illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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 hierarchy. Peter Holbrook (1994), using A...

(This entire section contains 706 words.)

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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.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37151

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 heredityor "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, 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" ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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.

23Ibid., 26.

24 Boorde, Compendyous Regyment, 235.

25Ibid., 244.

26Ibid., 244-245.

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.

46Ibid., 303.

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 [1556]), 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.

68Ibid., 8.

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.

77Erotomania, 68-69.

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.]

Titus Andronicus

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.

Julius Caesar

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, the gods! /You must not speak of that." Only a devoted party worker would take on the job of campaign manager to Coriolanus.

The 1st Citizen has it. He may not be the same "1st Citizen" as in Act 1, but he has the same sense of the point, and when Coriolanus puts it to him, "Well then, I pray, your price o'th'consulship?" he answers grimly, "The price is, to ask it kindly" (2.3.72-73). I don't think a later generation can improve on that. The ritual humbling of the electoral process is the arch through which all leaders must pass, bowed. And the rules for war heroes remain the same as for everyone else. It is not surprising that Coriolanus should resist the rules; what is truly curious is the grounds of his revulsion against "most sweet voices":

Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here, To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to 7. What custom wills, in all things should we do't, The dust on antique time would lie unswept And mountainous error be too highly heap'd For truth to o'erpeer.


This, as Palmer mildly remarks, "is a strange observation to fall from the lips of a conservative nobleman."8 Coriolanus's attachment to hereditary privilege is unconnected with any general or principled devotion to tradition. Palmer again: "He dislikes having to seek the suffrage of the commons. Let the suffrage be abolished. His election is opposed later on. Let the tribunes be removed."9 At the heart of this play's politics is an odd paradox: the radicals are strict constitutionalists, the aristocrat is contemptuous of tradition. In accusing Coriolanus of being "a traitorous innovator" (3.1.174), Sicinius phrases the charge with consistency and precision.

In the electoral process, a certain humbug can be taken for granted. More nakedly revealing is the patrician reaction to the news of the Volscian approach in Act 4. Cominius and Menenius rend the plebeians, beginning with Cominius's "O, you have made good work!" (Again, the subliminal charge: "Now look what you've done: you should have stuck to your work.") Cominius expands it, cheerlessly cataloguing the disasters about to befall the ingrates of Rome:

You have holp to ravish your own daughters, and To melt the city leads upon your pates, To see your wives dishonor'd to your noses—

Menenius, who would like some hard news, tries to interrupt this torrent, but Cominius continues. He has a point to make:

Your temples burned in their cement, andYour franchises, whereon you stood, confin'd Into an auger's bore.


This, he says, is what comes of you people having the vote! Menenius takes up the cry:

You have made good work, You, and your apron-men; you that stood so much Upon the voice of occupation and The breath of garlic-eaters


"Voice of occupation" means workmen's vote. That is what the patricians deride, even more than the tradespeoples' badges of work. "Stood upon" ("set store by") is the phrase both Cominius and Menenius use, to refer to the vote, and the message is emphatic: next time you vote, listen to the words of authority. The passage is really a single tirade, delivered in relays by Cominius and Menenius. Their objective is to enforce among the guilt-stricken plebeians a sense of their sin in banishing the noble Coriolanus. It succeeds, too. Against Menenius's jeer, "You and your crafts!" and Cominius's warning of the danger to Rome, the tribunes have only the limp, "Say not we brought it." There is naturally no admission from Cominius and Menenius that the patricians' selection committee has blundered in nominating an unelectable candidate, thus putting in jeopardy a safe seat.

Cominius and Menenius put forward the undiluted party line. The essence itself is Volumnia. This monster, whom Shakespeare draws with a fascinated blend of wonder and loathing, is fully stated in her opening scene. There is about her nothing further to reveal, only to recount. Volumnia tells her daughter-in-law, Virgilia, how she "was pleas'd to let him [Coriolanus] seek danger where he was like to find fame." And to Virgilia's "But had he died in the business, madam, how then?" Volumnia responds, "Then his good report should have been my son; I therein would have found issue" (1.3.12-21). She means it. When the news arrives of her son's triumphal return, her reaction is "Oh, he is wounded, I thank the gods for't" (2.1.114), at which point Menenius remarks compassionately, "So do I too, if not too much." The point of Volumnia's delight soon emerges: "There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place" (2.1.139-40). She and Menenius engage happily in a wound-counting competition, leading to a positive incantation on her lips as the trumpets sound for the triumphal entry of Martius. As Vickers remarks, "It is one of the songs that the mother serving the fatherland sings when she sends her son off to the trenches."10 And indeed, Volumnia is extraordinarily reminiscent of certain posters of World War I.

Her teachings on the ordering of society are recalled by her son:

I muse my mother Does not approve me further, who was wont

To call them woollen vassals, things created To buy and sell with groats; to show bare heads In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder When one but of my ordinance stood up To speak of peace and war.


Nowhere in the canon is there a plainer statement of aristocratic contempt for the people. Their role in life is to listen, hats off, when a patrician speaks. But Coriolanus has misunderstood the drift of this doctrine. It must not come between a patrician and his assumption of power. Power is the point: "I would have had you put your power well on/Before you had worn it out" is his mother's advice. A formal submission to the people is perfectly in order, explains Volumnia, and she elaborates her position in this telling passage:

Volumnia: If it be honor in your wars to seem The same you are not, which for your best ends You adopt your policy, how is it less or worse That it shall hold companionship in peace With honor as in war; since that to both It stands in like request?Coriolanus: Why force you this?Volumnia: Because that now it lies you on to speak To th'people, not by your own instruction, Nor by th'matter which your heart prompts you, But with such words that are but roted in Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables Of no allowance to your bosom's truth. Now, this no more dishonors you at all Than to take a town with gentle words, Which else would put you to your fortune and The hazard of much blood. I would dissemble with my nature where My fortunes and my friends at stake requir'd I should do so in honor.


Honor has always to be redefined in whatever context it appears. Volumnia's exposition of aristocratic honor is especially fascinating for drawing on the imagery of war. In other words, "the class war" is with her not an overheated hyperbole, but a mental reality. Hence, the stratagems of war are admissible in dealing with the plebeians, since they constitute a threat to the patrician order. Coriolanus is to "spend a fawn upon 'em," rather than, through frowning, alienate "our general louts."

Coriolanus now stands explained. He is a creature formed by his class and his mother, who is herself the mouthpiece of her class. Coriolanus is not, in himself, vastly interesting. His few soliloquies have little individuality and no originality. His wife, Virgilia ("my gracious silence"), hints at unassuaged areas of his mind, emotions not fulfilled by the public career of a Roman hero, but these are necessarily undefined. The real interest of Coriolanus lies in this, that through his impossible pride and legendary shortness of temper he says the things no one else would admit under torture. Coriolanus tells the truth. It is a rare quality, and one which Shakespeare exploits to great advantage in the explosive scene of Act 3, scene 1, when Coriolanus reacts to the challenge of the tribunes. What follows is an exposition of patrician doctrine.

"It is a purpos'd thing, and grows by plot/To curb the will of the nobility" (3.1.38-39) is Coriolanus's reflex: the patricians' suspicions are ever on the alert for encroachment upon privilege by "foes to nobleness." The issue of corn, raised by Brutus, is inflammatory. Corn stands not only for food and the means of life, but also power—authority has it—and wealth, for it is controlled by business interests and "usury." Hence the word sets Coriolanus off, "Tell me of corn!" and he develops it into a metaphor for the dangers of plebeian encroachment:

In soothing them, we nourish 'gainst our Senate The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition, Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd, and scatter'd, By mingling them with us, the honor'd number Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that Which they have given to beggars.


The good corn of the nobles must not be mingled with the plebeian weed. The next, and fatal trigger word is "shall." Coriolanus has the faculty of instantly reacting to innocuous-seeming words, whose implications he understands. Sicinius has said, "It is a mind/That shall remain a poison where it is" (3.1.86-87). The assertion of "shall" is the point, and Coriolanus launches into a condemnation of divided authority:

You are plebeians, If they be senators . . . and my soul aches To know, when two authorities are up, Neither supreme, how soon confusion May enter 'twixt the gap of both, and take The one by th'other.


The damage is done now. Cominius and Menenius cannot restrain their man. Coriolanus goes on to the standard position of the ultras through the ages: If we concede anything, all goes. Concession to "the greater poll" (3.1.134), the weight of numbers, leads to a general anarchy, "where gentry, title, wisdom, /Cannot conclude but by the yea and no/Of general ignorance" (3.1.144-46).

Holding these views, Coriolanus has no chance of accommodating the Roman citizens, and the rest of the play traces his banishment, return, and final departure to an exile's death. The only possible alliance is with a foreign aristocrat, Aufidius, and this too founders on Coriolanus's pride. The decisive insult that provokes Coriolanus to his final paroxysm of rage, being called "boy," is partly a class term: "boy" implies not merely youth, but subordination. Hence he transfers it upon Aufidius with the very meaning that Aufidius had intended, "'Boy'! O slave!" (5.6.104). Pride is indispensable as a partial explanation for Coriolanus's fall. The individual trait, however, is seen as a class trait, of which it is a magnification. The tragedy of Coriolanus is that he cannot think, except in class terms: he is defined by his class and his mother; there is nothing left over.

Coriolanus is patently a play of class. Less obviously it is a play of groups, and the stage directions show that Shakespeare had the identity of groups much in mind. The comprehensive term for the Roman leaders is "patricians," and this is widely used. The stage directions also refer to "Senators," and Nicanor refers to "the Senators, patricians, and nobles" (4.3.14). Not everyone within the class grouping could be a senator; and the effective distinction between the other terms is that "patrician" is an objective noun of rank, whereas "noble" retains the rich ambiguity of adjective and noun, rank, and quality. There is a curious stage direction at the beginning of Act 4: Enter Coriolanus, Volumnia, Virgilia, Menenius, Cominius, with the young Nobility of Rome. Have the elders deserted him, asks Granville-Barker? Or is there a faction of young aristocrats, the ultras of their day, ready to back Coriolanus should he decide to fight?11 It looks like an idea Shakespeare wanted to register in the text, but could not develop beyond the stage directions. I incline to couple this stage direction with that in the last scene (5.6.8): Enter three or four Conspirators of Aufidius ' faction. The principle is that groups are identified as having distinctive characteristics.

This applies even more strongly to the popular side, for their characteristics change. The initial company of mutinous Citizens becomes a rabble of Plebeians with the Aediles at 3.1.179. ("Aediles" are assistant officers to the tribunes.) There is a tumultuous moment, however, at which Menenius cries "On both sides more respect." At other times, the stage directions specify simply Citizens or Plebeians, and at 4.6.129, Enter a troop of Citizens. These collective nouns have varying inflections, and such simple plurals as Enter Citizens make a guarded point by contrast, declining the identity of a collective noun. But beyond that are the generic terms themselves. Plebeian here is a precise statement of class and political affiliation. Citizen is not a perfect synonym for plebeian, nor is it so neutral as it seems. It makes a claim, for in Coriolanus, city is a word of power (which it is not in Julius Caesar), mentioned many times, and ultimately with a value in sight. The city is the sum of its people. A citizen is a member of this community. It is not a mere linguistic curiosity that in the development of the English-speaking peoples citizen has driven out plebeian from general usage. "What is the city but the people?" asks Sicinius, and his hearers chorus back "True, /The people are the city" (3.1.199-200). A fair claim, one might think. But Shakespeare does not exactly grant it. The chorus of "The people are the city" is given the speech-heading All [Ple.], not Cits. The city is not coextensive with the plebeians. The patricians belong too.

Coriolanus is acidly objective in its account of the class struggle in Rome. Its subject is a military athlete, perfectly unfitted for political office, who is advanced as a front for the class interests he represents. These interests are given a fair run, however, and Coriolanus is allowed to expound at length his sincerely held views, which are those of the classic ultra. He embodies an issue that is crucial to all societies: the aristocrat-warrior is essential for the defense of the state, but may become too fond of practicing what he is good at, war. Coriolanus, his other defects aside, is ominously pleased with the news that the Volsces are in arms, "I am glad on't" (1.1.223). The plebeians, having no class attachment to warfare, appear less keen on it than Coriolanus. One small scene (1.5) shows Roman soldiers bearing off spoils. This seems a sensible precaution against the rigors of civilian life, given the bread discipline that their leaders like to enforce. At other times, the plebeians are shown as arguing intelligently (1.1) and exercising their ballot power with decency and good sense (2.3). Whatever else Coriolanus is, it is not a condemnation of the plebeians. It does show, however, a society in which the accommodation between the classes is still far off.

And what society is that? Roman, of course, as always in the Roman plays: Shakespeare was a stickler for historical accuracy there, knowing that Ben Jonson and others would not allow him the license of Navarre, Illyria, and Bohemia, where he could operate much as he pleased. And yet the analogies emerge. No play with such a plot can fail to suggest its parallels. The delicate flavor of English institutions is imparted, here and there: both the Volsces and the Romans have a commons, and Coriolanus's final entry is to Antium, the Commoners being with him. As pronounced by Sicinius, the word "commons" has weight and dignity:

Assemble presently the people hither; And when they hear me say "It shall be so I'th'right and strength o'th'commons."


Commons suggests something more than a loose collective of the common people. It signifies an estate of the realm, and the term vibrates in the same way as "the House of Commons" does. Gentry is cunningly worked into the texture. Brutus believes that Coriolanus wants the consulship only "by the suit of the gentry to him/And the desire of the nobles" (2.1.228-29). Coriolanus, in one of his rages, speaks of the ruling class as "gentry, title, wisdom" (3.1.144). And they are mentioned in the major stage direction which opens Act 3: Cornets. Enter Coriolanus, Menenius, all the Gentry, Cominius, Titus Lartius, and other Senators. It is an unmistakable thread, by which Shakespeare keeps hold of the English connection, and is realized most strikingly in Coriolanus himself. Exiled, disgraced, and nameless, when he is asked by a serving man at Aufidius's house to identify himself, he replies: "A gentleman" (4.5.27).

The English connection, tenuous though it is, keeps open this play's line of escape from Rome and into the future. Coriolanus was for centuries thought of as a right-wing play. It is now viewed benignly by the Left, and with some perplexity by stage directors. Tynan thought it best served when either everything in it was slanted, or nothing. To slant nothing, however, begs all the questions; and there is something oppressive in the play's stony detachment from its issues and its protagonist. Coriolanus himself is unarguably a disaster. But those who expect history to provide a final refutation of the 1st Citizen or Menenius are still waiting.

Timon of Athens

If city is the word that matters in Coriolanus, City is the compass bearing of Timon of Athens. Lower case city is the community, the polity of Rome. Capitalize it, and City means much what we mean by it, the financial center of London. This sense is what Timon invokes, as he bids his guests to be seated:

Make not a City feast of it, to let the meat cool ere we can agree upon the first place. Sit, sit.


That is meant to suggest a banquet as given in the City of London. And the Folio, our only source for Timon, does in fact supply the capital, "Citie Feast." The Act 3 banquet is, like Macbeth's banquet, the symbolic center of the play. The secret equation is: Athens = London.

Timon goes on to strengthen the equation. The blasphemous grace before the feast begins:

The gods require our thanks. You great benefactors, sprinkle our society with thankfulness. For your own gifts make yourselves prais'd; but reserve still to give, lest your deities be despised. Lend to each man enough, that one need not lend to another; for were your godheads to borrow of men, men would forsake the gods.


The ironic "You great benefactors" covers the Gods, to whom the thanks are nominally addressed, and the City magnates at table, who are the targets of the satire. The men of money, "Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites" (3.6.90), are the leaders and emblems of what Athens has become, the type of a corrupt and decadent society. That is why Timon of Athens translates so well on stage into contemporary idiom. Jonathan Miller's 1984 television production, which retained Elizabethan costuming, nevertheless brought out, for example, the Pseuds Corner flavor of the Poet and Painter ("A thing slipp'd idly from me" 1.1.22), and the assorted hangers-on attending Timon's levée. The dialogue between Timon and the Cartier salesman (1.1.167-75) is pure Bond Street. What jewelers say to their clients does not vary much through the ages. The vignettes of the late friends avoiding contact with the servants of the distressed Timon are etchings of metropolitan hollowness and venality. Overall, the implied linkages between Athens and London are the essence of Timon, just as Volpone, its close contemporary, cannot be confined to Venice. And these linkages work just as well for productions held in Paris, or Rio de Janeiro, or New York. Shakespeare knew only one metropolis intimately, and the type is code-named "Athens."

