). The royal boys of Cymbeline, according to their adulator Belarius (IV.ii.169-181), are naturally distingué. In The Winter's Tale, a shepherd immediately recognizes the lost child Perdita to be gentle (III.iii.71-73); and Polixenes says of her, "This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever / Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems / But smacks of something greater than herself, / Too noble for this place" (IV.iv.156-159). The Third Gentleman says, "The majesty of the creature [Perdita] in resemblance of the mother, the affection of nobleness which Nature shows above her breeding, and many other evidences proclaim her with all certainty to be the King's daughter" (V.ii.38-42). In King Lear, Edmund is so impressed by the helmeted Edgar's "fair and warlike" stance and by his gentlemanly speech that he is willing to waive the rule disobliging him from mortal combat with a person below his rank. Gentlehood in the Shakespearean plays is frequently contrasted with dress, then a social discriminant (cf. The Taming of the Shrew, IV.iii.70-71), perhaps nowhere more insistently than in the characterization of Cloten (e.g., III.v.141 ff). Physical characteristics that Shakespeare associates with gentry are handsomeness that at times includes specific mention of a becoming size and shape, a high forehead, an aquiline nose,57 a degree of kempt hairiness, fairness of complexion (rather than swartness),58 and freedom from blots, stains,59 body and odor,60 bad breath.61 In The Tempest, IV.i.250, "foreheads villainous low" intimate that the gentlemanly hairline, as with Shakespeare himself, began well up on the brow (cf. Antony and Cleopatra, III.iii.36-37). Perhaps one is not far wrong in suggesting that what shapely hands are for Willa Cather's characters, high foreheads are for Shakespeare's. The gentleman Iden contrasts his well-thewed figure with the poorly composed body of his base-born antagonist Cade (2 Henry VI, IV.x.46-52). From the close connections between beef-eating and the peasantry, especially peasant soldiers, one gathers that Shakespeare visualizes these persons as being large and solid of figure but without good lines.62 One conspicuous exception to the rule that the gentry are better turned out than the base-born is Talbot, hit off by an unfriendly observer as a "writhled shrimp" (1 Henry VI, II.iii.23); yet Talbot, possibly compensating, vocalizes extensively on his noble blood. Banquo's hairiness (Macbeth, III.iv.51) and that of his descendants (IV.i.113-115) suggest the virility that gentlemen possessed and were thought to confer upon their male offspring.63 The handsome features and figures of Shakespearean gentry are not without ethical dimension. Tarquín, for example, fears that his rape of Lucrece is "so vile, so base, / That it will live engraven in my face" (11. 202-203), and Lucrece cannot believe Tarquín to be evil because his features are so good (11. 1527-1546). The "hard-favored," unshapely peasantry bear testimony not only to deprivation but also to the unrighteous and dishonorable way of life of ancestors who have so stamped them.
Besides being handsome, gentry were fast learners. In point of learning ability the poles in Shakespeare's plays are Hal, whose intelligence is almost angelically intuitive rather than humanly discursive, and Caliban, "on whose nature / Nurture can never stick" (The Tempest, IV.i.188-189). One apprehends that in Shakespeare's plays, as opposed to American education in the latter twentieth century, morality is a component of education. Caliban is not merely vacuous of learning but in 1.188 is designated "a devil, a born devil." Posthumus in Cymbeline "took" "all the learnings that his time / Could make him the receiver of," "as we do air, fast as 'twas ministered" (I.i.43-45); and one gathers that his learning is a guide to life rather than simply intellectual grasp of given disciplines (cf. I.i.47ff). The mountain princes are aware that their life is "a cell of ignorance" (III.iii.33) and that they "have seen nothing" (II.ii.39)—thoughts that probably would not have occurred to them had they been base mountaineers. Arviragus and Imogen have such a degree of intuitive knowledge that they, unknown to each other, almost recognize themselves as brother and sister (III.vi.71ff.). Miranda instinctively knows Ferdinand to be noble although she has no proper basis for comparison (The Tempest, I.ii.417-419). Perdita is a marvel of learning, mostly intuitive. For example, when the King rebukes Florizel for presuming to marry a peasant, she shows the instinctive good sense of refraining from quoting the King's theory (IV.iv. 146ff.) that licenses such marriages. Yet unlike her foster father, she does not cringe before royalty, and her high-born appearance and manner never seems to alienate the peasants of her house and her society—marvelous to say. Their behavior often could elicit her satirical or censorious comment, but she declines to indulge such speech. Perdita is also totally free from the delusion harbored by her foster father and her foster brother that the donning of an upper-class costume will gentle the wearer's vile condition. Orlando in As You Like It is thus described: "he's gentle, never schooled, and yet learned" (I.i. 172-173). Of Hal the Archbishop of Canterbury says, "Never was such a sudden scholar made" (I.i.32); and he finds it marvelous, considering Hal's companionship, that the new King is instantly graced with learning, speech, and practical application. These gentles remind one of Castiglione's statement in The Book of the Courtier that "some there are borne endowed with such graces, that they seeme not to have bene borne, but rather facioned with the verye hand of some God, and abounde in all goodnesse bothe of bodye and mynde,"64 of which doctrine Walton states that Pico della Mirandola was exemplary.
Children of gentles in the Shakespearean plays are consequently "miniature adults" rather than persons who are involved in a phase that causes them to resemble others of their age more than their parents. Aristotle was authority for the view that children resemble their parents not only in congenital characters but in those acquired in later life. Heredity was the simple source of all attributes; nurture might influence these but could neither add to nor subtract from the sum; Simili generan a simile was a maxim quoted by Renaissance writers. Shakespeare's plays are not rich in studies of low-born children placed alongside their parents, but one may instance the Clown in The Winter's Tale as the foolish and cowardly son of a foolish and cowardly father, the Shepherd; and the fact that these are not assigned personal names strongly suggests that Shakespeare wishes these persons to stand for villeins generically. In The Merchant of Venice, foolish Launcelot is the son of foolish Old Gobbo. The youthful William Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor exemplifies, by his ability to answer questions that the servant Quickly cannot even understand (IV.i), the transmission by heredity of the superior intelligence of the gentry. Prince Arthur in King John, another boy, portends that he would be an unsuccessful king, a prototype perhaps for Henry VI, because, although intellectually acute, he lacks the gall necessary to retain the siege royale in the midst of enemies. Lucius, son of the noble Titus, is brave and typically ready to assume the responsibilities of manhood. In Richard III, the children of Clarence evince an almost intuitive knowledge of what has happened to their father, and the young Duke of York baits his misshapen uncle with an adult wit. In Macbeth, young Macduff is sharp enough to propound a syllogism, and he dies bravely protecting his mother from the unkempt villains. Guiderius and Arviragus of Cymbeline bear themselves in princely fashion although they do not know that they are princes, and their foster father attributes this not to his tutelage, although he is a gentleman, but to their royal blood. One recalls that Renaissance portrait painters characteristically depicted gentle children in the clothing and in the grave manner, mutatis mutandis, of adults. Needless to say, adolescence as we know it was not recognized as existing.
