William Shakespeare

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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Social Class

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...

(The entire section is 83,323 words.)