In Athens, and later out of it, dwells Timon. At the heart of this play is a large question, and perhaps an emptiness. Who is Timon? The title, with that opaque clarity that is so Shakespearean, tells us merely that he is "of Athens," perhaps implying "formed by Athens." G. R. Hibbard views Timon as a figure easily recognizable in Shakespeare's day, one who

goes in for the "conspicuous consumption" which became such a pronounced feature of upper-class life in England during the last twenty years or so of Elizabeth's reign and continued under her successor. There was a passion for building new and elaborate houses; men appeared at court with "whole manors on their backs" in the form of rich clothes; they put on lavish and spectacular shows for their sovereign; and as a result "the great frequently found themselves short of ready money, and proceeded to borrow it."12

In this view, Lord Timon is simply a nobleman who carries to excess the extravagances of the day. And there was undoubtedly an Elizabethan sense that a nobleman should behave magnificently. But that in itself does not explain Timon's compulsive spending. Tyrone Guthrie, with his shrewd sense of the social landscape, chose to stress "the upstart element in Timon's genial distribution of largesse," as Tynan put it.13 That is an attractive coloration, but there is nothing in the text to support it; and "to Lacedaemon did my land extend" (2.2.155) is surely the mark of the landed gentry. There is no explanation of the origins of Timon's wealth, nor is other vital information forthcoming. We have no idea how old he is; while Timon is generally taken as around the middle years, Peter Brook cast him as a young man (M. François Marthouret), a member of the jeunesse dorée. Timon's sexual inclinations are enigmatic, though as a good host he entertains his guests with "Amazons." All that is shown is a man insulated by wealth from the world, giving his matinée performance of generosity each day. Timon buys his satisfactions with borrowed money; one can see in this the pattern of a parvenu, or one born to such wealth that he never understands it. The play steers clear of the question: Why does Timon want, and choose, to be so insanely generous?

The audience is left with a presented fact, which overshadows the explanations. The play's dominant feature is the great tirades of Part Two. Those are what everyone remembers of the play: Timon denounces a corrupt and decadent society. Part One exists to bring Part Two into being, a platform on which the tirades can be mounted. But in performance it does not work like that at all. Part Two is a villainous and largely intractable problem for the director and the title actor, who have to cope with monotonously high-pitched denunciations, lack of interesting incident, and a static storyline. Unless done with great expertise, Part Two is poor theater, astonishingly so for its author. Part One, on the other hand, is first-rate. The acrid Jonsonian comedy of Athenian high life is tellingly done. One thinks of the marking on Walton's score, con malizia. It has a glittering vivacity altogether lacking in the post-interval Timon. Hence there is, I think, a certain disjunction between form and content, between the dramatic effect of Timon of Athens and its message.

That message seems unmistakable: gold is the emblem of Athenian corruption, and usury its characteristic device. It is what Alcibiades denounces: "Banish me?/Banish your dotage, banish usury, /That makes the Senate ugly" (3.5.98-100), following up with a reference to the "usuring Senate." All the same, the play's targets are not nearly so well defined as might appear. The "usuring Senate," faced with a monstrous bad debt, has a case. The senator is allowed to make it:

My uses cry to me; I must serve my turn Out of mine own; his dates and times are past, And my reliances on his fracted dates Have smit my credit. I love and honor him, But must not break my back to heal his finger.


Fairly put: creditors have their rights too, as Shakespeare would know, having taken a man to court over the repayment of £1.15.10. There are always two sides to debts, that of lenders and that of borrowers. Still, the time to denounce usury is before a debt crisis, not after. The task of recycling Timon's debts might well daunt a consortium of creditors, the more so as he shows no understanding of the situation's gravity. Moreover, the many references to money are confusing. Since the sums spiral upward, they can be taken as signs of inflation, an objectively depreciating currency, or Timon's diminishing hold on reality. (He asks at one point for a thousand talents, an enormous sum.) The playgoer might well second Tynan's plea:

May I add how helpful it would be if the programme were to give some hint of the current exchange-rate in crowns, ducats, and talents? It is much easier to form an opinion of a man who owns five talents when you know whether he needs, to restore his credit, a thousand pounds or eight and sixpence. Few bank-managers in the audience . . . would be likely to trust a man who owed only eight and sixpence.14

All in all, the usury aspect of the play's arraignment is not unequivocal, nor could it be.

The same point holds good for gold. Marx greatly admired the passage on "Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?" (4.3.26-43), which he quotes in The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society, praising Shakespeare for anticipating his insights. Money, says Marx, is "the alienated ability of mankind. That which I am unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all my essential individual powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money."15 And a good thing too, many will feel. It simplifies life. But what matters here are Marx's fallacies of drama, not money. The cardinal sin of a commentator is to quote a speech, and to say: "This is what Shakespeare thinks." What Shakespeare does is to enter imaginatively into the minds of his characters. The Timon of Part Two is an embittered self-exile, unbalanced if not deranged, unable to form a relationship with any other human being. What he says about gold might passingly coincide with the opinions of a larger audience in a black mood. In itself, it represents nothing but Timon.

For Timon, as for Lear, all rank and position is provisional, a matter of luck and perspective. This is Timon's account of social gradation:

Raise me this beggar, and deny't that lord, The senators shall bear contempt hereditary, The beggar native honor. It is the pasture lards the brother's sides, The want that makes him lean.


I paraphrase: "If beggars were raised in wealth and privilege, they would hold the esteem now granted to the nobility. The chance of being first-born makes one man fatter and wealthier than his brother." This is another gird at primogeniture to add to those in Titus Andronicus and As You Like It. Basically, Timon's attack denatures society. If chance and a lucky upbringing create social station, what is left of essence? Timon's diatribe is a nihilist rejection of all social order.

The play "protects" itself by not allying itself with Timon's outpourings. As Apemantus says, "the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends" (4.3.301-2). The discriminations Timon cannot make are made by the action. Any sort of a moral code is left to two groups, servants and soldiers.

The servants are exemplary. Alone in a corrupt Athens, they cling to their master, doing their duty to the last ("Yet do our hearts wear Timon's livery" [4.2.17]). The affecting emblem scene of Act 4, scene 2, written in a noble and passionate blank verse, shows the Steward sharing the last of his money with his fellow workers, over their silent protest; "Nay, put out all your hands." His diagnosis of Timon is "undone by goodness." The same Steward seeks out Timon in the woods, to serve him still. Even Timon admits him "one honest man." So the relationship of master and man, which might seem to be founded on money, escapes the play's nihilism.

But that is a kind of static frame to the action. It changes nothing. Only a military coup can overthrow the Athens régime, which appears to be undefended against assault. Alcibiades, "noble and young," is the revolution incarnate. He comes over as no kind of saint, but a hard, just man, loyal to his friends, the necessary man in all circumstances. Alcibiades has only to march his followers to the walls of Athens, "Sound to this coward and lascivious town, /Our terrible approach" (5.4.1-2), and wait for the Senators to outbid each other's concessions. And there is in Alcibiades' triumph a sense of revolutionary energy backed with moral force:

Now the time is flush When crouching marrow, in the bearer strong, Cries, of itself, "No more." Now breathless wrong Shall sit and pant in your great chairs of ease.


He has the right to order the culling operation the Athenian leaders admit to be necessary—the decimation of the corrupt. And when the Resistance takes its toll in the aftermath of victory, its inspiration will be Timon. "Dead/Is noble Timon, of whose memory/Hereafter more" (5.4.79-81). In the end, blood-letting is the only cure for Athens, as Alcibiades' image promises.

Bring me into your city, And I will use the olive, with my sword; Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each Prescribe to other, as each other's leech. Let our drums strike.


"Leech" means physician and bloodsucker. English has both meanings, French must choose; and Peter Brook, in his 1974 production at the Bouffes-du-Nord, chose to end on "que l'une soit prescrite a Vautre comme sangsue et vice versa. Tambours, frappez. " As with Titus Andronicus, salvation must come from outside. It takes an invading army to cure the sickness within the City.


1 Brook, p. 95.

2 M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 264.

3 Mary McCarthy, Mary McCarthy's Theater Chronicles 1937-1962, p. 18.

4 Palmer, p. 268.

5 Granville-Barker 1946-47, vol. 2, p. 184.

6 J. E. Neale, The Elizabethan House of Commons, 1949.

7 See Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1930-62, ed. Nigel Nicolson, 3 vols. (New York: Atheneum, 1966-68), vol. 3.

8 Palmer, p. 269.

9 Ibid., p. 270.

10 Vickers, p. 396.

11 Granville-Barker 1946-47, vol. 2, p. 237.

12 G. R. Hibbard, ed., Timon of Athens, New Penguin edition, Harmondsworth, 1970, pp. 33-34.

13 Tynan 1961, p. 23.

14 Ibid., p. 24.

15 Quoted by Anne Paolucci in "Marx, Money, and Shakespeare: The Hegelian Core in Marxist Shakespeare-Criticism," Mosaic, Spring 1977, pp. 147-48.

Select Bibliography

All references to Shakespeare's plays are from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Edited by Peter Alexander. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1951.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1968.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946-47.

Palmer, John. Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1945.

Tynann, Kenneth. Curtains. London: Longman, 1961.

Vickers, Brian. The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose. London: Methuen, 1968.

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Is There a Class in This (Shakespearean) Text?," in Renaissance Drama Vol. XXIV, 1993, pp. 101-21.

[In the following essay, Kastan explores the nature of social crossdressing on the Shakespearean stage.]

We be men and nat aungels, wherefore we know nothinge but by outward significations.

—Thomas Elyot

Money changes everything

—Cyndi Lauper

At least two considerations may prevent a quick and confident "yes" to my titular question ["Is There a Class in This (Shakespearean) Text?"]. The first is perhaps the more easily confronted. Historians have usefully reminded us that the language of class relations applied to the social formation of early modern England is an anachronism.1 Indeed "class" is a nineteenth-century analytic category and as such was obviously conceptually unavailable to the people of Tudor and Stuart England.2 But their own social vocabularies of "estate" or "degree," while insisting on social differentiation on the basis of status rather than on the basis of income and occupation, no less powerfully testify to a system of social inequality that the concept of class would help articulate and analyze. Classes, in the most precise economic definition, perhaps can be said to come into being only within the social conditions of bourgeois production, but classes, in their abstract social sense, can be seen to have existed as long as social organization has permitted an unequal distribution of property, privilege, and power.3

It may well be, then, that any anxiety about the deployment of the language of class in the discussion of Shakespeare's plays is an unnecessary scruple. Even if the culture did not experience its social relations overtly as class relations, certainly social stratification arid the tensions resulting from the forms of inequality are evident in the plays and can be usefully examined. Hymen, at the end of As You Like It, announces the delight of the gods "when earthly things [are] made even" (5.4.109), but the plays again and again reveal that to be a delusive hope or a Utopian dream, belied by social differentiation and conflict, that is, belied precisely by an unevenness that is reproduced both on stage and in the playhouse itself. Like the Chorus in Henry V who imagines the socially diverse Elizabethan audience as "gentles all" (1 Cho. 8), the king addresses his troops as "a band of brothers" (4.3.63), all "gentled" in their shared enterprise, but the resistant reality of social difference is made clear in the body count at Agincourt:

Where is the number of our English dead? Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Keighley, Davy Gam esquire: None else of name, and of all other men But five and twenty.


Even in the leveling of death, twenty-five of Henry's "brothers" retain their subaltern anonymity. In Coriolanus, Menenius's fable of the Belly idealizes the body politic as a harmoniously ordered whole, but Menenius immediately undermines his own corporate image: "Rome and her rats are at the point of battle" (1.1.161). The familiar fable here offers not a full articulation of the Roman polity but a tactical advantage for a privileged segment of it. Menenius buys time for Marcius's arrival to quell the uprising, and the tendentiousness of the elaborated analogy is revealed in the slide from imagining Rome as a unified, if differentiated, social body of patricians and plebs to seeing Rome only as its patricians and needing to defend itself from the "rats" that would feed upon it.

Yet even if "class" can be more or less happily accepted as an effective heuristic if not a properly historical category to describe and analyze the stratification of social relations in these plays (as well as in early modern England itself), a more problematic issue still remains to be addressed. The question "is there a class in this text?" cannot be answered merely by assessing the propriety of the analytic vocabulary.4 If the question were (to quote Mary Jacobus) "is there a woman in this text?" the continuing difficulty emerges clearly. Certainly women's roles are written into Shakespeare's plays, but boy actors were, of course, required to play the female parts; so the answer must be both "yes" and "no." Women are prescribed but were themselves not present on stage; they were represented in the transvestite acting tradition of the popular Elizabethan theater. To speak of the women in Shakespeare's plays is, then, to speak not of women as historical subjects but only of the heavily mediated representation of women that the commercial theater offered: male actors, speaking words written by a male writer, enacting female roles. Increasingly, therefore, we have come to see the need to analyze not simply "the women in Shakespeare" but their representation. In a significant sense, there are no women, only males playing "the woman's part." If these "parts" have something significant to say about women in early modern England, it is, then, not least because of the mediations that make them present.

But if a transvestite acting tradition determines the presentation of women on the stage, a similar fissure between the represented object and the representing agent affects the presentation of class. Plays may well present a variety of class locations (and locutions), but they are, of course, all themselves mediated by the modes of representation in the theater.5 Though kings and clowns notoriously mingled on the English Renaissance stage, kings and clowns were not themselves present, only the actors that played them. In 1602, Richard Vennar of Lincoln's Inn attempted to resolve, or at least reduce, the problematic of class representation by offering an aristocratic historical pageant, England's Joy, to be enacted at the Swan, as the playbill announced, "only by certain gentlemen and gentle-women of account" (Chambers 3: 500). Vennar's promise of gentle instead of common players would not, of course, have fully closed the gap between those who are represented and those who represent, but it would at least have avoided any severe social dislocation between the two. But Vennar never produced his play, attempting to run off with the considerable receipts without ever performing it (and leaving the theater to be sacked by the outraged audience). In the commercial theater, however, aristocratic roles were not performed by "gentlemen and gentlewomen," nor were the actions of royalty represented, as the Chorus in Henry V desires, with "Princes to act." Actors of lower social rank, of course, mimed their social betters. Stephen Gosson, in his Playes Confuted in Fiue Actions, says that the players were "either men of occupations . . . or common minstrals, or trained up from their childhood to this abominable exercise" (sig. G6v), though some of these "glorious vagabonds," as the academic authors of the Parnassus plays noted contemptuously, achieved an undeserved social eminence: "With mouthing words that better wits have framed, / They purchase lands, and now Esquiers are made" (2 Return from Parnassus, lines 1927-28). Class positions, then, appear on Shakespeare's stage exactly as women do, only in the mediations of a transvestite acting tradition. The oft-noted crossdressing of the Renaissance stage unnervingly crossed class as well as gender lines; not only did boy actors play women but commoners played kings.

In recent years, feminist scholarship has powerfully, if variously, considered the implications of crossdressing both in and outside of the theater for understanding the Renaissance sex-gender system,6 but little attention has been paid to the implications of crossdressing for understanding the socioeconomic ordering of Elizabethan and Stuart England. "How many people crossdressed in early modern England? (95), Jean Howard has recently asked; and while she admits that the number must have been "limited," her estimate must be considerably revised upward if we include transgressions of class identity as well as of gender.

If sexual crossdressing, like that of the notorious Mary Frith, was seen as scandalously bizarre, social cross-dressing was seen as dangerously common. Regularly protest was heard against the "mingle mangle," as Philip Stubbes called it, produced by this social transvestism, "so that it is verie hard to knowe, who is noble, who is worshipful, who is a gentleman, who is not" (sig. C2v). In addition to five "Acts of Apparel," at least nineteen proclamations to regulate dress were issued in Tudor England in order to preclude "the confusion . . . of degrees" that results "where the meanest are as richly appareled as their betters" (Hughes and Larkin 3: 175).7 Though these sumptuary laws clearly were written for economic as well as political motives, being in part designed to cut down on imported luxuries and to protect the English wool trade by restricting the market for imported fabrics, the deep anxiety they voice about the "unmeasurable disorder" that crossdressing might bring about is unmistakable. The proclamation of 1559 laments "the wearing of such excessive and inordinate apparel as in no age hath been seen the like" (Hughes and Larkin 2: 136). People did crossdress and in considerable numbers, and the state strove to prohibit it, acutely aware that such cross-dressing threatened the carefully constructed hierarchical social order of early modern England. Regulation of dress was necessary to mark and secure social difference, in order to prevent, as William Perkins writes, "a confusion of such degrees and callings as God hath ordained, when as men of inferiour degree and calling, cannot be by their attire discerned from men of higher estate" (sig. GG2v). Or, as Gosson wrote in 1582, "if priuat men be suffered to forsake theire calling because they desire to walke gentlemanlike in sattine & velvet, with a buckler at theire heeles, proportion is so broken, unitie dissolued, harmony confounded & the whole body must be dismembered and the prince or the heade cannot chuse but sicken" (sig. G7v). "Many good Lawes haue been made against this Babylonian confusion," remarked Fynes Moryson, "but either the Merchants buying out the penaltie, or the Magistrates not inflicting punishments, have made the multitude of Lawes hitherto unprofitable" (Itinerary 4: 233-34).