High blood endowed its possessors with many other advantages. It was practically synonymous with courage—the sine qua non of gentility; the Bishop of Ely thus incites Henry V: "the blood and courage that renowned them [your ancestors] / Runs in your veins" (Henry V, I.ii.l18-119). Royalty ideally possessed more courage than simple gentry: old Morgan is unquestionably a gentleman and a patriot; but one observes that his protégés, the mountain princes Guiderius and Arviragus, are much more keen to take on the Roman army. Nevertheless, merely to affirm that one was a "gentleman of blood" was to imply, among other things, that one was a man of courage (cf. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, III.i.121). The state of having little or no blood was a physiological explanation of cowardice (cf. Love's Labour's Lost, V.ii.697-698), whose proper lodging was the base-born heart: York says in 2 Henry VI, "Let pale-faced fear keep with the mean-born man / And find no harbor in a royal heart" (III.i.35-36). The "hedge-born swain" (7 Henry VI, IV.i.43) was congenitally possessed of "fear and cold heart" and may well have been "got in fear" (Coriolanus, Liii.36), like Hobbes, who blamed his fear of swords on having been born in the year of the Armada. Such persons, because the liver was thought to generate blood, were "lily-livered" (Macbeth, V.iii. 15) or "milk-livered" (King Lear, IV.ii.50), i.e., cowards; and one might infer them to be inept in physical love and so, supposing generation, fathers of persons like themselves. One should point out that the gentles were not only possessed of abundant blood but sometimes of choler,65 which aided and abetted the blood in vanquishing enemies (cf. 1 Henry VI, IV.i.168). Lear, for example, is said to be choleric (Li.302-303). Shakespeare's gentlewomen of course possess courage and its exercise proper to women. When Polixenes insults Perdita for engaging in a presumptuous cross-class amour with his royal son, she assesses the situation courageously: "I was not much afeard" (The Winter's Tale, IV.iv.452). On this occasion she exhibits a similarity between her character and that of her noble mother, Hermione, who also bore up remarkably well under gross royal intimidation. Perdita's risking the journey to Sicilia with Florizel in the face of Polixenes' threat is another example of her courage. The vile, on the other hand, were humorally dominated by phlegm and melancholy.
Whereas phlegm and melancholy would lead plebeians to either supineness or insanity, high blood conferred the power, states Gervase Markham's The Gentleman's Academie, of "being pacient in affliction." Coriolanus, like Cymbeline a commonplace book and a collection of exempla on the virtues of gentlehood, represents Coriolanus as saying, "Fortune's blows, / When most struck home, being gentle wounded, craves / A noble cunning" (IV.i.7-9), meaning that only the gentle heart can endure the blows of Fortune bravely. Talbot suggests that the Knights of the Garter were "always resolute in most extremes" (7 Henry VI, IV.i.38). Duke Senior of As You Like It and Hermione of The Winter's Tale may stand for many others as embodying this quality. When Polixenes in The Winter's Tale does his best to balk the cross-class match between Florizel and Perdita, Perdita is prepared to bear all the disadvantages of this love alone (IV.iv.456-460). When Camillo provocatively suggests that prosperity bonds love, Perdita responds, "I think affliction may subdue the check, / But not take in the mind" (IV.iv.586-587). Closely related to steadfastness under difficulties is the power of high blood to exempt its possessor from fatigue: "I had thought weariness," says Poins to the Prince, "durst not have attached one of so high blood" (2 Henry IV, II.ii.2-3).
Helping gentles triumph over difficulties is the power, the figurative richness, the musicality, and, in sum, the memorable quality of their language.66 The lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream are so caught in their heightened literary rhetoric as to dampen their sexual fire. The "rude mechanicals," removed from their occupational specialties, express themselves laughably in inept language as well as gesture. Duke Theseus, by adroitly managed, highflown rhetoric, blanches the lovers' flouting of the Athenian law, imposes the air of a civic festival upon the mechanicals and the spectators, and in effect reduces all to inferior orbs pleasantly rotating in the harmony of his system. One gathers on the basis of language that the cosmos endorses a hierarchy composed of Theseus on the top rung, the lovers somewhat lower, and the craftsmen firmly stationed upon the base rung. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock wields no rhetoric such as that passing between Lorenzo and Jessica in Act V, language suggesting harmony between the heavens and the lovers. Shylock's utterance deals with the pursuit of money and such status as comes with money. Transcendence of Shylock and his values by the Belmont set seems as natural and as right as the primacy of immortal souls over those bearing "this muddy vesture of decay." In As You Like It, Duke Senior by choosing to deal with specific qualities of the forest—trees, brooks, stones, the seasons' difference—which lend themselves to verbal style of a high order shifts attention from the objective forest itself (such as would make for unpleasantness and such as Corin would notice) to his subjective response. Thus he turns his predicament into words and transcends his situation by style: Arden becomes a "landscape of the mind," a component of one's culture. In Twelfth Night Viola rises to her high position in Orsino's ménage because, as the Duke says, "Thou dost speak masterly" (II.iv.22): one assumes innate affinity between Orsino and Viola on the basis of gentility. One might multiply instances.
The power of royal blood to defend itself against alien presences is clearly seen in the Shakespearean plays. Royals were more resistant to "mixtures powerful o'er the blood" (Othello, I.iii.104), i.e., poisons, than baseborns or even gentles because there were "several degrees in bloud." I have found no Renaissance text explicit on the superior resistance to toxicity of gentle, especially royal, blood; but the point is inferentially certain on general considerations and on three instances in Shakespeare's plays. The base-born, because of the "ill juyce" of their "clammy and grosse" humors (phlegm and melancholy), were said to be especially susceptible to the pestilence.67 If such foods as beans "obstruct, heape up ill humours" and putrify the body, as Paré says, making it ready "to receive, conceive, and bring forth the Seeds of the Plague,"68 then poison working upon such blood would presumably bring death more quickly than it would in tyrannizing over the purer blood of the gentles. Hamlet is a case in point. He has been wounded with a rapier whose venom is more virulent because it is fresh; yet he possesses the energy to pierce Laertes with the weapon whose poison is diluted with Hamlet's own blood, and Laertes dies first. Hamlet, though for some time envenomed and fatigued, is yet able to medicine his stepfather like a dog. We do not know the gravity of the two wounds: Furness (see ) gratuitously assumes that Laertes dies of a wound whereas Hamlet is fatally poisoned; we do know of the poisoned rapier and the sequence of the "hits." Inasmuch as Shakespeare is in these details not following a known source, the times and circumstances of the two deaths imply (among other things) that the poet apprehends a resistance to toxicity in Hamlet's blood that is superior to the poison-fighting qualities of Laertes' blood. Hamlet assuredly does not die last to prove or illustrate that his blood is nobler. He remains to do what he has to do. But given his circumstances he should have died first. The fact that Hamlet dies last underscores the point that his blood is less like poison than that of Laertes or it is more abundant or both, and he is inherently more noble on this account (as well as in derived matters, i.e., everything else)—an observation that I believe has not yet emerged in criticism of the play. In the last scene of Antony and Cleopatra, the queen's high blood is intimated by her requiring the bites of two asps to cause death whereas one asp's bite kills Charmian—two details not found in Plutarch. In the fifth act of King John, the king and a monk, his taster and poisoner, both drink at approximately the same time of the same poison; but the effects differ notably. Hubert says (V.vi. 29-31): "A monk, I tell you, a resolved villain, / Whose bowels suddenly burst out. The King / Yet speaks and peradventure may recover." J, Dover Wilson in his note on this passage states: "Both Foxe and Grafton (but not Holinshed) mention this detail; T. R. [The Troublesome Reign] does not, though as it (II.viii.1.12) attributes the affliction of the bowels to John himself, the same effect is naturally transferred to the poisoner."69 Not quite so. The point is that John, though the fifth son of an obviously masterful, evil lady, still has a much higher genetic inheritance than a plebeian monk; so his blood, being very unlike poison, resists the poison more vigorously. The envenomed drench does not carry off the king at once, and his bowels do not burst out like those of the Judas-like monk.
High blood accordingly gave one physical power to enforce personal moral judgments even against heavy odds.70 An interesting if unclear example is the nameless First Servant of King Lear, III.vii. This peasant, a servant to Cornwall, takes up a sword against his master when the latter is blinding Gloucester. He mortally wounds Cornwall, and then is run through the back by Regan. There is nothing in the entire canon of Shakespeare to parallel this incident because the base-born, though sometimes brave, do not enforce moral judgements at which they have individually arrived. Shakespeare does what he can to mitigate the unnaturalness of the First Servant's killing of his master: a Messenger tells Albany that Cornwall's killer was "a servant that he [Cornwall] bred" (IV.ii.73), implying that this person, albeit a villein, had the advantages of gentle nurture, including food; presumably on this account he acquired the gentle manner of enforcing at the cost of his life his own moral judgments. Perhaps Cornwall's Servant is a bastard of someone on the order of Coeur-de-Lion. We simply do not know. One thing is sure: the death of the First Servant removed from Shakespeare the extremely sticky problem of having to "gentle" him. An example of the usual failure of base-borns to stand up to their tyrannizing superiors is Pisanio vis-à-vis Cloten in Cymbeline.
The heightened blood of the gentles, specially evident in trying times, enabled them to register a much wider range of human emotions than could the plebeians. They were human in the fullest sense of the word. Thick blood, the basic condition of the base-born, tended to inhibit feelings of pity and kindliness (cf. Macbeth, I.v.44-47), one exception being Cornwall's servants (King Lear, III.vii). It is questionable whether non-gentry in Shakespeare's plays weep. None of them has the sanguinary power to be struck by and to sustain mutual love at first sight. None of them dies like Lear, Gloucester, Mamillius, Sicilius Leonatus, and Enobarbus of a "cracked heart"—the phrase is from Coriolanus, V.iii.9—because, peasant blood being deficient in quantity and of lowered heat, the emotions of the vile are of slighter intensity, diminished range, and more or less devoid of rational direction. In All's Well Thai Ends Well, the base Parolles soliloquizes of his class as well as of himself, "If my heart were great, / 'Twould burst at this" (IV.iii.366-367).
High blood endued its possessors with a marked degree of rational control of the passions. Because in Prospero reason triumphs over passion, he desires not to punish his enemies but to bring them to a sense of guilt and repentance. He says, "Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (V.i.26-28). According to Lawrence Babb, "moralists of the Renaissance subscribe to a fundamental principle of classical ethics: conduct motivated by reason is virtuous conduct; conduct motivated by unregulated passion is vicious conduct."71 The greater the degree of reasonable conduct, the better one's blood. Conversely, the more one gives way to passion, as Antonio and Sebastian do in The Tempest, the more evidence of base birth or of degeneracy. Luis Mercado points out that "animi passiones [such as ambition], quae . . . vel corpus exsiccant, vel Spiritus & humores praeter naturam exagitant" (passions of the soul both dry out and disturb the spirits beyond nature).72 If one were by nature melancholy, which "is as it were the dregs and sediment of the bloud,"73 passion would unsettle the lees and disperse them all through the blood. And if passion is highly excessive, "melancholy is burned, it becometh vitious, and causeth madnes."74 "Melancholy adust," which is irreversible, is perhaps the disease from which Antonio and Sebastian are suffering because Prospero can only subdue them; he cannot restore their blood to its former richness. So they do not repent as Alonso does and thus achieve regeneration. Ferdinand is remarkable for governing his passions, though as a young man he would have been (with his abundant blood of the richest quality) preeminently subject to lust.75 He prizes his personal honor, as Richard Brathwait counselled. His manliness curbs his lust, sparing him from becoming unreasonable and effeminate. And he adheres to the proper pattern for princes by setting an example for those lower in the hierarchy. Because Prospero knows that a prince like Ferdinand would have especially rich blood, he advises the young man to restrain himself (IV.i.51-54), and Ferdinand does. At the other pole is Caliban, a lustful brute who once tried to violate Miranda (I.ii.345-348).