But social crossdressing, legally prohibited on the streets of London, was of course the very essence of the London stage. Actors crossdressed with every performance, and although the early Tudor iterations of the sumptuary laws specifically exempted "players in enterludes" from its edict, none of the Elizabethan proclamations restating them mentions this exemption.8 On stage, men of "inferior degree" unnervingly counterfeited their social betters, imitating not merely their language and gestures but their distinctive apparel. If there was no effort to produce historically accurate representations (recall Henry Peacham's drawing of the scene from Titus Andronicus), the stage did attempt to provide convincing representations of social rank. Philip Henslowe's wardrobe contained such gorgeous items as "a scarlett cloke with (1-32) brode gould Laces: wt gould byttens of the same downe the sids," another in "scarlett wt buttens of gould fact wt blew velvett," and "a crimosin Robe strypt wt gould fact wt ermin" (Diary 291-92). Edward Alleyn apparently paid more than twenty pounds for a "black velvet cloak with sleeves embrodered all with silver and gold." But if such dress obviously permitted a lavish aristocratic display, its wearing was arguably criminal. The 1597 proclamation on apparel prohibited the wearing of "cloth of gold or silver . . . or cloth mixed or embroidered with pearl, gold, or silver" to any "under the degree of a baron, except Knights of the Garter [and] Privy Councilors to the Queen's majesty" and denied the wearing of velvet "in gowns, cloaks, coats, or other uppermost garments" to all "under the degree of a knight, except gentlemen in ordinary office attending upon her majesty in her house or chamber, such as have been employed in embassage to foreign princes, the son and heir apparent of a knight, captains in her majesty's pay, and such as may dispend £200 by the year for term of life in possession above all charges" (Hughes and Larkin 3: 176).

Understandably, then, the theater, with its constitutive transgressions, was a politically charged arena in an age when social identities and relations seemed distressingly unstable, an instability in part constituted by the contradictory definition of status, as in the proclamation, both in terms of rank (a knight or baron) and in terms of wealth ("such as may dispend £200 by the year"). This contradiction reveals the vulnerability of the traditional culture based on hierarchy and deference to the transformative entrepreneurial energies of a nascent capitalism; and in the antitheatrical tracts that proliferated after the building of the Theatre in 1576 and the Curtain in 1577 the cultural anxiety about the fluidity of social role and identity found shrill voice. The oft-cited Deuteronomic prohibition (22.5) against males wearing female dress was regularly linked to a fear of social inferiors aping their betters. Gosson finds it equally objectionable that in the theater a boy would "put one the attyre, the gesture, the passions" of a woman and that "a meane person" would "take vpon him the title of a Prince with counterfeit port, and traine" (Playes Confuted, sig. E5r). William Rankins, in his hysterical account of the monstrous contaminations of playing, insists that "Players ought not amidst their folly present the persons of Princes" (sig. C3r). But anxiety was directed not merely at dressing "up," at the potential derogation of authority that its miming might effect; it was equally directed at dressing "down" (Rankins is as worried about the counterfeiting of rustics as he is of royalty). What was worrisome was that class positions could be mimed at all.

Though Stephen Greenblatt, following Tom Laqueur's work on Renaissance anatomical knowledge, provocatively sees the transvestite acting tradition of the pre-Restoration stage as the inevitable result of a culture whose idea of gender was "teleologically male" (88), viewed from the perspective of class rather than gender, a theater dependent upon crossdressing seems notably less inevitable or natural and perhaps more profoundly unsettling to the fundamental social categories of the culture. If the theater is not, as Jonas Barish enthusiastically claims, guilty of an "ontological subversiveness" (331), at least in the context of the social anxieties of late sixteenth-century England the theater, with its shape-shifting of professional actors, was indeed a threat to the culture of degree. Acting threatened to reveal the artificial and arbitrary nature of social being. The constitutive role-playing of the theater demystifies the idealization of the social order that the ideology of degree would produce. The successful counterfeiting of social rank raises the unnerving possibility that social rank is a counterfeit, existing "but as the change of garments" in a play, in Walter Ralegh's telling phrase. In the theaters of London, if not in the theatrum mundi, class positions are exposed as something other than essential facts of human existence, revealed, rather, as changeable and constructed. When "every man wears but his own skin, the Players," as Ralegh writes, "are all alike" (147).

But if role-playing intellectually challenged the wouldbe stable and stabilizing social hierarchy, the role-players were themselves perhaps a greater social threat.9 If the actors' ability to represent a full range of social roles disturbingly identified these as roles, the actors' conspicuous existence in society exposed the instability of the social categories themselves. Their success was perhaps the most visible of the contradictions that daily belied the fantasy of a stable social hierarchy. The actors' extravagant presence on the streets of London, no less than the substantial amphitheaters that they were able to erect, was an unmistakable sign of the vulnerability of the traditional culture of status to the transformative energies of capitalistic practice.

Though efforts were regularly made to fix players within the familiar terms of social organization, the actors and their companies conspicuously defied the prevailing social logic; if their "ouerlashing in apparel," in Gosson's phrase, and their "sumptuous Theatre houses," as Thomas White termed them, were, to such critics, alike "monument[s] of Londons prodigalitie and folly" (Chambers 4: 204, 197), they were also striking and unavoidable evidence of the considerable profits to be made in the burgeoning entertainment industry of Elizabethan London. "It is an euident token of a wicked time," wrote William Harrison, "when plaiers wexe so riche that they can build suche houses" (Chambers 4: 269). And while most of the players in fact remained poor, usually able only to counterfeit prosperity, the profits being limited to the sharers in the companies or the landlords of the playhouses themselves, a few, like Burbage or Shakespeare himself, did indeed "wexe . . . riche." Some "there are," wrote the author of Ratseis Ghost, glancing wrily at the affluence of Edward Alleyn, "whom Fortune hath so wel favored, that what by penny-sparing and long practise of playing, are growne so wealthy they have expected to be knighted, or at least to be conjunct in authority, and to sit with men of great worship, on the Bench of Justice" (sig. A4r). While Alleyn never did attain his desired knighthood, he did become Master of the Royal Game and amass a fortune considerable enough to found Dulwich College in 1619. And Shakespeare, of course, was also able to turn his "share" into significant wealth and property, even purchasing a coat of arms for his father and "his posterite," apparently adorned with the resonant motto, non sanz droict.10 The extraordinary claim of the parvenu was perhaps the immediate object of Jonson's gibe in Every Man Out of His Humor, when Puntarvolo suggests "Not without mustard" as the motto for the arms, with a crest of "a boar without a head Rampant," that the rustic Sogliardo purchased for thirty pounds (3.4.86); and certainly in The Poetaster, Jonson unmistakably does condemn the social pretensions of the actors: "They forget they are i' the Statute, the Rascals; they are blazoned there; there they are tricked, they and their Pedigrees: they need no other Heralds, Iwisse" (1.2.53-55).

The "Statute" that Jonson invokes is one of the iterations of the 1572 act for the relief of the poor (14 Eliz. c. 5) that notoriously linked players to rogues, vagabonds, and beggars. The social aspirations of the actors are belied by their juridical status: "Proud Statute Rogues," as the aspiring actors are termed in Marston's Histrio-Mastix (3.1.241). Itinerant players were masterless men, their unauthorized presence disturbing to the social order and liable to harsh penalty. Convicted, they could "bee grevouslye whipped, and burnte through the gristle of the right Eare with a hot Yron of the compasse of an Ynche about"; and with a third conviction they were to "suffer paynes of Death" (Chambers 4: 269-70).

But, of course, players were regularly licensed and legitimated, lawfully performing, by the terms of the legislation, in the service of a "Baron of this Realme" or "any other honorable Personage of greater Degree," or by permission of "two Justices of the Peace." In 1598, legislation removed the licensing authority from the magistrates, and then in 1603, when James assumed the throne, licensing rights passed even from the nobles of the realm into the hands of the royal family itself. Nonetheless, the licensing provision provided opportunities for companies of players to form and to perform. Players were freed from liability to prosecution, provided with the patronage that supposedly fixed them within the social order and legally subjected them to the statues on retainers. Players were bound into a reciprocal relationship of control and responsibility.

If, however, the ability of actors legally to play depended upon this structure of service, it was a structure that existed more as legal fiction than social fact. The companies of players that nominally existed in the household of some great lord in fact functioned on a clear commercial basis, dependent on their patron only for the right to function professionally. When, for example, in 1572, a Statute of Retainers was executed that, like the Act for the Relief of the Poor enacted later that year, attempted to restrict the activities of various "masterless men," including "common players in interludes and mistrels, not belonging to any Baron or honourable person of greater degree," the six actors that made up Leicester's Men petitioned their lord not for any "stipend or benefit at your lordship's hands" but only for his "licence to certify that we are your household servants" (Malone Society Collections 1, pts. 4 & 5, 348-49). Service, then, was merely the protective coloring under which the commercial theater formed and flourished. In 1615, one critic protested that however much the actor "pretends to have a royall Master or Mistresse, his wages and dependance prove him to be the servant of the people" (Chambers 4: 256).11

The commercial realities of playing could not successfully be hidden under the cover of livery. In 1584, the Queen's Men appealed to the Privy Council for the right to perform publicly, first on the grounds that their public playing was merely rehearsal time for their court performances and, second, for "helpe and relief in our poore lyvinge" (Chambers 4: 299). The Corporation of London, however, filed a brief opposing the request on both grounds. They argued, first, that although the actors "pretend that they must haue exercise to enable them in their seruice before her maiestie . . . it is not convenient that they present before her maiestie such playes as haue ben before commonly played in open stages before all the basest assemblies in London and Middle-sex"; and, second, they insisted that in any case it was not appropriate "that players haue or shold make their lyuing on the art of playeng" when they might make their "lyuings vsing other honest and lawfull artes, or [be] reteyned in honest seruices" (Chambers 4: 300).

The players were, in spite of the insistent fictions of service, easily identified as professional actors, and their acting provoked continuous opposition precisely on the grounds of its professionalization. In 1591, Samuel Cox, condemning theaters as "dangerous schools of licentious liberty," focuses his disgust not on the plays but on the players, wishing that they "would use themselves nowadays, as in ancient former times they have done" when they either played for the king but "had other trades to live of, and seldom or never played abroad," or were "ordinary servants" in the houses of noblemen "without making profession to be players to go abroad for gain," or were, like Shakespeare's mechanicals, "certain artisans . . . as shoemakers, tailors, and such like" that would play in the town halls "or some time in churches" only "to make the people merry" (Chambers 4: 237). Cox produces a fantasy of theatrical innocence when playing was uncontaminated by commerce. The reality, of course, was that playing was a profession and that players played for profit. Though in 1574, the London Common Council ordered that players act only "withowte publique or Commen Collection of money of the Auditorie or behoulders theareof" (Chambers 4: 276), this was a belated and ineffective effort to counter the patent granted by the crown earlier that year to James Burbage, John Perkin, John Laneham, William Johnson, and Robert Wilson for the first acting company licensed to play commercially throughout the country.

The professional theater, commercially organized and buoyed by royal support (a commitment of a piece with an economic policy that characteristically sought to establish monopolies to organize and restrict trade), provoked an increasingly impassioned antitheatricality, and, appropriately, one that often came to recognize professionalism itself as the proper object of attack. John Stockwood, in a sermon preached at Paul's Cross in 1578, speaks out against the "flocking and thronging to baudie playes by thousandes," and disgustedly observes that, "reckening with the leaste," theatrical profits "amounteth to 2000 pounds by the yeare" (Chambers 4: 200). Anthony Munday ends his diatribe against the stage by combining the familiar attack on the immorality of what is represented with an attack on the immorality of the motives for the representation: "To conclude, the principal end of all their interludes is to feede the worlde with sights, & fond pastimes; to juggle in good earnest the monie out of other mens purses into their owne handes" (sig. H7r-v; see also Prynne sig. X3r). Stubbes objects to the profane content of plays but equally to playing itself and players "making an occupation of it" (sig. Mlv); and Gosson similarly attacks the actors' professionalism: "let them not look to Hue by playes" (Playes Confuted, sig. G7r).

In 1618, a Catholic archpriest, William Harison, issued a general proclamation forbidding priests to attend plays, but under challenge he agreed that the order "doth not forbid to go to any stage plays, but to go to play or plays, acted by common players on common stages," defining "a common player [as] one that professeth himself a player and lives by the gain thereof, as by his trade or occupation" (qtd. in Bradbrook 95). Plays, argued William Prynne, "are but recreations, which must not be turned into professions" (qtd. in Mann 97). Enacted privately and not for profit, however, plays may seem less noxious: John Northbrooke echoes a familiar position in holding that plays are tolerable so long as they "be not made a common exercise, publickly, for profit and gaine of money, but for learning and exercise sake." But, of course, playing did move out of the schools and into the theaters, the drama becoming, in "those places . . . whiche are made vppe and builded for such playes and enterludes, as the Theatre and the Curtaine is," unmistakably "a common exercise" played primarily "for profit" (Chambers 4: 198-99).

In the new professional environment, when playing established itself literally as show business, actors achieved a remarkable measure of affluence and respect. The playhouses themselves were the most obvious indication of their success. Johannes de Wit commented in 1596, "There are four amphitheatres in London of notable beauty" (qtd. in Gurr 132); and by 1629, as Edmund Howes reports in his revision of John Stow's Annales (1631), seventeen playhouses had been built in and around London, though not all still were standing (1004). And in these purpose-built playing spaces the drama flourished, both artistically and commercially. In 1617, Fynes Moryson remarked that not only were there "more Playes in London then in all the partes of the worlde I haue seene," but also that "these players or Comedians excell all other in the worlde" (Shakespeare's Europe 476). "The actors," according to Robert Greene in Never Too Late, "by continuali vse grewe not onely excellent but [he added bitterly] rich and insolent" (sig. 14r). In 1603, King James's patent to the King's Men permitted them "to shewe and exercise publiquely to theire best Commoditie" at "theire nowe vsual howse called the Globe within our County of Surrey, as alsoe within anie towne halls or Moute halls or other conveniente places within the liberties and freedome of anie other Cittie, vniversitie, towne, or Boroughe" and requested that the actors be allowed "such former Curtesies as hath bene given to men of theire place and quallitie" (Chambers 2: 208-09). And by this patent, the actors became formally members of the Royal Household, Grooms of the Chamber, entitled to call themselves gentlemen.

And yet in spite of—or rather precisely because of—the actors' new dignity, the old anxieties and familiar terms of abuse resurfaced. "The Statute hath done wisely to acknowledg him a Rogue errant," wrote an essayist in 1615, "for his chiefe essence is, A daily Counterfeit: He hath beene familiar so long with outsides, that he professes himselfe (being unknowne) to be an apparant Gentleman" (Chambers 4: 255). Not merely a counterfeiter of roles in the theater, the actor is a "daily Counterfeit" outside, able to assume a social status not rightfully his own. Both "errant" and "unknowne," he unsettlingly moves up and down the countryside and the social scale—again a rogue in the anxious, antitheatrical imagination. The masterless actor, unnervingly mobile both socially and geographically and unmoored from the traditional, hierarchical culture of deference and dependency by the commercial practices of his profession, provoked widespread concern if not contempt.

"Hee is politick also to perceive the common-wealth doubts of his licence" (Chambers 4: 257), continued the essayist, and within a generation the "commonwealth" would brutally rescind it. In 1648, when Parliament passed the third of its orders to close the theaters, it held that "all Stageplayers and Players of interludes and common Playes . . . whether they be wanderers or no, and not withstanding any License whatsoever from the King or any person or persons to that purpose" are "declared to be, and are, and shall be taken to be Rogues" and "liable unto the pains and penalties" of the law (Firth and Rait 1070). An acting profession that achieved its most impressive aesthetic and economic successes in the face of a law that deemed it rogue and beggar, forcing commercial consolidation around the fiction of aristocratic patronage, was dissolved, if only until the Restoration, by a law that made the same judgment but closed the loophole that had served the profession virtually as its charter.