A notable exception to the gentles' control of their passions was the propensity of two persons simultaneously to fall in love at first sight, an experience reserved in the Shakespearean plays for persons of gentle birth: for Romeo and Juliet, for Ferdinand and Miranda, for example, it is right; something less electric motivates the couplings of the base-born. Inasmuch as the quality and quantity of blood are causally related to all aspects of human behavior in Shakespeare's plays, mutual love at first sight must have had a sanguinary basis.76 Marsilio Ficino seminally promoted in the Renaissance the idea that the physiological basis of love is an invisible vapor or spirit proceeding from the heart's blood through the eyes "as though through glass windows" into the eyes of the beloved, thence settling and becoming blood again in the liver or the heart. Jacques Ferrand77 and Robert Burton78 both discuss this idea with overt notice of Ficino, and something of the same conception is less clearly seen in the writings of Leonard de Marande,79 Annibale Romei,80 and Sir Francis It harmonized remarkably well—I Bacon.81 say no more than this—with several passages in the Shakespearean plays. Thus Romeo says:
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes; . . .
A choking gall and a preserving sweet
We know that sighs in Shakespeare's plays are expressly said to derive from blood (e.g., 3 Henry VI, IV.iv.22). Purging sighs leaves spirit, an invisible vapor that Romeo describes as "a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes." Obviously such a waste of spirit could not be sustained without loss of blood (cf. Sonnet 129). If love is a "preserving sweet," the loss of spirit or vapor must be compensated for by incoming spirit, i.e., "sparkling fire" or vapor from one's inamorata striking the eyes and in due course becoming blood again. When Prospero says of Ferdinand and Miranda, "at the first sight / They have changed eyes" (I.iii.440-441), the Renaissance background and the happy condition of the lovers suggest that they in a state of what Ficino calls "double bewitchment" are exchanging blood or spirit, each from the first glance being a "preserving sweet" to the other. Ficino states that this process is so exhausting that "there must be a frequent outpouring of pure blood."82 If this emission is not resupplied vis-à-vis the inamorata, or if, according to Ferrand, it is retorted upon the lover, melancholy troubles the blood. He is left, says Ficino, with "only the impure, thick, dry, and black parts"83 of the blood, which seem to match Romeo's "chocking gall." His melancholy "dries out the brain, and unceasingly vexes the soul day and night with fearful, hideous images."84 When the Nurse describes what Juliet thinks is Romeo's corpse, "a piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse: / Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaubed in blood / All in gore blood" (III.ii.54-56), and Juliet responds, "Oh, break, my heart! Poor bankrupt, break at once! / To prison, eyes," her language intimates that the invigoration of Romeo's blood now denied her eyes and heart consigns her to progressive melancholy; she therefore, conscious of still possessing abundant blood of high quality (including some of Romeo's), calls upon her heart to fracture itself forthwith while this distinctly upper-class exit from life is still possible. Modern readers may view the lines as lovers' hyperbole; but Renaissance teaching, Shakespeare's marked tendency to be literal in references to the blood (as in Brutus' invitation to bathe in Caesar's blood),85 and Romeo's words quoted above suggest that Juliet's words are to be received au pied de la lettre. Again, when Romeo and Juliet comment on each other's pallor, Romeo says, "Dry sorrow drinks our blood" (III.v.59), referring to the blood which he and Juliet share rather than, as we should normally suppose, the blood of each completely separate and distinct from each other. The "bad stars" of Romeo and Juliet and the other untoward circumstances of the play ultimately influence their blood; the lovers, given their circumstances, must die.
These notions abstracted from the Shakespearean plays are regarded by most people today as quaint or pernicious. But the long-lived humoral theory of Hippocrates and Galen has only lately been put to rest in the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, it is unlikely that a theory that held sway over the human mind for more than two thousand years can be completely obliterated in a short time. Moroccans still practice phlebotomy. During World War II in the United States Army, I sometimes heard soldiers deriding the cowardice of fellow soldiers by asserting that they had "shit for blood." Nevertheless, the solvents of modernity have largely obliterated Shakespeare's division of mankind into gentry and base-born and the ideas that undergirded it. Physical mobility, opportunities for economic advancement, social atomism, the decline of family farming, large corporations and chain stores, widespread ridicule of the "heavy" father, feminism, democracy, tastelessness, and many other factors have washed away this genetic line. A gentleman nowadays does not resort to fisticuffs to enforce his moral judgments—a great change from gentle behavior, mutatis mutandis, in the days of Elizabeth and James. In our altered world, Shakespeare's bifurcation of humanity is merely an embarrassment. So it is either ignored in assessments of the poet or, more likely, it is not even grasped as Shakespeare's pervasive guide to characterization. Even when the class basis of Shakespearean drama is registered by such critics as Crosby and Krieger, there is no attempt to study the Elizabethan physiological basis of this division. One reads hundreds of books and articles in which Shakespeare's gentle characters are treated as representative of humanity at large, whereas in the plays it is the gentry who are fully human, and it is the baseborn who are in one degree or another sub-human. . . .
1 Herschel Baker, The Image of Man (New York: Harper, 1961); E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Macmillan, 1944); C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1964).
2 Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1944); Ruth L. Anderson, Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966).
3 In this study the terms "non-gentles," "base-borns," "villeins," "churls," "peasants," "plebeinas," "goodmen," "fellows," "citizens," "clowns," "proles," "the base," "the vile," and "the vulgar" are broadly applied to non-armigeral classes without coats of arms.
4 Francis Markham, The Booke of Honour: or Five Decads of Epistles of Honour (London, 1625), 46.
5 See, for example, ibid., 38. A minority view, expressed by Thomas Milles in The Catalogue of Honor (London, 1610), 13-18, held that virtue "dative," referring to the first generation to be "gentled," i.e., given coats of arms, is more excellent than virtue "native."
6The Method of Curing Wounds Made by Gunshot, trans. W. Hammond (London, 1617), 35.
7 Bilibaldus Pirckheimer, The Praise of the Gout, or the Gouts Apologie (London, 1617), 15-16.
8A Treatise of the Plague Collected out of the Works of A. Pareus (London, 1630), 32.
9 (London, 1598), 194.
10 Alexander Read's preface to Owen Wood's The Alphabeticall Book of Physicall Secrets (London, 1639) suggests the rarity of authoritative books of medical self-help available in English to those who had neither physician nor apothecary.
11 I do not state or wish to be understood as implying that Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes toward blood were as consistent as the following synthesis of many authors may suggest. Bernard Seeman, The River of Life (New York: Norton, 1961), 113-142, discusses various theories of blood in the Renaissance down to Harvey.
12Examen de Ingenios, The Examination of Men's Wits, trans. R. Carew (London, 1594), 20.
13 A widespread explanation of degeneracy was the overaged father. Dr. John Makluire, The Buckler of Bodilie Health (Edinburgh, 1630), 86, held that the prime of man's life for purposes of reproduction was between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. He wrote: "Bairnes procreate of bairnes, or old men are commonly infirme, either of body or of mynde, but begotten in the flower of age, when the body and spirit are at the best, are found to be most able for any business."
14 Huarte, Examination, 305.
15 Cf. William Vaughan, Approved Directions for Health (London, 1612), 68, 134.
16 Makluire, Buckler of Bodilie Health, 72.
17 Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Health (1542), EETS Extra Series No. 10 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1870), 238.
18 Levinus Lemnius, The Touchstone of Complexions, trans. T. Newton (London, 1581), 85. Thomas Vicary, A Profitable Treatise of the Anatomie of Mans Body (1577), EETS Extra Series No. 53 (London: Trübner, 1888) states: "The whiche seed of generation commeth from al the parts of the body, both of the man and the woman, with consent & wil of al members" (78-79). Cf. Nicholas Gyer, The English Phlebotomy (London, 1592), 93.
19 Alexander Read, The Chirurgicall Lectures of Tumors and Ulcers Delivered in the Chirurgeons Hall (London, 1632), 45.
20 (Oxford, 1640), 261. See also Thomas Vicary, The Englishemans Treasure (London, 1586), 53.
21 On mastery see Hippocrates, Regimen, I.xxviii, Hippocrates, trans. W. H. S. Jones (London: Heinemann, 1931), 4:267-269. But in Giovanni Nenna, A Treatise of Nobility, trans. W. Jones (London, 1595), 7ff, it is argued that children have more blood from their mothers than from their fathers.
22 Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth, or the Happy Deliverie of Women (London, 1602), 20.
24 Boorde, Compendyous Regyment, 235.
27 Makluire, Buckler of Bodilie Health, 127.
28A Treatise of Nobility, 11.
29 As quoted by J. H. Parry, "The Return of the Golden Hind," Harvard Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1980, 56.
30 Makluire, Buckler of Bodilie Health, 124-125, suggests that good blood is the product of generations of righteous living. See also Markham, Booke of Honour, 47-48. Cf. M. J. Sirks and Conway Zirkle, The Evolution of Biology (New York: Random House, 1964), who quote Roger Bacon to the same effect.
31 "Shakespeare's Attitude Toward the Working Classes," pp. 127-165, in Tolstoy on Shakespeare (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1907).
32Shakesperian Scraps and Other Elizabethan Fragments (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1933), 153-176.
33Shakespeare and "Demi-Science" (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1927), 85-99.
34The Eugenics Review, 19 (1927): 189.
35 "Is Shakespeare Aristocratic?" PMLA, 29 (1914): 288.
36Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, 74 (1938): 123-136.
37The Crown of Life (London: Methuen, 1948), 162.
38 See the next section of this chapter.
39 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979).
40 "Shakespeare's Orlando Innamorato," MLQ, 2 (1941): 179-184.
41 John W. Draper, The Humors and Shakespeare's Characters (Durham, N. C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1945), 63.
42 (London, 1607), sig. Clv.
43Ibid., sig. D2 . v
44 (London, 1595), 43v -44r .
45 Huarte, Examination, 303-304.
47Ibid., 310. Cf. Thomas Cogan, The Haven of Health (London, 1584), 246.
48 This item and those following are mentioned by Jacques Ferrand, Erotomania, 240, 247.
49 Cited by William Younger, Gods, Men and Wine (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1966), 292.
50 (London, 1534), Book 2, p. 35.
51 (London, 1638), 30.
52 See infra, p. 54.
53 Cf. John Taylor, Drinke and Welcome (London, 1637), sig. B3v -B4 r .
54 Vaughan, 20.
55A Direction for the Health of Magistrates and Students (London, 1574), sig. B4r .
56 John M. Steadman, "Falstaff's 'Facies Hippocratica': A Note on Shakespeare and Renaissance Medical Theory," Studia Neophilologica, 29 (1957): 133-134.
57 Malvolio's nose, on the strength of Twelfth Night, II.iii.27-29 and other indications, has been conjectured to be "portentously 'Roman'" by James O. Wood, "Malvolio's Nose," AN&Q, 6 (1967): 38-39: this note, if correct, adds humor to Malvolio's domineering manner. Wood cites references to other Roman noses in Shakespeare's plays. Bartholomeus Codes, A Brief and Most Pleasaunt Epitomye of the Whole Art of Phisiognomie, trans. T. Hyll (London ), in Chap. 17, "Of the Nose," states: "The nose that croketh, lyke to the byl of the Egle, declareth that man to be cholerick, courageous, bold, a greedy ravener and cruel."
58 Othello's blackness represents the opposite of handsomeness.
59 Cf. Richard III, I.iii.227.
60 See infra, chapter 2, for a more detailed discussion of the physiological causes of body odor.
61 Cf. Cymbeline, IV.ii.223-224.
62 See infra, chapter 2, in the section dealing with beef-eating.
63 William Blissett, "The Secret'st Man of Blood," Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959): 403, note 7. Ferrand, Erotomania, citing Aristotle, states that "those men that are hairy, are fuller of seed" (143).
64 Count Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir T. Hoby (London, 1561), sig. C2v -C3r .
65 In Regimen Sanitatis Salerni, trans. T. Paynell (London, 1530), sig. B2 , it is noted that noblemen "most v commonly are naturally drye and colerike."
66 Krieger, A Marxist Study of Shakespeare Comedies, passim. 67 Paré, A Treatise of the Plague, 32.
69 Ed., King John (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936), 190.
70 Cf. Francelia Butler, "The Relationship between Moral Competence and Old Age in Richard II, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V," SQ, 16 (1965): 236-238.
71The Elizabethan Malady (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1951), 17.
72Opera (Frankfurt, 1619-1620), 3:102.
73 Petrus Pomarius Valentinus, Enchiridion medicum (London, 1608), 16.
75The English Gentleman (London, 1630), 32.
76Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, trans. Sears Jayne (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1944), Sixth and Seventh Speeches. See Franklin S. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1957), 29.
78The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York: Tudor, 1948), 681-683.