This is not the place to consider at any length the politics of the theaters' closing in the 1640s,12 but clearly the parliamentary injunctions against playing cannot be understood solely or even primarily as an effort to neutralize a royalist institution, for the theaters were never simply that, as the persistent efforts at control and censorship themselves attest. The closing of the theaters may better be understood not as part of an offensive against the monarch but as largely a defensive action, responsive to Parliament's awareness of its own vulnerability to the unauthorized voices, on stage and in the audience, that the theater empowered. The injunctions against playing were designed to stabilize a political situation even as Parliament sought to replace the crown as the source of that stability. It was not, however, the King or even the King's Men but the political aspirations of the common people as they came in conflict with the central dynamic of the revolution that were the primary object of the closing ordinances. The theaters were places, in Hannah Arendt's phrase, "where freedom can appear" (6), places where authority was contested—both on stage, in the plays themselves that interrogated and challenged authority, not least by subjecting their images of rule to the judgment and censure of an audience of commoners, and in the democratic constitution of the audience itself, where "maisterles men & vagabond persons" were permitted to assemble, as the Lord Mayor had written in 1595, "to recreate themselfes" (Chambers 4: 318), or worse, to re-create themselves, to multiply the heads on the already many-headed monster of the common people. For Parliament in the late summer of 1642 the threat of the mobile and unlegitimated articulation of the theater, precisely its errancy, was too great to bear.

The professional theater of Renaissance England, I've been arguing, by its constitutive masquerade as well as its commercial organization contains in its materializations of an unnerving exchange a threat to social order, a threat the Parliament of the 1640s instinctively recognized and articulated by reinserting the actor within the demonized category of the masterless man. Indeed, the commercial theater made it obvious that the actor had no master, whatever the juridical assertion, other than the audiences that he needed to please, and that he held no fixed position within the social formation, flaunting his mobility in the face of an increasingly defensive traditional culture. The nakedly autobiographical Roberto, in Greene's Groats-worth of Witte, meets up with a well-dressed stranger and is amazed to discover that he is an actor:

A player, quoth Roberto, I tooke you rather for a Gentleman of great liuing; if by outward habit men shuld be censured, 1 tell you, you would bee taken for a substantiall man. So I am where I dwell (quoth the player). . . . What though the world once went hard with me when I was fain to carry my Fardle a footeback . . . its otherwise now; for my share in playing appareil will not be solde for two hundred pounds. (33)

Even the "hyerlings of some of our plaiers," Gosson wrote, "which stand at reversion of vi.s by the weeke" are able to "iet under gentlemens noses in sutes of silke," looking "askance ouer the shoulder at euery man of whom the Sunday before they begged an almes" (S[c]hoole of abuse sig. C6r).

Either by virtue of his own money or his access to the company's properties, the actor was able, even off stage, to mime social positions, calling into question the traditional culture of status that depends precisely on the fact its attributes can neither be imitated nor purchased. But the exchanges that defined the theater relentlessly undermined the stability of that culture, insisting on the permeability of its social boundaries. Visible distinction cannot be maintained. Thomas Platter reports that "it is the English usage for eminent lords or knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so they offer them for sale for a small sum to the actors" (167).13 Thus, the silk suit that permitted the hireling to look askance at his social betters no doubt belonged to one when new.

But lest this fact be used to secure rather than disrupt the social hierarchy, we should note the complaint of Thomas Giles in 1572 against John Arnold, Yeoman of the Revels, protesting the policy to "lett to hyer" the gowns of the Revels' office. Giles's complaint lists twenty-one occasions in the previous year when gowns were rented out. Clearly the Revels' office regularly let or sold its costumes to professional players once they were too worn for court performance (Feuillerat 21-28). But Giles protested that Arnold was renting clothing to the citizens of London as formal wear: gowns were lent to the various Inns of Court; a gown was lent to the Lord Mayor; another for "the maryage of the dowter of my lord montague"; and, most scandalously, red cloth of gold gowns were lent to a "taylor" marrying in the Blackfriars. Giles complains about the "grett hurt spoylle & dyscredt" that the garments suffer on account of their "comen usage," being worn by those "who for the most part be of the meanest sort of mene" (Feuillerat 409-10). If clothes make the man, so apparently does the man make—or mar—the clothes. Giles's complaint is no doubt somewhat disingenuous, as he had a business with "appareil to lett" competing with the entrepreneurial Arnold; nonetheless, it is clear that clothing regularly circulated into and out of the playing spaces (Henslowe's contracts with actors often specified penalties for leaving the theater wearing the company's costumes),14 endlessly producing and dissolving difference between inside and out, between surface and substance, between playing and being, producing and dissolving difference in the very social categories that the elite would have clothing make both legible and secure. If it isn't quite accurate to say that the theater, with its imitative disruption of the traditional culture of status, brought that culture to an end, certainly the theater's conspicuous presence signaled its vulnerability to dissolution in the transformative energies of the nascent capitalism of early modern England; and if it isn't quite accurate to say that the entrepreneurial successes of the acting companies actually brought "class" into being, certainly in the visible signs of their abundant energies and aspirations they brought class into view.


To explore, however tentatively, the politics of the transvestite playing I have been exploring, I want to end with a brief look at an example of crossdressing in King Lear, though one not of dressing up but of dressing down: at Edgar and his assumption of the role of Poor Tom. Though no one seems to have explicitly related Edgar's disguise as a sturdy beggar to the dominant and demonized term of the antitheatrical discourse that surrounded the theater, a number of critics have shown that Edgar's disguise finds a source in the rogue literature that proliferated in the second half of the sixteenth century. John Awdeley begins his Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) with a description of the "abramman" as "he that walketh barearmed and bare-legged, and feigneth himself mad, and carryeth a pack of wool, or a stick with bacon on it, or such childlike toy, and nameth himself Poor Tom" (qtd. in Kinney 91). But the rogue literature functions ideologically to justify repression rather than compassion as a political response to the growing numbers of poor and homeless that actually were present in England, presenting their vulnerability as a tactic of a carefully crafted con-game. They become clever exploiters of a country's Christian charity instead of the pitiful victims of the early capitalistic state's social and economic dislocations.

If, however, the rogue literature, with its accounts of abram-men and other counterfeit poor, must be acknowledged as one source of Edgar's disguise, and the antitheatrical discourse another, each symptomatic of a potential for fraud, as Jean-Christophe Agnew has seen, in the emerging impersonal capitalistic market (63-69, 125-35), Shakespeare, as well as his audience, must also have found "proof and precedent / Of Bedlam beggars" (2.3.11-12) in the raw social realities of English life. One of the reiterated proclamations against vagrancy protested the increased presence in 1598 of "idle people and vagabonds" who were "in many parts of the realm and specially about the city of London and her majesty's court manifestly seen wandering in the common highways" (Hughes and Larkin 3: 196). King James was disgusted enough by the vagrancy he saw at Newmarket to write the Virginia Company suggesting that the vagrant youths be transported to the New World. Edgar's "roaring," then, must sound as the all-too-familiar, alienated—and also alienating—voice of the homeless poor, loudly protesting their impoverished condition.

But Edgar's role-playing is, of course, fraudulent. Lear thinks he has discovered "the thing itself," "unaccommodated man" (3.4.108), but we know that he has found only an aristocrat playing a Bedlam beggar, or, more accurately, only an actor playing an aristocrat playing a Bedlam beggar, or, rather, as the antitheatrical voice would have it, only one sturdy beggar playing another. No doubt it could be argued that Edgar's spectacular counterfeiting, like that of the abram-men, similarly serves merely to manage anxieties about London's poor and to reinforce the very social boundaries that have been transgressed. But, at least within the play, his disguise pointedly does not work either to justify or confirm the existing social order. Poor Tom's poverty indeed becomes for Lear one mark of "how this world goes" (4.6.147), and if it is but mimed it is nonetheless part of the process that leads Lear to understand that disparities of wealth and power are not signs of an immutable hierarchical order but of an intolerable social injustice. "[C]ivill policies," cynically observed Pierre de La Primaudaye in The French Academy, "cannot well be preserved but by a certaine inequalitie" (qtd. in Winny 106), but Lear comes to see that the "inequalitie" in his kingdom, the world of "houseless heads and unfed sides" (3.4.31), is unacceptable and his own responsibility. The means of social amelioration rest not with heaven but with sympathetic human action, with a redistribution of wealth, a shaking of "the superflux" to those in need that will alone "show the Heavens more just" (3.4.35-36). "Distribution," as Gloucester says, "should undo excess, / And each man have enough" (4.1.70-71).

No doubt the play's Utopian politics are undercut precisely by the gap King Lear insists upon between rich and poor.15 The sympathy Lear discovers to animate his leveling depends upon an experience that the play insists is unique ("we that are young / Shall never see so much . . ."). As Jonathan Dollimore writes, "in a world where pity is the prerequisite for compassionate action, where a king has to share the suffering of his subjects in order to 'care,' the majority will remain poor, naked and wretched" (191). Still, the play itself, its representation, produces "pity," allows an audience "to share the suffering" not just of the fond and foolish king but of the "houseless poverty" he has "ta'en / Too little care of (3.4.32-33). It is difficult, of course, to gauge the politics o/the play (as opposed to the politics in the play) apart from an analysis of its playing in a particular place at a particular time; but certainly, as "houseless poverty" has again emerged as a social fact and a political issue, Edgar's counterfeiting may well remind even the bourgeois audience of the modern theater of the reality of human misery that waits outside and suggest that it need not be so.


Versions of this essay were delivered on occasions arranged by Barnard College. The University of Colorado, The American University at Cairo, and Duke University. I would like to thank my hosts for these opportunities, especially for the discussions that followed, as well as offer special thanks to Margaret Ferguson, Jean Howard, Maureen Quilligan, Mary Beth Rose, Jim Shapiro, David Simpson, Peter Stallybrass, David Trotter, and Daniel Vitkus for their invaluable criticism and encouragement at various stages in the development of the essay.

1 See, for example, valuable discussions on the language of social ordering by Burke, Cressy, and Wrightson.

2 Even beyond the question of the historical specificity of a notion of class, the issue of its conceptual availability is of consequence, because unlike the familiar (and obviously silly) argument about the applicability of Freudian concepts to people living before Freud, class, it could be argued, needs to be available within the cognitive system of the people as a condition of its existence. If there is such a thing as the unconscious, it exists with or without an individual's awareness of its existence; a class, however, may be said to exist not as an a priori category waiting to be filled but only when people discover themselves as a class. Among the many influential considerations of class consciousness, see Lukàcs, Mészáros, ed. (esp. E. J. Hobsbawm's "Class Consciousness in History"), and Thompson.

3 Even Marx is inconsistent in his usage, sometimes identifying class as a historically specific concept as in The German Ideology, where the pre-industrial system of estates is contrasted with a true class system "which is itself a product of the bougeoisie" (87), while at other times using class as a universal category referring to discrete social groups in relations of domination and subjection, as in The Manifesto, where notoriously "the history of class struggle" is identified as "the history of all hitherto existing society" (108).

4 See Mary Jacobus's fine article by that name. Jacobus's essay, like my own, obviously finds its title in a play upon Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class?

5 For a wonderfully rich account of the representation of popular energies on the Shakespearean stage, see Annabel Patterson's Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. But if Patterson effectively disrupts the elitist notions of both art and politics that have dominated the critical account of Shakespeare to reinstate the popular as a productive category and concern, she nonetheless largely ignores the mediations of the theater that permit the popular voice to be heard. Although she brilliantly recognizes the "ventriloquism" by which the popular voice speaks "through Shakespeare's playtext" (50), she resists seeing this as the inescapable nature of class representation on the stage. Powerfully opposing the political and ethical implications of the claims for the autonomy of discourse made by various post-structuralisms, Patterson insists that "it does indeed matter . . . who speaks," and she notes that the plays are "obsessed" with "questions of voice (or political representation)" (97). But dramatic representation is no less the issue. Patterson writes, for example, that Coriolanus "allows the people to speaker themselves as a political entity" (127, emphasis hers), but if in the playtext they may speak "for themselves," in the playhouse actors always must speak for them.

6 There have been, of course, many influential studies of crossdressing on the Elizabethan stage, but see especially, in this regard, Belsey, Howard 93-128, Levine, and Rackin.

7 On sumptuary legislation in early modern England, see Harte and two useful earlier studies by Hooper and Baldwin.

8 For example, in 1 Henry VIII c. 14: "Players in enterludes," along with "ambassatures Hencemen," "Harroldes of armes," "Mynstrelles," and men "weryng any apparrell of the Kyngs lyverey geven hym by the King, for the tyme beyng of his Attendance aboute the Kyngs Grace" are specifically exempted from the act's provisions. In Elizabethan England, however, dispensations again are made to "henchmen, heralds, pursuivants at arms, runners at jousts, tourneys, or such martial feats, or such as wear apparel given by the Queen's majesty" (Hughes and Larkin 3: 180), but the specific dispensation for players has disappeared.

9 Among the many useful studies of the status of players in Elizabethan England, see Agnew 101-48, Brad-brook 17-66, and Edwards 17-39.

10 For a full account of the specificities surrounding the grant of arms, see Schoenbaum 167-73.

11 On the theater as "a proxy form of the new but partly fathomable relations of a nascent market society" (11), see Agnew (1-148), as well as McLuskie, who suggestively argues that the complex shift from patronage to commerce, a shift for the drama from "use value to exchange value," was "often confused with a shift from élite to popular culture" (127).

12 For a full discussion of the closing, reconsidering the familiar narrative of "Puritan opposition," see my chapter "Publike Sports' and 'Publike Calamities': The City, the Crown, and the Closing of the Theaters" in Kastan; see also Martin Butler's suggestive account (136-40).

13 For another account of a gift of clothing to players, see Henry Herbert's report that "many rich clothes were given" to a troupe of French actors in 1635 (61). See also Knowler (2: 150).

14 See, for example, the agreement between Henslowe and the actor Robert Davies, in Henslowe Papers (125).

15 On the social dislocation in the play, see Seiden, Kronenfeld, and Daniel Vitkus's unpublished paper, "Poverty and Ideology in King Lear."

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Bradbrook, M. C. The Rise of the Common Player: A Study of Actor and Society in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

Burke, Peter. "The Language of Orders in Early Modern Europe." Social Orders and Social Classes in Europe since 1500: Studies in Social Stratification. Ed. M. L. Bush. London: Longman, 1992. 1-12.

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Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1923.

Cressy, David. "Describing the Social Order of Elizabethan and Stuart England." Literature & History 3 (1976): 29-44.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Edwards, Philip. Threshold of a Nation: A Study in English and Irish Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

Feuillerat, Albert, ed. Documents Relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth. Louvain: Uystpruyst, 1908.

Firth, C. H., and R. S. Rait. Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660. London: HMSO, 1911.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Gosson, Stephen. Playes Confuted in Fiue Actions. London, 1582.

——. The S[c]hoole of Abuse, Conteining a Pleasaunt Inuectiue against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, lesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Commonwealth. London, 1579.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Greene, Robert. Greenes Neuer Too Late: or a Powder of Experience sent to all youthfull Gentlemen. London, 1590.

——. Groats-worth of Witte. Ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. 3rd ed Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Harte, N. B. "State Control of Dress and Social Change in Pre-Industrial England." Trade, Government and Economy in Pre-Industrial England. Ed. D. C. Coleman and A. H. John. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. 132-65.

Henslowe, Philip. Diary. Ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961.

——. Henslowe Papers, Being Documents Supplementary to Henslowe's Diary. Ed. Walter W. Greg. London: Bullen, 1907.

Herbert, Henry, Sir. The Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, 1623-1673. Ed. Joseph Quincy Adams. New Haven: Yale UP, 1917.

Hooper, Wilfrid. "The Tudor Sumptuary Laws." England Historical Review 30 (1915): 433-49.

Howard, Jean E. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1994.

Hughes, Paul L., and James F. Larkin. Tudor Royal Proclamations. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1964-69.

Jacobus, Mary. "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History 14 (1982): 117-41.

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Kastan, David Scott. Proud Majesty Made a Subject. New York: Routledge, forthcoming.

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Kronenfeld, Judy. "'So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough': Shakespeare's King Lear—Anabaptist Egalitarianism, Anglican Charity, Both, Neither?" ELH 59 (1992): 755-84.

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——. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Selected Works. 3 vols. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1969.

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Germaine Greer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Offstage Mob: Shakespeare's Proletariat," in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Tokyo, 1991, edited by Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle and Stanley Wells, University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 54-75.

[In the following essay, Greer considers representations of social class in the audiences, players, and characters of Shakespearean drama.]