79Judgement of Humane Actions (London, 1629), 126-127.
80The Courtiers Academie, trans. John Keper (London, 1598), 38-39.
81Sylva Sylvarum (London, 1628), 169.
82 Sixth Speech, Chap. 9. p. 195.
85 Leo Kirschbaum "Shakespeare's Stage Blood and Its Critical Significance," PMLA, 64 (1949): 517-529.
Ralph Berry (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "The Roman Plays and Timon of Athens" in Shakespeare and Social Class, Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988, pp. 143-64.
[In the following essay, Berry surveys class issues raised in Shakespeare's Roman plays and Timon of Athens.]
Peter Brook, who in 1955 directed the play's most celebrated revival, described Titus Andronicus thus: "Everything in Titus is linked to a dark flowing current out of which surge the horrors, rhythmically and logically related—if one searches in this way one can find the expression of a powerful and eventually beautiful barbaric ritual."1
His judgment makes Titus Andronicus a ritual drama, which later practice has largely confirmed as the best way of staging the play. The horrors are central, and the director's first duty is to determine the mode of presenting them. Little seems to propose a social context for the horrors, or suggests other than a remote and barbarous past. And yet there is an early sketch for a context.
Titus Andronicus opens with an embryonic explanation for itself in Saturninus's address to the Roman Senators and Tribunes:
Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms;
And, countrymen, my loving followers,
Plead my successive title with your swords.
I am his first-born son that was the last
That ware the imperial diadem of Rome;
Then let my father's honors live in me,
Nor wrong mine age with this indignity.
This unadorned appeal to primogeniture is schematic in its clarity. From the authority of fathers, rooted in patricians, patrons, descends the title of the first-born son, which is imposed on followers. It is a clear vertical system. Set against it is Bassianus's appeal:
Romans, friends, followers, favorers of my right,
If ever Bassianus, Caesar's son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome,
Keep then this passage to the Capitol;
And suffer not dishonor to approach
The imperial seat, to virtue consecrate,
To justice, continence, and nobility;
But let desert in pure election shine;
And, Romans, fight for freedom in your choice.
Bassianus's plea, "let desert in pure election shine," opposes merit to primogeniture. It is the way of the future. It is also well justified, in its own terms. Saturninus is corrupt and wayward, while Bassianus is a man of honor and integrity. Still, the people would prefer Titus Andronicus to either. But Titus, granted a kingmaker's privilege, chooses "our Emperor's eldest son,/Lord Saturnine . . . Then, if you will elect by my advice,/Crown him, and say 'Long live our Emperor!'" (1.1.224-29). Patriarchy has endorsed primogeniture.
And that, really, is it. Ideas about the social origins of the tragedy go no further in this play than exposing the failings of patriarchy and primogeniture. There is a hint in the bickering between the unappetizing Chiron and Demetrius over the possession of Lavinia: "'Tis not the difference of a year or two/Makes me less gracious or thee more fortunate:/I am as able and as fit as thou" (2.1.31-33). That is Chiron, to whom his elder brother, Demetrius, makes this lofty response: "Youngling, learn thou to make some meaner choice:/Lavinia is thy elder brother's hope" (2.1.73-74). This is the precedence of louse over flea; and if one had to go on Titus Andronicus alone, one would say that Shakespeare regards primogeniture as an absurd system. Titus, who backs it, is a crazed patriarch. He disposes of his sons as though they were any other kind of chattel, and he kills his daughter, Lavinia, because of the shame done to her. In short, he symbolizes a system that is rigid and oppressive, but Roman society sanctions his acts, and there are no internal criticisms of Titus's conduct. In Titus Andronicus the patrician order needs and gets renewal from outside. Its salvation comes from a son of Titus and an army of Goths.
Titus Andronicus has total power over his children. In Julius Caesar, that power is exercised, as it were, from beyond the grave. The later play shows a fascinating shift of angle to address the same phenomenon, patriarchy. Sons are everywhere in Titus Andronicus—Titus's, Tamora's, and Aaron's. In Julius Caesar, nobody has children. Dramatically they are excluded from the cast, and the opening procession draws attention to Calphurnia's infertility. To compensate for their lack of children, the Romans have an abundance of ancestors, all of them male. And these ancestors are living presences. "I am the son of Marcus Cato, ho!" cries young Cato, twice (5.4.4,6). "Think you I am no stronger than my sex, /Being so father'd and so husbanded?" asks Portia (2.1.296-97). "But woe the while, our fathers' minds are dead," says Cassius (1.3.82). A father in Julius Caesar does not have to mean an immediate progenitor, a person one actually knows. The idea of father is absorbed into patres, city fathers, elders; he is an ancestor, a standard of conduct, an ideal. "I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor" says Cassius (1.2.112). Even over several generations, the patriarchal grip is fastened upon the minds of the Romans. "The dead are more powerful than the living," said Fontenelle.
Honor, therefore, is a patrician's acknowledgement of the claims of ancestry. Children make no competing claims, for they do not exist. Pride of ancestry has a clear field here, and determines conduct. It is the key to Brutus from first to last. His name is the reminder of the Brutus who led the opposition to Tarquín, driving him from the throne. Not to take up the challenge, not to lead the conspiracy against Caesar, would be a betrayal of his ancestors, his name, his identity. "Shall Rome, etc," the anonymous message left for him, is an enigmatic Rorschach on which Brutus at once prints his values. Brutus is fixed in the patrician cast of mind, imbued with a sense of family duty toward his country. That is easily seen. More interesting are the ways in which he interprets his license to do his duty, and the extent to which others cede to him their own rights. The central figure of Julius Caesar is a study in patrician dominance, in whose personal and class traits is rooted the failure of the conspiracy.
Peter Ustinov once defined "inflexible integrity" as "a quality which has led to as many errors of judgment as any other." That locates the problem nicely. Brutus has unswerving integrity and commits many errors. But why does he make them, and why do the others let him?
The point about Brutus is not that he is wrong part of the time, or even most of the time. He is wrong all of the time. Most of us can claim a few correct decisions here and there. It takes a Brutus to avoid the statistical chances of occasional success that mankind is prone to. From the initial decision to join the conspiracy, to his conduct at Philippi, the play is a catalogue of Brutus's errors. And yet he never questions his own judgment, not even at the end. He feels no regret. This cast of mind is surely class-based, revealing itself through an extraordinary personal arrogance. But Brutus is not "arrogant" as the world understands it, haughty in manner. His behavior toward his slave Lucius is exemplary. But in arrogating to himself powers and rights unjustified by performance, in making undue claims for himself, Brutus is the epitome of patrician self-confidence.
His actions are inner-directed and seem unaffected by others—unless one counts proposals from others, which elicit from Brutus a veto. His key soliloquy begins with a decision—"it must be by his death"—and thereafter consists of a laborious shunting around of available reasons until they are acceptably in position. To call this the record of an agonized dilemma seems to me a total misreading. The choice is already made; the mental process is a search for comfortable furniture. There follows the meeting with the conspirators, during which Brutus in rapid succession overrules proposals first, to bind them by oath; second, to bring in Cicero; and third, to kill Mark Antony with Caesar. No one has thought of bringing in Caius Ligarius, till Metellus Cimber mentions him, and Brutus is happy to vouch for the man, no further discussion being needed. All this is accomplished without significant opposition from the others, who capitulate in the face of Brutus's wishes. The decision to let Mark Antony speak at Caesar's funeral, and to speak second, is Brutus's alone. Throughout, the unspoken principle is that Brutus knows best. Nothing can shake that conviction, not even his 100 percent record of disaster. Brutus is every inch a leader—or, more exactly, one who accepts the role of leader.
His leadership extends to his method of paying his troops, an issue explored in the quarrel scene. The encounter between what the old commentaries used to call the "realist," Cassius, and the "idealist," Brutus, is about coins, which emblematically possess two faces.
Brutus: I did send to you
For certain sums of gold, which you denied me;
For I can raise no money by vile means.
MacCallum is good on Brutus's self-righteousness here: "What does all this come to? That the superfine Brutus will not be guilty of extortion, but that Cassius may: and that Brutus will demand to share in the proceeds."2 One can see in this an exercise of the chain of command vital to Brutus's moral well-being. It is for subordinates to nourish the leader's sense of self Or one can see here the archetypal liberal, a man who knows the value of everything and the price of nothing. Whichever way, it is an aristocrat's insistence that the world conform to his sense of things.
In all this, class plays a decisive role. Why do the others let Brutus get away with it? They too are "noble Romans," and this is the record of their dispute within the patrician order. The only answer I can see is that Brutus is of a higher rank within that order. In Julius Caesar one cannot expect straightforward analogues to the class system elsewhere. Dukes, earls, and counts cannot be rendered in Roman terms. But there is family distinction, a title of nobility, which gives the patronymic "Brutus" immense standing among the conspirators and among Romans generally. "Let him be Caesar!" is the crowd's naive tribute to Brutus. The conspirators feel that they need his name, much as a company might like a letterhead peer on the board. Unlike that company, they also feel the need to defer to him. It is the conspirators who confirm Brutus's identity: he leads, they acquiesce in his leadership. Effectively, the family record is a special claim upon Romans. No one questions it, not even in the quarrel scene. Brutus's dominance over his fellows is based on family name.
Brutus's standing with the conspirators and with other Romans corresponds to the later reputation with audiences and scholars of Brutus the stage figure. There is a general, not a universal, readiness to take Brutus at close to his own valuation, with a few reservations. In my stage-going experience, only John Wood (RSC, 1972) has put forward a radical questioning of the claims Brutus makes for himself. And yet the play exposes those claims. "Honorable men" contains, in Antony's Forum speech, a widening base of irony. With "honorable" is linked "noble." Here as elsewhere the word unites two senses: the formal claim to belong to the order of the nobility and the qualities associated with magnanimity, or greatness of mind. And Brutus is noble. Cassius says it at the beginning, "Well, Brutus, thou art noble" (1.2.307), and Antony says it at the end, "This was the noblest Roman of them all," which puts the question back, with unwinking candor, to the audience. Brutus unquestionably has greatness of mind, if that faculty is held to be undisturbed by self-righteousness, self-confidence in the face of all evidence and experience, and a determination to lead the state his way whatever the consequences.
In all the circumstances, "noble" might seem to have had a battering in Julius Caesar. And yet it is the play's trick to leave audiences disinclined to contest Antony's eulogy. In part, of course, that is the nature of eulogies. One goes along with them. But in the main, it is because the criticisms of Brutus are unformulated in the dialogue. Brutus, an active politician, is supported or opposed but is never queried. The audience has to do it for themselves. "Julius Caesar," wrote Mary McCarthy, "is about the tragic consequences that befall idealism when it attempts to enter the sphere of action."3 Either Miss McCarthy is mistaken in linking idealism with Brutus, or she is drawing attention to conduct that used to give idealism a good name.
Antony and Cleopatra
Antony, the survivor of Julius Caesar, is the victim of Antony and Cleopatra. This play can scarcely be said to raise any class issues, unless one regards it as a phase of Roman decadence in which the patrician order turns to exogamy. Antony and Cleopatra is founded on the polarity of Egypt and Rome. And Antony can been seen as a proconsul succumbing to the lure of the East, as Beerbohm Tree did in his 1906 production. In following the text ("a tawny front," 1.1.6), Tree chose to play up this Roman-Egyptian cultural clash. But this view is not current. Suggestions of a cultural or ethnic divide are played down on the contemporary stage. The RSC's most recent productions, in 1978 and 1982, have concentrated on a "chamber" Shakespeare approach, avoiding the scenic splendors of Alexandria and Rome together with their cultural implications. The differences between Antony and Cleopatra belong to a different order of psychology.
The play's subject is a single relationship, Antony and Cleopatra's, which bypasses the categories of social class. The Queen and the Consul are of approximating eminence, and the question of the drama is their commitment toward each other. Throughout, there are hints of a domestic dimension far removed from the grandeurs of the imperial theme. In this, Antony and Cleopatra are simply people living together, endlessly bickering about the mistress's status as non-wife. It is an ordinary, even a commonplace story of a woman unable to marry her lover, in the end claiming him for her own. The culmination of the drama, in this reading, is "Husband, I come./Now to that name my courage prove my title!" (5.2.285-86). Between the splendors and duplicities of a single relationship this play oscillates. The great exploration of social class in Rome is left to Coriolanus.