Dr. Gary Taylor, in an important book that was given too short shrift by those of his colleagues who deigned to notice it, tells us that "Like women, the lower and middle classes are systematically underrepresented by Shakespeare. They are also . . . misrepresented. They are all, like Shakespeare's prostitutes, seen from above."1 This observation is the more important because every schoolchild has noticed that Shakespeare does not write about ordinary people. Shakespeare's plots all involve the doings of the ruling class, of kings and barons, of princesses and dukes' daughters. Shepherdesses can only be heroines on the Shakespearean stage if they are noble changelings. A learned schoolchild might point to the fact that both Dekker and Chapman wrote plays about the doings of non-noble characters and that Shakespeare could have done the same but chose not to. The truth is that though they might seem on the face of it to be more democratic than Shakespeare, Chapman at least would have been most displeased to be identified as an artisan, an identification that Shakespearean epilogues regularly insist upon. When gentlemen learned in the classics choose unlettered men for their heroes we do not expect them or their world to be seen through working-class eyes or discussed in proletarian terms. The jolly or criminal proles of such plays are no more truly observed than the jolly peasantry of Soviet propaganda.

In these days of oral history we have been forced to realize that the lives of the poor are as at least as dramatic and unmanageable as the lives of the rich; nowadays those gentlemen of the universities known as anthropologists sometimes choose (or are obliged) to live among the really poor for many uncomfortable months on end in order to record their view of the world. The poor man's poor neighbors never get to read it, nor would they be interested to read it, once they could read. The tape-recorded narrative of a book like Untouchable by James Freeman is the reality that the poor are struggling to escape.2 Once they have begun to climb the class ladder, that reality is as distant from their new preoccupations as the primordial ooze. When they go to the theater the Harijans do not pay their paise to see their own skinny, ragged selves, but glittering gods and goddesses played, not by Brahmins, but by mountebanks as poor as they. We cannot be amazed if people whose lives are mostly hunger, weariness, and squalor choose to attend glittering spectacles of high life, and we know that those who aspire to the high life themselves never tire of studying its lineaments. None of the photographs in Hello magazine features a single one of the servants who waits upon the royal families that are the stock-in-trade of this and hundreds of other celebrity soap magazines. Proles only get into such magazines when Princess Diana holds their hands or kisses them on the cheek. And yet it is proles who buy such magazines.

A peasant is by definition excluded from literary culture. As soon as a peasant is allowed access to the information machine he loses his class identity, for he is forced to deploy a faculty that his peers do not have, in forms and genres that they did not create. (If the peasant is a female the necessary metamorphosis demands even more radical re-fashioning of the self.) When an educated gentleman decides to present a peasant or a worker as the hero of his invented action, he invests him with his own notion of virtue, with altruism or courage, patience or industry, or continence, perhaps. Until the revolutionary theater of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the virtues with which the working class was usually endowed were those that facilitated their domination by the ruling class. When propagandists of the Right or the Left offer us images of correctly adjusted proles contrasted with unhappy and rebellious—that is to say, criminal—proles, the result is always distortion and often trivialization. Historically the only times that any proletariat has trooped off to a theatrical performance featuring itself it has been dragooned by the most crushingly authoritarian cultural institutions. Chinese ballerinas are still dancing "The East is Red" but the great theatrical mass performances of the 1920s in Red Square are now less likely to be revived than ever.

All literary culture is descended from other literary culture that is, was, and ever shall be under the aegis of the elite. Though as a consequence of the information explosion the small national elites of the world before Gutenberg have become the international elite, the proportion of the human race represented by this literate elite is hardly larger than it was in preindustrial society. In the rich world, during the five hundred years since the invention of printing, literary culture has gradually become popularized as the masses have acquired literacy and associated skills. Though the resulting demotic culture can no longer be described as aristocratic, it is not working class. It is commercial. Literature of all kinds is sold and in turn encourages buying of other items of consumption, having become the tool of mobility from one life-style to another. It is the achievement of commercial culture to conceal the existence of the poor from even the poor themselves. Now that the success of any piece of writing depends upon a complex of factors stemming from the structure of the publishing industry and the current condition of the market, more and more the intelligentsia defines itself as the group that does not read best-sellers.

Shakespeare was the most commercial of commercial writers. Though he might have preferred to write poems under the patronage of a delicately nurtured highly educated aristocrat, he wrote plays. We need not be surprised that he wrote the plays as well as he could; even Jeffrey Archer writes as well as he can. So far from talking down to his audience, Shakespeare invariably spoke up to them, regardless of whether he found himself in amphitheater or playhouse. The job of literary historians would be much easier if we could discern from the writing which audiences are catered for in which plays. Caviar was offered to the general, and the general were invited not only to like it, but to dislike it if they chose. The particular too had to endure unfamiliar fare, coarse, droll, and anti-intellectual, whether they liked it or not.

Shakespeare's characters express fear of the multitude,3 much as the actors would express fear of the audience.

An habitation giddy and unsure Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.

(2 Henry IV 1.3.89-90)

In metadramatic terms "the blunt monster with uncounted heads, The still-discordant wav'ring multitude" (Induction to 2 Henry IV, 18-19) feared by the characters and the audience feared by the actors are one and the same. In the expanded illustration of the commonplace, which was also the motto of the Globe Theater, Totus mundus agit histrionem, the audience for every human act is God or metonymically "heaven." The converse, that the audience is God-like, Vox populi, vox dei, is equally true.4 Nowadays when the cheapest seats are the highest up, in the part of auditorium usually called "the Gods," most of the audience sits above the stage. The higher the circle, the more seats are crammed into it, and the larger the proportion of the applause that should come from those skyey regions. Even in Shakespeare's theater, when the greatest number of the audience stood below the stage, they assumed the role of heaven.

Heauen the Iudicious sharpe spectator is, That sits and markes still who doth act amisse.


The grammar of this statement works both ways. There was no gentleman playwright who did not question the right of his audience to sit in judgment upon his work. Whetstone complained that in the theater ignorant people laughed their betters to scorn;6 Gosson condemned the theater because it taught nothing.7 Lyly writhed under the "precise judgments" of the gentlemen in his more select audience.8 Andrew Gurr quotes Beaumont's commendatory poem for Fletcher's play The Faithful Shepherdess as evidence of the capacity of the playhouse.9 I find the passage more useful, because the figure of a thousand is too round to be totally convincing and Beaumont does not say that they sat there at one time, as an indication of the expectations playgoers brought with them.

Why should the man, whose wit nere had a staine, Upon the publike stage present his vaine, And make a thousand men in judgment sit, To call in question his undoubted wit Scarce two of them can understand the lawes Which they would judge by . . .

Beaumont then reassures his colleague because appearing in print ensures that his public must at least have "the Quallitie / Of reading," which he was afraid was more than half his "shrewdest judges had before."10 Though Jonson might sneer at

The wise and many headed Bench that sits Upon the Life and death of Playes, and Wits

and especially at the "shops Foreman or some such brave sparke, that many judge for his sixe-pence,"11 Shakespeare never did. Though Middleton might revile "a dull Audience of Stinkards sitting in the Penny Galleries of a Theater and yawning upon the players"12 and Drayton his "thick-brained Audience,"13 Shakespeare did not. Though Hamlet may despair of the groundlings with their taste for "inexplicable dumb shows and noise" (3.2.12-13), Shakespeare himself never instructed his audience how to behave. In the relatively few prologues and epilogues in the canon, the audience is never addressed with anything but courtesy, unless we except Gower, the poet in the theater, who speaks to his audience with reverence approaching devotion:

If you, born in these latter times When wit's more ripe, accept my rhymes, And that to hear an old man sing May to your wishes pleasure bring, I life would wish, and that I might Waste it for you like taper-light.

(Pericles, Prologue to act 1)

In the conceit of the poet burning away like a candle before the shrine of his audience flickers a distorted, slightly self-parodying version of the divine authority of the audience.

When Marston tells his audience in the Epilogue to Sophonisba that he "not commandes Yet craves" their applause, he describes the justice of their hands "as due";14 neither Shakespeare nor Puck nor Prospero nor Rosalind ever suggests that applause is his to command. Marston's assumptions about the audience's duty are the same as those of the Duke of Buckingham at the Guildhall in Richard III. For obvious reasons the audience does not witness the Duke's bad performance or the audience's reaction: we learn from his dazed report that

They spake not a word, But, like dumb statuas or breathing stones, Stared each on other and looked deadly pale— Which, when I saw, I reprehended them, And asked the Mayor, what meant this wilful silence?


Bolingbroke, by contrast, invites the great unwashed to become his audience, diving into their hearts, 'with humble and familiar courtesy'

What reverence did he throw away on slaves, Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles.

Off goes his bonnet to any oysterwench. A brace of draymen bid God speed him well.

(Richard II 1.4.26-31)

Coriolanus is told by his mother to win over the plebs by exactly these measures, to go into the marketplace, with his bonnet in his hand and his knee bussing the stones (3.2.73-75). In replying that he will "mountebank their loves" Coriolanus develops the implicit theatrical parallel. In the event Coriolanus cannot subdue his pride; the genuine hero refuses to play a fake hero, will not sell cheap what he has held most dear, and is whooped out of Rome, the city for which he has risked death so many times, by the common voice of slaves. The performance of the refusal to perform does not involve the rejection of the plebeians' right to judge within the theater, however; Coriolanus asserts it himself:

Behold, the heavens do ope, The gods look down, and this unnatural scene They laugh at.


The fact that he is wrong about their reaction sharpens the spectators' awareness of his alienation. Though Coriolanus's refusal to perform is thoroughly understandable, it is only justifiable as long as we inhabit his solipsistic world; once he has invoked the offstage mob, another unwelcome truth begins to surface. Like the hero in the theater, the hero on the battlefield is made by common consent. It is a rash reading of the play that sees it as an attack on the power of the commons, for when Coriolanus turns upon the common people he dishonors the memory of those dead in his service:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate As reeks o'th' rotten fens, whose loves I prize As the dead carcasses of unburied men That do corrupt my air.


Those same unburied corpses are Coriolanus's undoing. The mob strips him of his heroism in exactly the same way that the unerected wits of a common audience might cry down an actor on the stage. The individual's truth to himself is irrelevant at best and at worst disastrous (despite Polonius). That the artist-hero is utterly dependent upon the meretricious may be thought a cynical idea; in fact, it is a tragic theme.

Coriolanus expects to rule by acclaim, but only a dynasty that accepts no duty towards its subjects and rules by divine right may, and often must, rule out of the sight of its subjects. To do so it usually asserts itself to be of a different order of creation, indeed, to be divine. A god-king lives concealed from the vulgar gaze by ranks of hierophants, appears masked, and speaks a different language from his subjects, who are forbidden to look upon him, but must prostrate themselves at his passing. The monarch who invites his subjects to look upon him, to watch him walk, fight or dance, pray or make love, invites them to judge his performance. The consent of a king to perform before his subjects is a step on the road to constitutional monarchy that leads ultimately to "free" elections. At election time power brokers must become hucksters; at such times and at such times only the politician must mount the hustings and entertain the crowd, momentarily his master. The politician on any stage, be he king or commissar, is vulnerable at last.

No English monarch understood this better than Elizabeth, whether she was expressing anxiety about the theatrical representations of Richard II, or painting her face and gilding her hair for yet another appearance as Astraea or stripping a lady-in-waiting of a gown too widely padded or too bright with jewels. The fact that the writing of chronicle plays ended with the death of Elizabeth has often been noticed;15 it may be that Eliza-beth knew that she had the glamor and charisma to play the king convincingly and delighted in confronting her audience while her bookish successor feared to empower the mob.

Though we may choose to disbelieve John Northbrooke, who wrote in 1577 that "enterludes" taught people "howe to disobey and rebell against princes . . . to ransacke and spoyle cities and townes"16 to subject the speech and behavior of kings to the judgment of the vulgar is by no means simply to endorse power and legitimacy. Joseph Hall saw that allowing theatricals to present kingship as a matter of mere bombast and strutting, only to be outfaced by the clown and the appreciation of the crowd for the clown, was a way of undermining duly instituted authority:

A goodly hoch-poch, when vile Russettings Are match'd with monarchs, & with mighty kings.


Henry Crosse expressed the same argument in prose more cogent in Vertues Commonwealth in 1603:

Is it fit that the infirmities of holy men should be acted on the stage . . . ? there is no passion wherwith the king, the soveraigne majestie of the Realme was possest, but is amplified and openly sported with, and made a May-game to all beholders.18

The arguments of both Hall and Crosse are aesthetical before they are political, for both are repeating what they had learned about theatrical decorum from Horace, who had learned it from Aristotle. In the modernized versions of Scaliger and Castelvetro the classical aesthetic came to dictate the deportment and depiction of monarchs both on the stage and off, but attempts to apply it on the English stage, as in the English court, were doomed never to succeed.

To point out that Shakespeare defied the classical criterion (which he certainly knew and understood) by allowing commoners both on the stage and off to rub shoulders with his kings is not to refute Taylor's claim that the proletarian in the Shakespearean theater is seen from above. It has been argued, mostly with approval, that Shakespeare brings his proles upon the stage in order to place them as subordinates in the social-political-cultural order. On the Shakespearean stage, for one thing, patricians tend to speak verse and commoners to speak prose. Yet verse is not in itself superior to prose. Verse is not a language forbidden to the commoners on Shakespeare's stage, any more than the patricians are constrained to express themselves in verse. When commoners speak blank verse, their utterance is intensified rather than falsified, as for example in Richard II, when the Virgilian gardener expresses himself in denser and more stately blank verse than his royal interlocutors who are reduced by his gravity to mere pettishness (3.4).19 Only patricians, on the other hand, are shown to be guilty of false taste and mannerism in their versified utterance. Shakespearean kings speak every language from the true Marlovian to pseudo-Marlovian fustian, Marinist sonnets, rhyming doggerel, and prose of every hue; they orate, they confide, they erect themselves, and they collapse, their right supported and protected by the handful of wooden swords that represents the real hews and sinews of the body politic, the laboring masses who supply its footsoldiers. We do not know all those who might be guilty of the indiscretion bewailed by Whetstone in 1578: "Many tymes (To make mirthe) they make a Clowne companion with a Kinge: in theyr grave Counsels, they allow the advise of fooles,"20 but Shakespeare is clearly one of them. Only in the play can the rude unlettered hind catechize (catch the conscience of) his king.

Recent investigations of the composition of the Shakespearean audience have tended to disprove the old idea of the Shakespearean moment, when the laborer, the merchant, the justice, and the lord were all entertained by the same fare at the same time in the same place. Nowadays we tend to the view that after about 1594 the Shakespearean theater audience, especially in the private theaters, was as middle-class and as well heeled as it is today and that the fare offered represented their preferences because much the larger part of the box office receipts came from their pockets.21 A caveat is to be entered, however. Though perhaps we must temper our fantasies of a pit filled with roaring groundlings who had bought their own tickets, we must not forget the ubiquity of the poor in preindustrial society. It is only in the modern world that rich and poor live apart. The London bourgeois of 1600 lived amidst shoals of menials and dependants, most of them as ragged and battered as the average household servant today in, say, Bombay. The poorer the household, the scruffier the servants. Many householders came to the theater attended by these same servants. All kinds of individuals were employed by the playhouse itself, ticket sellers, ticket collectors, ushers, cleaners, scene shifters, carpenters, seamstresses, laundresses, and locks will keep out neither beggars nor small boys. As a place of promiscuous resort the playhouse attracted, besides beggars and small boys, prostitutes, pick-pockets, and army officers in search of recruits. The preachers and cavilers were outnumbered; according to Florio, "every man" delighted in plays.22 The play leveled the audience if the ticket prices did not, but it leveled it upwards.

There is no greater need to posit for the end of the sixteenth century a theater-going proletariat that knew what it wanted and how to get it than there is for today. We may agree that neither in the amphitheater nor the halls were the riffraff the arbiters of taste. It is not the unlettered auditor who can find words to pooh-pooh the play or even to praise it, though the horde of apprentices might be the most vociferous in reacting more spontaneously. Nashe has a droll story that emphasizes both the vulnerability of the illiterate masses who have no dignity to stand upon and the falseness of the studied reactions of those who prize their dignity above their pleasure; a justice who

hauing a play presented before him and his Towneship by Tarlton and the rest of his fellowes, her Maiesties seruants . . . the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peept out his head. Whereat the Iustice, not a little moued, and seeing with his beckes and nods hee could not make them cease, he went with his staffe, and beat them round vmercifully on the bare pates, in that they, being but Farmers & poore country Hyndes, would presume to laugh at the Queenes men, and make no more account of her cloath, in his presence.23

Shakespeare, if not Hamlet, appears to have been ready to accept the spontaneous reaction of "barren spectators"; in no Shakespearean play is a patrician action undermined by a proletarian response. Instead we have in both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost an unsophisticated offering derided and derailed by a sophisticated onstage audience, to the irritation of the actual audience. The peasants and artisans on the stage, however confused and o'erparted, acquire more power and more reality when sophisticated spectators strip them of their flimsy disguises. Likewise, in Shakespearean prologues and epilogues, with their emphasis on striving day by day to please, the unmasked actors do not exalt themselves above the audience as the schoolmen do, but quail before the audience's judgment as the tradesmen did, whose intents were "extremely stretch'd and con'd with cruel pain" to do their auditors' service.