Namier, I have been told, was once asked the difference between Left and Right. "It is very simple. The Left invented the class war, and the Right implements it." Coriolanus depicts both sides in open and enthusiastic pursuit of the class war. On the one hand are the patricians, so termed throughout. On the other are the plebeians, referred to on one occasion as plebeii, with the sense of estate of the realm. The plebeians are led by tribunes, officers elected by the people. The story of Coriolanus personalizes a phase in the contest between the classes, set formally in the early history of Rome. The analogies between the politics of Shakespeare's Rome and those of any modern state are so obvious as to need no underlining, but neither do they bear much softening or reservation. The whole is presented with a hard clarity, as though incised upon marble. In Coriolanus there is no question, as with Twelfth Night, of undetermined social counters. The roles are fixed. The open question is what Shakespeare makes of these class transactions.
The opening, which looks like an insurrection, turns into a debate. The stage directions, reckoned to be Shakespeare's own and wonderfully expressive, give an immediate fix: Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons. Surely this is a mob, such as we have seen before in Julius Caesar? No, and mob is not the word. The lynching mob that destroys Cinna the Poet is a refuge for the individual conscience, a collective able to do things the individual dare not. Here the members of the "company" (not a pejorative term) retain their identity, and fall to discussion which they prefer to serious stave-work. This is a Victorian Working Men's Institute, whose representative figures are 1st Citizen, patently of the militant tendency, and 2nd Citizen, the archetypal Working Class Tory. For the 1st Citizen, Coriolanus symbolizes the oppressive policies of "authority" (the ruling class) that are starving people: let him be put to death, and the price of corn will come down. The 2nd Citizen points out Coriolanus's distinguished military service. The matter is unresolved, and 1st Citizen is urging the company toward the Capitol, when Menenius enters. He defuses matters through a blend of calculated bonhomie and political sermonizing. First comes the straight party line: "I tell you, friends, most charitable care/Have the patricians of you" (1.1.63-64). The famine is the work of the Gods, not the patricians.
Then comes the prolonged Fable of the Belly, a discourse that provokes the crowd to listlessness. Economic theory usually does, and a later generation, which knows the same fable as the trickle-down theory, behaves in much the same way. At any rate, Menenius is allowed with minimal heckling to expound his view that the belly supplies the rest of the body. "'Though all at once cannot see what I do deliver out to each'" (1.1.140-41), all parts of the body benefit from the belly's work. Argument by metaphor is always a tricky business, and the 1st Citizen, of whom one could have expected something crisper, has only the lame "It was an answer" (1.1.145). The fable means that "The Senators of Rome are this good belly,/And you the mutinous members" (1.1.146-47). The discussion is halted by the entrance of Coriolanus, but the debate is eternal. Essentially, two theories of society are being offered.
The 1st Citizen sees a direct confrontation in class terms, patricians versus plebeians, the few against the many. Even without the intervening concept of the bourgeoisie (which has no standing in Coriolanus), the 1st Citizen is easily seen as a spokesman for proto-Marxism. Against him, the doubts and reservations of the 2nd Citizen—who simply does not care for attacking aristocrats with an outstanding war record—are expanded by Menenius into a theory of social interaction, in which the nobility and wealthy are vital to the well-being of the community. The unresolved debate between these two theorists of society, interrupted by the specific problem of Coriolanus, is the intellectual frame to the action.
The role of Menenius is central. He is a kind of party manager, the acceptable face of patrician rule. His manner, at once genial and patronizing, covers an astute blend of tactics. Note his early address to the Citizens: "Why masters, my good friends, mine honest neighbors" (1.1.60). "Honest neighbor" was also Leonato's address to Dogberry—and Dogberry's to the Watch. But the essential idea is in his opening line, "What work's, my countrymen, in hand?" with its subliminal suggestion that they ought to be working and the open appeal of "my countrymen," to patriotism as the binding social agent. Of Menenius as a person it is possible to hold diverse views. His qualities are a gift to the character actor. His functions are unambiguous. He is there to make liaison between the classes, to keep an eye on what the opposition is up to, and to present the actions and motives of his class in the best light. And Menenius would agree to that description of his functions, holding that they are essential to the decent ordering of society.
Against Menenius are set the two tribunes, Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus. Shakespeare's handling of his characters is not quite so modern here; party managers often get on rather well with their opposite numbers, who are ideally placed to sympathize with them in the burdens they carry. But in this early stage of social progress, Menenius has unmitigated loathing for the tribunes, which, if they reciprocate, they control far better. About the tribunes there is no question of function. Their duties are plain. There is, nevertheless, a question of judgment. They have usually had a bad press, being identified with agitators and troublemakers generally. On stage, they are usually played so as to resemble a contemporary trade union figure. And yet it is hard to see how they could discharge their duties otherwise, given the impending election of Coriolanus, who can only be taken at his own word as a tyrant to the plebeians. John Palmer's assessment of the tribunes' conduct is admirably judicious:
Their tactics in handling this very difficult situation are masterly. To denounce them as mean and contemptible is to forget that Coriolanus is a political play and to display a remarkable ignorance of the conduct of public affairs during a popular election. They do not oppose the nomination of Marti us as a consul, but suggest, not unreasonably, that, if he desires to be the first magistrate of Rome, he should show less contempt for her citizens.4
Sicinius and Brutus strike me as thoroughgoing professionals. They are realists and experts, categories that are beyond the question of likeableness, and they keep their temper in the face of extreme provocation from Menenius (2.1). "Here they are," as Granville-Barker says, "playing the game by its rules, yielding smoothly to their mastery, condoning no smallest breach of them.5 In them can be seen the general attachment of the Left to protocol, rules, forms, precedents. Sicinius and Brutus are not revolutionaries but constitutionalists, which may be why Menenius finds them so detestable.
The election of Act 2 is the political center of the play. In some respects the practices it depicts are not far removed from those of Elizabethan elections. J. E. Neale, whose The Elizabethan House of Commons is the authority, stresses that an election to the Elizabethans did not mean a choice between candidates; it was the confirmation of a candidate whom the governing circles had put forward.6 No direct analogue to Coriolanus seems recognizable among the records of Elizabethan elections, but similar situations can be traced in memoirs of the twentieth century—Harold Nicolson's, for example.7 Coriolanus wishes to be elected, but the humiliation of campaigning is beyond him. The need for, shall we say, door-to-door canvassing brings out the worst in him, a contempt for the plebeians with which is coupled nausea at their insanitary habits: "Bid them wash their faces/And keep their teeth clean" (2.3.59-60). He also proposes to remind the electorate of its military shortcomings against the Volscians. No wonder Menenius is aghast: "O me,...
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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 entire section is 12500 words.)
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...
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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.
(The entire section is 619 words.)