If the poor were nowhere else in the theater, they were on the stage. The onstage kings are as often rogues and mountebanks "glad to play three hours for two pence," as Dekker says in The Raven's Almanacke (1609).24 The thought gives added plangency to the words of the King of France, at the end of All's Well That Ends Well:

The King's a beggar now the play is done. All is well ended if this suit be won: That you express content, which we will pay With strife to please you, day exceeding day. Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts: Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.

The declaration of love for the audience may seem excessive, until we recall the argument of Montaigne:

I have ever blamed those of injustice that refuse good and honest. . . . Players, to enter our good townes, and grudge the common people such publike sports. Politike and wel ordered common-wealths endevor rather carefully to unite and assemble their Citizens together; as in serious offices of devotion, so in honest exercises of recreation. Common societe and loving friendship is thereby cherished and increased.25

The threadbare individuals who for love of the public (and its money) dare to assume the regalia of kingship are the cutpurses of the empire, who from a shelf a precious diadem steal and put it, in the form of receipts for ticket sales, in their pockets. Yet such fake monarchs can be more regal than the real. They can, if the playwright wills, construct an ikon of royalty that could shame the actual incumbent, and then, if the playwright wills, they can betray it and bewray it. He who plays the king can lay the crown aside and prove more kingly without it. And many an apple-wife in the pit could imagine that like Hamlet, she too could have proved right royally, had she been put on.

The Bastard makes the precise point that in the Shakespearean theater the subject finds the monarch for once at his mercy in King John, a play in which the entire cast, with the exception of the characters called "Citizen" and "Hubert," is patrician. Gesturing about him to the offstage mob, the Bastard cries:

. . . these scroyles of Angers flout you, Kings, And stand securely on their battlements As in a theatre, whence they gape and point At your industrious scenes and acts of death.


Throughout the play of King John the audience is obliged to identify with the citizenry of the besieged town. The kings in King John wage rhetorical war with the audience as the prize: the French king speaks

Our cannons' malice vainly shall be spent Against th' invulnerable clouds of heaven, And with a blessèd and un vexed retire, With unhacked swords and helmets all unbruised We will bear home that lusty blood again Which here we came to spout against your town. . . .


The Citizen answers as the audience might: "we are the King of England's subjects." The Citizen must, as the audience must, await the outcome of the wordy conflict. The Bastard, who is more of a groundling than a baron, despite his royal getting, asks:

Why stand these royal fronts amazèd thus? Cry havoc, Kings! Back to the stainèd field. . . .


"Royal fronts" is nearly as peculiar an expression as "borrowed majesty," twice repeated within one minute of curtain up. All the while, behind the stage conflict and the rhetorical debate before the English audience of London, alias Angers, explode harsh images of the reality of war. The ever-present but offstage army in the verse is not only an extension behind the scenes of the mob in front of the stage, it extended into the immediate surroundings of the theater. While on their way to and from the theater the audience would have passed the men mustered for the militia drilling along the riverside26 while along the road men blinded and maimed in foreign wars begged their charity.27 Accord-ing to Philip Gawdy, many men were pressed for the war in the Netherlands in raids on the playhouses in 1602.28 When the Bastard first drew his picture of war as predator, the bowels of many of his auditors must have run cold.

O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel; The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs; And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men In undetermined differences of kings.


In the Bastard's semantics the word men weighs heavier than the word kings. From whom has "borrowed majesty" been borrowed? What lies behind the "royal fronts" and Constance's "counterfeit, resembling majesty"? The kings are masks, but the unseen dead on the fields of France are men. Upon which town does the Bastard advise the kings to make war?

Be friends awhile, and both conjointly bend Your sharpest deeds of malice on this town.


Upon this town.

By east and west let France and England mount Their battering cannon, chargèd to the mouths, Till their soul-fearing clamours have brawled down The flinty ribs of this contemptuous city.


Upon this contemptuous city. The audience knew and continues to know that history is more than brawling and clamours, more than a play, for somewhere out there, offstage, death is still mousing. The Bastard continues:

I'd play incessantly upon these jades, Even till unfencèd desolation Leave them as naked as the vulgar air.


The jades to be played upon are these jades, the profanum vulgus, the victims (being the enforced wagers) of war—that is to say, the audience.

Being wronged as we are by this peevish town, Turn thou the mouth of thy artillery, As we will ours, against these saucy walls; And when that we have dashed them to the ground, Why, then defy each other. . . .


What walls can be in question if not the walls of Burbage's theater? It is the Citizen who must produce a rhetoric that will prevent the attack on "this city's bosom," to fend off the raining of a "drift of bullets on this town," and his solution is the comedy one of an unconvincing stage marriage. King John, the player king, knows only too well that he can only function through the mute and passive response of his audience: when he attempts to suborn Hubert he says:

. . . if that thou couldst see me without eyes, Hear me without thine ears, and make reply Without a tongue, using conceit alone, Without eyes, ears, and harmful sound of words; Then in despite of broad-eyed watchful day I would into thy bosom pour my thoughts.


An audience in the theater responds by conceit alone, for it may not itself take part in the action; though its is the bosom into which the stage king pours his thoughts, its also is the judgment that may condemn him. When Constance defends the right of her grandson Arthur, she tells us that his tears are "heaven-moving pearls" and she assures us that "heaven" will take them in nature of a fee,

Ay, with these crystal beads heaven shall be bribed To do him justice and revenge on you.


Hubert, a citizen representing the audience, alias heaven, is moved by Arthur's tears. The breath of heaven blows out the coal that should have heated the iron that should have blinded Arthur. Only Hubert and the audience know that Arthur is not dead; nevertheless Hubert reports on behalf of the offstage mob the reaction of the offstage and unseen populace of history to the news that Arthur is dead:

Old men and beldams in the streets Do prophesy upon it dangerously. Young Arthur's death is common in their mouths,

I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus, The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool, With open mouth swallowing a tailor's news, Who, with his shears and measure in his hand, Standing on slippers which his nimble haste Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet, Told of a many thousand warlike French That were embattailèd and ranked in Kent. Another lean unwashed artificer Cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur's death.

(4.2.186, 194-203)

According to Stephen Gosson, the common people who resorted to theaters in 1582 were these same: "an assemblie of Tailors, Tinkers, Cordwayners, Saylers, Olde Men, yong Men, Women, Boyes, Girles, and such like. . . . "29 The offstage mob in the Theatre in 1590 or so has no option but to recognize itself in the offstage mob of the thirteenth century. The "royal front," King John, then turns upon Hubert and accuses him of having hatched the plot against Arthur. The audience of 1590 (like the audience of 1203) knows that he is lying, and has its finest hour when Hubert accuses him, this time truthfully, "you have slandered nature in my form" (4.2.257). From having been confounded, the historical populace and the immediate audience now grow apart, but the division is painful. The audience is mocked by its own muteness, for it alone sees the manner of Arthur's death and hears Hubert accused again and again, each time prevented from uttering by a wall of words from his betters. Whether patrician or peasant, smith, tailor, or unwashed artificer, each member of that odd collectivity, the audience, shares this perspective and feels this frustration as the rulers of the realm lead it further into futile strife.

The life, the right, and truth of all this realm Is fled to heaven, and England now is left To tug and scramble, and to part by th' teeth The unowed interest of proud swelling state.


Life, right, and truth have no longer to be found in the stage action but among the spectators, yet "England," those same spectators, will expiate in blind struggle the fault of others. Though one may agree with Steven Greenblatt that Shakespeare's English histories made subjects into citizens,30 one cannot agree that the result was the endorsement of absolutism.

The description of the hordes that throng about Shakespeare's dramatic action and make their own judgment upon it is not complete until are added the legions of the voiceless dead. In the Shakespearean theater of war the dead do not disappear but lie and rot. The stench of massacre pervades his heroic pageant,31 bring-ing not only tears to the dryest eye, but revulsion, not so subtly undermining the efficacy of the propaganda. Hotspur's greatest speech flashes athwart the action of Part I of Henry IV like lightning:

When I was dry with rage and extreme toil, Breathless and faint, leaning on my sword, Came there a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed, Fresh as a bridegroom, and his chin, new-reaped Showed like a stubble-land at harvest-home. He was perfumèd like a milliner, And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held A pouncet-box, which ever and anon He gave his nose and took't away again— Who therewith angry, when it next came there Took it in snuff—and still he smiled and talked; And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by, He called them untaught knaves, unmannerly To bring a slovenly unhandsome corpse Betwixt the wind and his nobility,


Harry Hotspur here expresses the anger of every foot-soldier for the nobility that deployed him in the field for a reason that he had never heard, let alone understood. These fifteen lines are as a good a piece of tragic satire as anyone has written; the point of view is that of the common cry of curs so despised by Coriolanus, creatures who though noisy have no voice of their own. Our judgment of the lordling is dictated by Hotspur; his anger and contempt are our anger and contempt. There is no single point of view in Henry IV, no above, no below, from which to view Hotspur or what Hotspur says, but in these fifteen lines there is only one way to view the lordling. The harsh light of this speech must reflect upon its context, even upon Hotspur himself. Those untimely dead in martial conflict and yet unburied are invoked so often in Shakespeare's theater as to constitute a leitmotif.32 The ghastly light thus shed upon the field of battle is reflected too upon the faces of men as ghostly as the dead, the starved, sick, and frightened men who are about to die.33

Each time one of Shakespeare's histories is played, the immediate political relevance of its dramatic action will be different. It matters less to know how the action parallels events in Elizabeth's reign than to register how thrillingly the audience is implicated in a series of daring judgments, being not merely encouraged to judge, but forced to judge, and ultimately to condemn the actions of their betters. Modern commentators are well aware of the importance of Elizabethan participation in religious ritual and spectacle, in the performing and witnessing of public penance. The London crowds of the 1590s were "mutes and audience" to many acts of public significance, from the occasional state funeral to public floggings of naked prostitutes. We are beginning to realize at last the importance of the fact that the primary meaning of the word stage is "scaffold." The importance of carrying out executions in public is that it makes the body politic accomplices to a man, woman, and child in the act of summary judgment. As long as there is no text there can be no dissent; as soon as there is utterance and response there is the possibility, even the duty, of dissent.

As long as the mob is in the theater it is not necessary to put its representative upon the stage in order to bring its preoccupations to the fore. When the unlettered hind walks onto the stage in a private theater or at Whitehall his is a different and disconcerting presence. The forcing of a throng of ladies and gentlemen to attend the maunderings of a ragged clown, after having made them pay their one and sixpence for the privilege, is true subversion of the imagination. Though servants know their masters intimately, masters seldom know their servants, for to feel interest and concern for the kitchen maid or the pot boy might involve considering whether it was just that she or he should sleep under the workbench or on the kitchen table. Most Elizabethans, who had to rely on ragged troops of menials to achieve a degree of comfort we would now regard as Spartan, simply could not afford to take an interest in them. When, some years ago, the Indian government decreed that live-in servants had to have rooms of their own, hundreds of thousands of live-in servants were turned out of their employer's houses and reemployed as dailies. Instead of sleeping on a mat in the kitchen, they now sleep on staircases, park benches, railway platforms, or on the sidewalk, not because their masters are cruel but because they cannot afford a room as well as a servant. Elizabethan London was more like Bombay in this regard than it is like present-day London, bloated as it still is by postcolonial wealth.

Though the editorial board of Hello magazine might decide to run the story of Titus Andronicus much as they have been running the story of the Brando family murder, they would never countenance the appearance of the Clown in 4.3 and 4; these scenes might be the fossil remains of a comic scene with lots of interpolated business and ad-libbing by a well-known comic performer, or not. I think not, for the whole point about the clown in Titus Andronicus is that he has no business there. Like Zachary in the temple, he carries a pair of pigeons. When Titus says "Jupiter," he hears, not a name for God, but merely "gibbet-maker," emphasizing the play's rarefied Roman-ness. Like a figure of Saint Francis bobbing through the landscape inside his mandorla, the Clown, enclosed within a Christian context of heaven and grace, moves through the black world of Senecan Rome as alien to it as his prose is from the rest of the play's verse. After he greets Saturninus in a trebly Christian way—"God and St. Stephen give you godden"—the Senecan action engulfs him and his pigeons and booms on, unjolted out of its own bombastic medium, but placed and distanced by his mild appearance and summary disappearance.

To the best of my knowledge no scholar has ever considered the point of this extraordinary split in the Senecan fabric. The laboring poor, despite the best efforts of Brecht, still do not interest us much. An irrelevant clown wandering around the stage with two pigeons is typical of what we find awkward and super-erogated about Shakespeare. It is not Shakespeare who leaves out the unlettered poor but we who ignore them, because we cannot cope with their inexplicable irruptions into affairs that have nothing to do with them. No discussion of Titus Andronicus that I have ever read has given any attention to the clown scene, though no one has ever suggested that it is anything but authentic. If during a production of Titus Andronicus, as M. C. Bradbrook describes it,34 with its "horrors all clas-sical and all unfelt, cool and cultured in its effect," as it moves in its stately fashion to classical catastrophe, Frankie Howerd were to pop up with two pigeons in a basket, make a valiant attempt to understand what is going on, fail, and be liquidated, that one horror would not be unfelt. The snuffing out of the Clown has the true absurdity that afflicts the unheroic deaths of the poor, under the hooves of any or all of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The intrusion in single scenes of humble characters who play no part in the plot and do not reappear, involving the doubling of parts by the actors already playing nobles, must constitute an implied commentary on the main action. Act 2, scene 1 of 1 Henry IV presents us with apparently inconsequential information, how the first carrier's horse is treated by the ostler and that "this house is turned upside down since Robin Ostler died." What of Robin Ostler? "Poor fellow never joyed since the price of oats rose; it was the death of him." I learn from A. R. Humphreys's note in my Arden edition that the price of oats trebled in three years and that the queen had to forbid extortion in Proclamation for the Dearth of Corne in July 1596. I learn from Roger Manning that there were thirty-five outbreaks of disorder in London between 1581 and 1602.35 Could it be that Shakespeare is placing institutional crime against the poor in the balance with Prince Hal's activities? If I share the knowledge of the rise in the price of oats, I know myself to be kittle-cattle with Robin Ostler. The stage is the same world as the world I live in, even if I would not pee in the fireplace, as the carriers do.

In this same supererogatory scene Gadshill tries to trick the carriers, who see through his ancient ruse and leave him to conspire with the chamberlain to rob the franklin of Kent. Gadshill tells us that he is "joined with no foot-landrakers, no long-staff sixpenny strikers, none of these made mustachio purple-hued maltworms, but with nobility and tranquillity, burgonmasters and great 'oyez'-ers. . . . [who] pray continually to their saint the commonwealth; or rather, not pray to her, but prey on her; for they ride up and down on her, and make her their boots." After an odd and incontrovertible tag from Lily and Colet's Latin grammar, "homo is a common name to all men," Gadshill bids the chamberlain farewell, dubbing him as if from a lofty height of superior intelligence and rank, not "man" but "muddy knave." So 2.1 of 7 Henry IV ends, without having advanced the action one doit. The action is no further advanced by the tormenting of Francis the drawer, who may not refuse to do the bidding of any man, being bred to service. Though Dr. Taylor may find that Francis is seen from above, I cannot agree. The joke that is played on him is so pointless, so unkind, and his reaction so guileless and yet so understandable, that the audience will only be made to laugh at him if the actor guys him in some fashion. Why the Prince should remind us of our mutual ancestor "goodman Adam" at this point, if Francis's servile position is merely to be laughed at, cannot easily be understood. The subtext, of reference to common humanity, is invoked time and again, Francis is "the son of a woman," Falstaff wails that "manhood, manhood is forgot on the face of the earth" and is, as usual, lying.

The intrusion of lower-class characters into the play of the nobles also makes the subliminal point that as these characters are irrelevant to the action so is the action irrelevant to them. Shakespeare lets it be understood that the concerns of theater are irrelevant to the laboring poor time and again, in play after play, by giving their representatives cameo appearances on the stage, bewildered, quizzical, or unconvinced. When Launce and his dog, the ikon of real attachment, wander about the stage of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, we shall miss the point entirely if we imagine that we are to despise them or dismiss them or, in Taylor's phrase, to view them from above.

Costard may seem an unchallenging member of the lower orders, tranquilly viewed from above in Love's Labour's Lost, but in this case the Clown will be in charge of the dismantling of the play of his betters. Costard suffers the most and the most immediately as a consequence of the King of Navarre's vainglorious policy. His struggles to understand the accusation in Armado's absurd language is a burlesque of the real helplessness of the masses faced with a body of law expressed in a language that they cannot understand and are not meant to understand:

Thou hast appointed justices of the peace to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison, and, because they could not read, thou hast hanged them . . .

(2 Henry VI 4.7.38-42)

It may be that we are directed to laugh at Costard's suffering by his malapropisms, but Costard says many a true thing in his contradictory manner. He is so poor that prison for him is only loss of liberty: "Oh, let me not be pent up, sir. I will fast, being loose." He has "as little patience as another man, and therefore can be quiet." However successfully the play of the lords and ladies may lure us to disregard Costard, the member of the commonwealth, he endures until the end, when he is suddenly interpreting the discomfiture of Sir Nathaniel as Alexander:

There, an't shall please you, a foolish mild man, an honest man, look you, and soon dashed. He is a marvellous good neighbour, faith, and a very good bowler, but for Alisander—alas, you see how 'tis—a little o'erparted.

(Love's Labour's Lost 5.2.576-80)

The lords do not take his point and continue to deride and interrupt the entertainment, but Costard's character is growing and changing as the play moves out of a French park and the lords dwindle into an audience rather than actors. As they become unreal and transparent, he becomes more solid. It is Costard who wrecks the pageant of the (un)worthies by attacking Armado and gives news of a real outcome to sham passion, Jaquenetta's pregnancy. His assumption of anger and the right to judge his superiors is the dramatic equivalent of Marcade's fateful announcement of a death. The play of the patricians is by now completely undone. The ladies force the lords to abandon their wooing and share the lot of the masses: "frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds." The play's own genre now not so much abandoned as obliterated, the players in their own person perform the debate of the owl and the cuckoo, a peasant theme of peasant life, Costard's poetry.

There is no lack on the Shakespearean stage of lower-class characters who are shown to be more constant, more tolerant, more generous than the nobility who treat them with discourtesy. It might be objected that this is a version of what used to be called nigger nobility, another example of the fundamentally condescending argument about the noble savage, based in sentimentality about the lowborn, but this is not Taylor's argument. Taylor is quite confident that Shakespeare's lower-class characters are viewed from above, though the patrician characters are often shamed by the contrast. In the end the effectiveness of these simple characters is a matter of taste. If they were to be left on stage being simple and noble for scene after scene, we would find them cloying and unconvincing. Characteristically, these sane, ordinary, humble characters do not presume upon our attention. Indeed they often predict our inattentiveness to them, our casual cruelty and disregard. Costard has no lack of blood brothers from Adam and William in As You Like It, to the tender-hearted Clown of The Winter's Tale, who is corrupted by discovering himself near allied to a crown, to Timon's Steward and to Christopher Sly.

The Induction to The Taming of the Shrew is an integral part of the play but, though scholars rack their brains about why there is not more of it, they do not give the same attention to the question of why what they have is there. Sly seems to have been a real person, an actor called William Sly, who appeared in several plays, not all of them by Shakespeare, as a clown figure under his own name.36 The aim of the deception practiced on Sly in The Taming of the Shrew is to induce him to take himself for a lord. To deny one's origins on the Shakespearean stage is to invoke a delusion which can undo a character in a way that even sudden metamorphic change cannot. Joan of Arc dissolves in corruption before our eyes when she denies her father, the shepherd standing before her. Jack Cade, who has had much right on his side and made moving representations on behalf of the poor, becomes merely counterfeit when he denies his own condition and invents a kingly family tree for himself. The attempt to seduce Sly goes far beyond anything required as a mere frame for a play. Sly defends himself:

I am Christophero Sly. Call not me 'honour' nor 'lordship'. I ne'er drank sack in my life, and if you give me any conserves, give me conserves of beef. Ne'er ask me what raiment I'll wear, for I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet—nay, sometime more feet than shoes, or such shoes as my toes look through the over-leather.

(Induction 2, 5-11)

This presumably is the sort of thing that Taylor describes as seen from above, but the stage direction says "aloft." The Sly scenes are not played below but above the main action. The lord and his servants kow-tow to Sly and he stares at them amazed.

What, would you make me mad? Am not I Christopher Sly—old Sly's son of Burton Heath, by birth a pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker? Ask Marian Hacket, the fat alewife of Wincot, if she know me not. If she say I am not fourteen pence on the score for sheer ale, score me up for the lying'st knave in Christendom.

(Induction 2, 16-23)

Barton-on-the-Heath and Wincot are real places; the original actor was using his own name and the real name of another person before the tinsel array of theatrical nobility. Sly is anchored in the same earth that the groundlings, if there were any, stood upon. His only riches is that he is English, though he come from the poorest of the poor, landless artisans gleaning a meager living in embryonic service industry. The brainwashing works, insofar as Sly begins to speak blank verse in the same strain that Bottom might:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady? Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now? I do not sleep. I see, I hear, I speak. I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things.

(Induction 2, 67-70)

Sly's words should remind us that there are folk who live and die without ever smelling sweet savours or feeling soft things. They also imply that those same people in different circumstances would, if they had the chance, bear themselves as nobly as the people whose luck has placed them amid silks and scents. The brainwashing of Sly follows the same pattern as twentieth-century brainwashing. The people clearing his head tell Sly that the people he knows, Cicely Hacket, Stephen Sly, old John Naps, Peter Turph, and Henry Pimpernell, do not exist and never did. Scholars have found originals for all of them, but have not asked themselves what point mentioning real people in the theater only to claim that they do not exist could possibly have. If a modern production were to present a contemporary Sly, a real person under his own name who named real people as familiar to the audience as the alewives of Shakespeare's Warwickshire, we might find out. There are two kinds of tension at work here; one kind stems from the fragility of identity, which raises the question of whether Sly can hold fast to his real world, and the other from the possibility that Sly and his companions might find little to envy in the lords' lifestyle. The crux comes hard upon, for Sly simply cannot understand the relationship he is meant to have with his wife.

Sly. Are you my wife, and will not call me husband? My men should call me lord, I am your goodman.

. . . What must I call her?

Lord. Madam.Sly. Al'ce Madam, or Joan Madam?Lord. Madam and nothing else. So lords call ladies.

(Induction 2, 102-3, 106-8)

"Madam wife," says Sly, incapable of learning this frigid decorum, though he is quick to see what comfort may be had from a spouse. Like many of the laboring poor, Sly, it seems, has never enjoyed the pleasures of the marriage bed but he knows how he would treat a wife if he had one, and it would not be the way that a lord would treat his lady. When he is told that he is to see a comedy Sly asks:

Sly. Is not a comonty A Christmas gambol, or a tumbling trick?Bartholomew. No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff.Sly. What, household stuff?Bartholomew. It is a kind of history.Sly. Well, we'll see't. Come, madam wife, sit by my side And let the world slip. We shall ne'er be younger.

(Induction 2, 133-38)

The comedy bores Sly, and Shakespeare takes the rather unusual course of telling us so, though Sly himself politely denies it, and only murmurs in an aside, "Would 'twere done." The play goes on without him. It is neither about him nor for him, as most theater is not about or for the laboring poor. It is not often in a sophisticated play that an unsophisticated character is to be allowed to come on stage and reject it. Some might wish to argue that this rejection implies Shakespeare's rejection of his play as well in an attempt to absolve him of the antifeminist notions thought to be expressed in it. I think rather that Shakespeare continues to use Sly's perspective in the imagery of relationships rather than through plot structure or event. Petruchio woos Kate with a therapeutic version of the brainwashing that is practiced on Sly, but he makes of her not the lord's white wife, cold, manipulative, and distant, but a countryman's brown wife, as useful, energetic, straight, and willing as his horse and his hawk.

Though Shakespeare is not a government, even if Dr. Taylor sees him as an adjunct of the Ministry for Culture or a stooge of the Ministry for Information, and does not need to be absolved from Taylor's charge, the accusation is so wrong-headed that a protest must be entered. We have only to consider the European division of theater into upper-class literary exercise on the one hand and professional entertainment on the other, to think of the preoccupations of Corneille and Racine and the arbitrary power exercised by the Académie Française, to realize that Shakespeare is not a patrician artist. Though he might choose to portray the plight of patricians he does so from a point of view and in terms that are themselves not patrician or even would-be patrician. The French accusation of grotesquerie and indecorum of which Shakespeare is clearly guilty should indicate to us that all is not as it seems in the Shakespearean drama of the three estates, where the unapplauded king is no king at all.


1 Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), 395.

2 James M. Freeman, Untouchable: An Indian Life History (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1979).

3 For example, Richard III 2.2.124. The Oxford Shake-speare citation is under "Additional Passages," p. 250.

4 The history of this important idea is beyond the scope of this discussion, but see for example Heywood, The Apology for Actors: "Jehove doth as spectator sit, and chiefe determiner to applaud the best" (A4r) and Dekker, in Warres, Warres, Warres (1628, sig. Blv). E. R. Curtius, Europäisches Literatur und Lateinisches Mittlealter, 2d ed. (Bern: A. Francke, 1954), identifies John of Salisbury as the source for the introduction of God and the saints in heaven as spectators of the human action into the classic trope of the world as theater (149-50).

5 The couplet comes from the poem beginning "What is our Life . . . ," first printed in 1612, in The First Set of Madrigals and Mottets by Orlando Gibbons, where it is unattributed. Agnes M. C. Latham accepts the poem as an authentic work of Sir Walter Ralegh in The Poems (London, 1929) and gives a full listing of the twenty-four contemporary manuscript sources in which it can be found, together with a sample of the many variants, of which there are most for this couplet.

6 George Whetstone, "To his worshipfull friende, and Kinseman, William Fleetewoode Esquier, Recorder of London," Promos and Cassandra (London, 1578), Aiiv.

7 Stephen Gosson, Playes confuted in five actions (London, 1582), sig. D1r.

8 John Lyly, Campaspe, in The Complete Works, ed. R. Warwick Bond (Oxford, 1902), 2:315.

9 Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 22.

10 Francis Beaumont, "To my friend Maister John Fletcher upon his Faithfull Shepheardesse," The DramaticWorks in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, ed. F. Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 3:490.

11 Ben Jonson, "To the worthy Author M. John Fletcher" in Dramatic Works, ed. Bowers, 3:492.

12 Thomas Middleton, Father Hubburd's Tale (Lon-don, 1604), sig. B4.

13 Michael Drayton, "The Sacrifice to Apollo," in Works of Michael Drayton, ed. J. W. Hebel, 5 vols. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961), 2:358.

14 John Marston, Sophonisba (London, 1606), Prologue.

15 Anne Barton, "He That Plays the King: Ford's Perkin Warbeck and the Stuart History Play," in Forms and Development, ed. Marie Axton and Raymond Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 69.

16 John Northbrooke, A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Playes or Enterluds . . . are reproved . . . (London, 1577), 82.

17 Joseph Hall, Virgidemiarum II (London, 1597), Liber 1, Satire 3.

18 Henry Crosse, Vertues Commonwealth (London, 1603), sig. P3r.

19 Cf. Richard III 1.3 and 3.4.

20 Whetstone, "To his worshipfull friende," Aiiv.

21 Ann Jennalie Cook, "The Audience of Shakespeare's Plays: A Reconsideration," Shakespeare Studies 1 (1974): 283-305.

22 John Florio, First Fruites (London, 1578), sig. A1r.

23 Thomas Nashe, Pierce Pendesse his Supplication to the Diuell (London, 1592), sig. Dlv.

24 Thomas Dekker, The Ravens Almanacke (London, 1609), in Non-dramatic Works, ed. A. B. Grosart, 5 vols. (London, 1884), 4:194.

25 Michel Montaigne, "Of the Institution and Educa-tion of Children," in Essays, trans. John Florio, 3 vols. (London, 1603).

26 Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, 1558-1638 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), 90-125.

27 See, for example, Philip Gawdy, in A. V. Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld: A Collection of Tudor and Early Stuart Tracts and Ballads (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), xvii-xviii, and A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985), 93.

28Letters of Philip Gawdy of West Harling, Norfolk, and of London, to Various Members of His Family, 1579-1610, ed. I. H. Jeayes (London, 1906), 121.

29 Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions, sig. D4r.

30 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 65.

31 E.g., Henry V 4.3. 99-108.

32Two Noble Kinsmen 5.1.51; Hamlet 4.4.50-57 (Q2).

33 E.g., the Chorus to act 3 of Henry V and 1 Henry VI 1.2.7-12.

34Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), 98-99.

35 Roger Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 187.

36 Scott McMillin, "Casting for Pembroke's Men: The Henry VI Quartos and The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (Spring 1973): 156-57.

The Poor In Shakespeare

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12500

William C. Carroll (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Language, Politics, and Poverty in Shakespearian Drama," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 44, 1992, pp. 17-24.

[In the following essay, Carroll studies the speech and political views of the underclass in Shakespeare's plays.]

In an essay published in Shakespeare Survey 38, the historian E.W. Ives analysed the ways in which history and literature mutually illuminated (or did not) each other in the study of Shakespeare. After reviewing the distressing conditions of poverty during Shakespeare's lifetime, Ives concluded that 'to the historian, the remarkable thing—and a contrast to Shakespeare's sensitivity to the realities of politics and the Court—is the distance there seems to be between his plays and the socio-economic realities of Elizabethfan] and Jacobean England'. Coriolanus, Ives notes, 'stands alone' as an exception, and in any event 'takes very much an establishment point of view'. Yet it is possible, Ives concedes, 'to show by a study of language and imagery that Shakespeare was aware of much of this, but it gave him few explicit themes'.1 There is much to agree with in Ives's essay, particularly his argument that 'the reaction against literary evidence in history has gone too far',2 but there is so much to disagree with in the passages I have quoted that it is difficult to know where to begin. Leaving aside the myriad contradictions and curious theoretical assumptions of Ives's argument, I want to suggest that Shakespeare's language not only reveals his sensitivity to the discourse of poverty in his day, but that his language, in crucial instances, is his 'theme'. After some general remarks, I will proceed with three particular examples, two of which Ives does not mention in his essay.3

That Shakespeare was aware of, and sensitive to, the beggars and vagabonds in country and city is indisputable, but the many references in his plays also indicate more particularly his awareness of the political realities of their condition: as Calpurnia says in Julius Caesar, 'When beggars die there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes' (2.2.30-1). The marginalized status of beggars is in Shakespeare always their defining characteristic: when a 'holiday-fool' in England 'will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian' (Tempest 2.2.29-33). Shakespeare's plays are filled with reminders of 'famished beggars, weary of their lives' (ichard III 5.6.59), of 'seely beggars, / Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame / That many have, and others must, set there' (Richard II 5.5.25-7). He knows their weak and feeble cries, 'puling, / like a beggar at Hallowmas' (Two Gentlemen 2.1.24), and he knows that they abandon their children, that one could 'with charitable hand / [Take] up a beggar's issue' at the city gates (Much Ado 4.1.133-4). Bolingbroke's sense of outrage over Richard's seizure of his inheritance is shaped in part by his treatment as one of these marginalized outcasts: 'Will you permit that I shall stand condemned / A wandering vagabond, my rights and royalties / Plucked from my arms perforce and given away / To upstart unthrifts?' (Richard II 2.3.118-21). Later, as Henry IV, he will articulate another, more threatening, political association: 'And never yet did insurrection want / Such watercolours to impaint his cause, / Nor moody beggars starving for a time / Of pell-mell havoc and confusion' (1 Henry IV 5.1.79-82); so too the official rhetoric of state authority frequently linked masterless men and the threat of sedition.4 One way of dealing with the excess population of rogues and vagabonds was through involuntary impressment for war or colonization, a technique Falstaff has mastered as he finds 'food for powder' for the wars; Westmorland says Falstaff s soldiers are 'exceeding poor and bare, too beggarly', but Falstaff blithely dismisses his concern, 'for their poverty, I know not where they had that' (1 Henry IV 4.2.65-71). Kate in The Taming of the Shrew is confident that 'beggars that come unto my father's door / Upon entreaty have present alms, / If not, elsewhere they meet with charity' (4.3.4-5), but most of the plays offer instead visions of 'begging hermits' (Titus 3.2.41), whippings, country beadles on the watch for what Dogberry calls 'all vagrom men' (Much Ado 3.3.24), the 'poor beggar [who] raileth on the rich' (King John 2.1.593), the 'farmer's dog [which] bark[s] at a beggar' (Lear F 4.5.150-1), and the further ironies of economic injustice, as the Fisherman explains to Pericles: 'Here's them in our country of Greece gets more with begging than we can do with working' (Pericles Sc.5.104-6). In these and dozens of other allusions and figures of speech, Shakespeare's language reveals a strong and consistent awareness of the political, economic, and spiritual subjection of beggars and vagabonds: they are invariably 'poor and loathsome' (Shrew Ind. 1.121), 'unfortunate', distressed, crying, suffering, thoroughly marginalized. 'Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous' (Lear F 2.2.438-9), Lear knows; there are even those who would 'show charity to none, / But let the famished flesh slide from the bone / Ere thou relieve the beggar. Give to dogs / What thou deniest to men' (Timon 4.3.528-31). The 'disease of all-shunned poverty' (Timon 4.2.14) is an epidemic throughout the plays. 'Fortune, that arrant whore', as Lear's Fool says, 'Ne'er turns the key to th'poor' (Lear F 2.2.227-8).

But beyond the dense texture of metaphor and allusion, Shakespeare's language and his politics are inextricably linked in more complex and suggestive ways. In three instances which I will discuss, from early, middle, and late in his career, Shakespeare creates a language at once individualized and typical which functions as a counter-discourse to what Ives would term the 'establishment point of view'. In examining these instances, I will however attempt to resist this kind of terminology, in which Shakespeare's own political views are imputed as 'establishment' (bad') or 'subversive' (good) because such binarism seems to me to falsify the complex dialogical events of the plays. My three examples are from The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI), King Lear, and The Winter's Tale.


In the inflammatory rhetoric of the early and mid-1590s, memories of Kett, Jack Cade, and Wat Tyler were frequently evoked; sedition was a genuine concern. Bartholomew Steer, the ringleader of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596, sounded little different from his cousins on the stage. A group of poor petitioners told the lord lieutenant then 'that yf they Could not have remedie, they would seek remedie themselves, and Cast down hedges and dytches, and knocke down gentlemen'.5 Steer himself told his interrogators that 'the poore did once Rise in Spaine and Cutt down the gent[lemen], and sithens that tyme they have lyved merily there'. He believed that 'manie would Rise' in the kingdom, and that 'yt was but a monthes work to overrun England'.6 He also intended to march on London itself, as Jack Cade once did, joining up with the mobs who had recently rioted in the city: 'when the prentices heare that wee bee upp, they will Come and Joine with us'. He was induced to think this, his interrogator reports, 'by reason of the late intended insurrection in London, and that Certain Prentices were then hanged'.7

Steer's rising failed spectacularly, but the association between certain forms of sedition and masterless men was quite close here and elsewhere. The rebel Falcon-bridge in Heywood's 1 King Edward IV (c. 1599), to take another example, is at some pains to distinguish himself from the usual kind of sedition, invoking a social class contempt which demonstrates the allegedly 'natural' association of the poor with rebellion, but distinguishes theirs from his own:

We do not rise like Tyler, Cade, and Straw, Bluebeard, and other of that rascal rout, Basely like tinkers or such muddy slaves, For mending measures or the price of corne, Or for some common in the wield of Kent Thats by some greedy cormorant enclos'd, But in the true and antient lawfull right Of the redoubted house of Lancaster.


The real economic injustices of the period which did in fact lead to rebellion are not relevant here; rather, like most actual risings in the period, this one is led not by the peasantry but by a discontented nobleman.

In The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI), Shakespeare dramatizes one of the most notorious instances of plebeian revolt in English history, Jack Cade's rising in 1450. Cade's ancestry was notorious. Hall reports that 'divers idle and vacabonde persons, resorted to him from Sussex and Surrey, and from other partes to a great number. Thus this glorious Capitayn, compassed about, and environed with a multitude of evil rude and rusticall persones, came agayn to the playn of Blackeheath.9 ' In one of the rogue pamphlets of the period—Martin Markall (c. 1608)—Cade is in fact said to be the 'originali and beginning' of the Regiment of Rogues of the kingdom—essentially, the Urvagabond. Cade's rebellion and march on London are joined, in this version, by the 'Rakehels and Vagabonds . . . [and] masterlesse men' of Kent.10 So too Shakespeare's Cade is followed by an army of vagabonds, 'a ragged multitude / Of hinds and peasants' (4.4.31-2). Cade himself has all the cultural marks of a vagabond: he was 'born, under a hedge', his father's house was 'but the cage', and he is himself a 'valiant' beggar, who has been 'whipped three market days together', and has been 'burned i'th'hand for stealing of sheep' (4.2.52-65); in elaborating the fantasy that he is the son of Edmund Mortimer, finally, Cade himself offers that he is the older, hitherto unknown child who, 'being put to nurse, / Was by a beggar-woman stol'n away' (4.2.140-1).

Cade's language perfectly' embodies the mixture of political and sociological .sources which went to create him. His speech is by turns oracular, contradictory, comically inept, full of righteous indignation. At some points he sounds the violent note of class warfare: 'We will not leave one lord, one gentleman—/Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon, / For they are thrifty honest men, and such / As would, but that they dare not, take our parts'. Told that they 'are all in order', marching toward them, Cade makes a memorable reply: 'But then are we in order when we are / Most out of order' (4.2.183-9). Above all, Cade's utopianism needs to be recognized as a complex linguistic creation, not simply, as some have argued, a mockery engineered by Shakespeare (himself allegedly on the side of the establishment) to discredit Cade.11 Part of a long tradition of radical Utopian impossibility, echoing the land of cockayne, naivety and cunning cynicism fused together, Cade's vision is expressed in an idiosyncratic rhetoric which is also part of a long-running political dialogue: 'There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass' (4.2.67-71). The real suffering and grievances of the poor, the injustices perpetrated by the nobles: these energies lose their force when embodied in Cade's buffoonery, yet the grievances are spoken on the stage, and the very sources of his energy and his language derive from such contradictions. He will condemn those who teach reading and writing, or speak Latin, yet he speaks Latin himself (4.7.121). Cade's eloquence against social injustice cannot be separated from, nor is it cancelled by, his grotesqueries. His charge against Lord Say includes the absurd accusation that 'Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school', but that is soon followed by something more compelling: 'Thou hast appointed justices of the peace to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison, and, because they could not read, thou hast hanged them when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live' (4.7.30-43). These complaints are real ones, frequently heard outside the theatres; this representation of Cade both subverts their political and ideological power and enhances it, even explaining, on one level, the rebels' desire to 'burn all the records of the realm' (4.7.13).

Cade's language is part of a political discourse which dates back to More's Utopia and earlier. Crowley and other polemicists had accurately represented the voices of protest, and there is little difference to be heard between Thomas More's warning that the displaced poor must either rob or beg, 'and a man of courage is more likely to rob than to beg'12 and Richard Morison's warning that 'men wylle steale, thoughe they be hanged, excepte they may lyve without stelyng'13 (in 1516 and 1536, respectively), and Thomas Lodge's personification of Sedition—'it is a paradox of his, That it is better [to] live a Rebell than die a beggar'14 —and Edward Hext's reports of desperate countrymen who 'styck not to say boldlye they must not starve, they will not starve'15 (both Lodge and Hext writing in 1596). Jack Straw's question, 'Who would live like a beggar, and may be in this estate[?]'16 was asked more than once during the sixteenth century, particularly in the 1590s. Another version of that question occurs in Cade's language, and his desire that 'all the realm shall be in common' (4.2.70), repeated and even more generalized later into 'And henceforward all things shall be in common' (4.7.17), places him clearly in the line of inflammatory Utopian rhetoric perhaps most associated with his cousin on the stage, Parson Ball, who in The Life and Death of Jack Straw (c. 1593) argued for all things in common: 'it were better to have this communitie, / Than to have this difference in degrees'.17 At the end of 2 Henry VI, when Jack Cade climbs over the brick wall into Alexander Iden's garden like any poaching vagabond, Cade describes Iden as the 'lord of the soil' who holds his 'fee-simple' as an inheritance (4.9.24-5), and claims to be vanquished by 'famine' alone. To the end, Cade enacts the discourse of property, dispossession, and poverty. His rise and fall reveals no simple ideological position of subverting or subverted. Rather, his voice forms part of a complex socio-political discourse marked most of all by heteroglossia.


My second example is Edgar, in King Lear. As I have argued elsewhere,18 Edgar's disguise as Poor Tom, the outcast beggar, is an incarnation of everything antithetical to the order of law represented in his initial identity as 'legitimate' son and heir. A Poor Tom was supposedly a lunatic beggar, an escaped or released inmate of Bedlam Hospital. For most Elizabethans, he seems also to have been understood as a fraud, an ingenious counterfeiter skilled in grotesque makeup, real and pretended self-mutilation, and recurring street scenarios worthy of the commedia dell'arte. The Poor Tom is also known in English rogue books as an 'Abraham' or 'Abram' man, but the type is also evident in Continental literature on the subject, such as the Liber Vagatorum. The English rogue pamphlets—Awdeley, Harman, Dekker, and others—elaborate every feature of Poor Tom's rôle, including his self-declaration of name and origin in Bedlam. Poor Tom's language is also specified in some descriptions: he 'nameth himselfe poore Tom';19 'Every one of these Abrams hath a several! gesture in playing his part. Some make an horrid noyse, hollowly sounding; some whoope, some hollow, some shewe onely a kind of wild distracted ugly looke';20 one, it is reported, 'sweares hee hath beene in Bedlam, and will talke frantickly of purpose . . . he calls himselfe by the name of Poore Tom, and comming neere any body cries-out Poore Tom is a colde'.21 Jonson describes a 'Bethl'em-like' speaker as 'a vaine sound of chosen and excellent words, without any subject of sentence, or science mix'd'.22 The surviving printed sources, if that is where, rather than life, Shakespeare found his information, give little other evidence about the language spoken by Poor Toms: they utter their own names and tell their own histories while begging, they often make 'an horrid noyse, hollowly sounding' and 'talke frantickly of purpose'. When he puts on the disguise of Poor Tom, Edgar understands that the type speaks 'with roaring voices' and 'Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers / Enforce their charity' (Lear F 2.2.177-83). Beyond the usual beggar's line, some aspects of Edgar's language are also linked, as is well known, to Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures. Yet even Harsnett and the rogue pamphlets cannot entirely account for such phantasmagoric visions as this self-definition by Edgar, who answers Gloucester's question 'What are you there?':

Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt, and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cowdung for salads, swallows the old rat and the ditchdog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to tithing, and stocked, punished, and imprisoned; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body,

Horse to ride, and weapon to wear;

But mice and rats and such small deer

Have been Tom's food for seven long year.

(Lear F 3.4.121-31)

What I would like to stress here is the often explicitly political dimension of Poor Tom's language, an element which seems to have been Shakespeare's own addition to the stereotype in the sources. Certainly the play as a whole undertakes an interrogation of the political,23 from such signal moments as Lear's prayer for the 'poor naked wretches' of the kingdom, whose 'houseless heads and unfed sides . . . looped and windowed raggedness' (Lear F 3.4.28-31) reflect Edgar's disguise and reinforce his perception that 'the country gives me proof and precedent' of the proliferation of such beggars and Gloucester's parallel prayer that the 'superfluous and lust-dieted man' should feel the heavens' power, and 'So distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough' (Lear F 4.1.61-4). Beggars never have enough, though 'Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous'. Poor Tom's hallucinatory speeches enact these concerns in another way. He represents among other things the inversion of royal and social power.24 To the mad king, Tom announces his past as that of 'A servingman, proud in heart and mind . . . False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand' (Lear F 3.4.79-86). This speech not only links him with the other false servingmen of the play—Edmund and Oswald—but in its fractured shards of the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins re-enacts the Fall on a number of levels, including that of the social hierarchy. It is ironically appropriate that Poor Tom should become a 'learned justice' in the mad trial of 3.6 (Sc. 13 in Q); a 'robed man of justice' and 'yokefellow of equity' with the Fool, Tom takes his place as one 'o' th' commission' along with Kent. It is Poor Tom who begins the trial, 'Let us deal justly', but ends it with the vagabond's cry to move on to new targets, 'Come, march to wakes and fairs / And market-towns. Poor Tom, thy horn is dry' (Lear Q Sc. 13.17-69). The oppressed conditions of the poor continue as an issue in the play in Lear's language, in the confrontation between Edgar (now speaking as a rustic peasant) and Oswald, and in the general problematic of justice. 'Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?' Lear asks Gloucester, 'An the creature run from the cur, there thou mightst behold the great image of authority'. 'Change places', the king says, and, 'handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?' (Lear F 4.5.148-55). That is a question to which the play gives various answers, none of them simple or reassuring.


My third example is Autolycus, in The Winter's Tale, where we will in fact see a beggar-thief change places with a prince in the fourth act. When Simon Forman reported his account of seeing The Winter's Tale at the Globe on 15 May 1611, he reported the Leontes-Polixenes plot with some care, with the abandonment and recovery of Perdita explicitly noted; from the second half of the play, however, Forman notoriously did not mention the Chorus of Time (though he did note that Perdita was sixteen years old then), the infamous bear, or the great statue scene (he had not even noted Hermione's apparent death). But one feature of the second half of the play does seem to have struck his attention greatly: 'Remember also the Rog that cam in all tottered like coll pixci. and howe he feyned him sicke & to have bin Robbed of all that he had and howe he cosoned the por man of all his money, and after cam to the shep sher with a pedlers packe & ther cosoned them Again of all their money And howe he changed appareil wt the kinge of bornia his sonn. and then howe he turned Courtiar &c'. The message was clear to Forman: 'beware of trustinge feined beggars or fawninge fellouss'.25 Autolycus is an entirely different kind of 'feined beggar' from Poor Tom, of course—not a lunatic but part of the tradition of the merry beggar; he enters singing of the red blood reigning in the winter's pale and the sweet birds, O how they sing. As a matter of economic and political theory, such wandering beggars—Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew seems to be another—were subject to all the same harsh laws as any other masterless man, though they were also frequently used as necessary vehicles of distribution in local economies. As one contemporary described the type, 'A Ballad-seller . . . hath a whole Armie of runnagates at his reversion, that swarme everie where in England, and with theyr ribauld songs infect the Youth of this flourishing Commonweale.'26

Although Autolycus' character seems derived primarily from literary sources—something of the picaresque, and of a tradition which romanticized the freedom and openness of the tramp's life—still the language Shakespeare has created for him receives its life from a number of other wellsprings. The songs link Autolycus with a popular tradition of festive natural celebration; many analogous songs have been reported with the same peddler's cry, 'what do you lack?'27 On the other hand, the language of Autolycus also reveals a strong indebtedness to the cony-catching pamphlets of Robert Greene, not only in the specific trick which Forman recalled, but in the vocabulary and diction of his language. Autolycus is given many of the specialized terms of the thieves' trade: 'doxy', 'pugging' (or 'prigging'), 'die and drab', 'prig', 'cut-purse', 'I picked and cut most of their festival purses', and so forth. More, his voice is both unique in its colloquial eccentricities and almost Jonsonian in its sharp familiarity with the conventions of thieving:

you might have pinched a placket, it was senseless. 'Twas nothing to geld a codpiece of a purse. I could have filed keys off that hung in chains. No hearing, no feeling but my sir's song, and admiring the nothing of it. . . had not the old man come in with a hubbub against his daughter and the King's son,and scared my choughs from the chaff, I had not left a purse alive in the whole army.


This language is Shakespeare's closest approximation to what was sometimes known as 'Pedlar's French', or beggar's cant. The origins of the canting language are obscure—the Liber Vagatorum (1509), translated by Luther, offers a list of over 200 words; the English rogue pamphlets often featured a vocabulary list and sample dialogues in canting language. Language historians have shown that there were different jargons for various marginalized subgroups, but the vocabulary lists offered for vagabonds in the rogue pamphlets were quite consistent—indeed, often plagiarized from one another.28 Nor was this language a purely literary construct, for documentary evidence from court transcripts and interrogations demonstrates that Pedlar's French was actually used by peddlers and vagabonds throughout the Tudor-Stuart period-Fleetwood, as one example, recorded in 1585 the use of such terms as 'foyste', 'nyppe', 'lyft' and others at a school of pickpockets in London.29 One must of course admit that Shakespeare's employment of beggar's cant is in no way as extensive or obsessive as for example Middleton and Dekker's in The Roaring Girl or Brome's in A Jovial Crew; Shakespeare's interest seems much less journalistic and sociological than theirs.

In considering the general issue of beggar's cant, one important historian of poverty in this period, A. L. Beier, has concluded, 'It is doubtful whether Pedlar's French represented an alternative ideology. It provided a means of communication, but its parameters were quite narrow.'30 I of course want to argue the opposite point here, that an alternative language does represent an alternative ideology, and that the beggar's language in particular is a counter-discourse within the play. Autolycus is indeed a merry-hearted, jovial vagabond, but he also knows that 'Gallows and knock are too powerful on the highway. Beating and hanging are terrors to me' (4.3.28-9). He can flourish now because "I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive' and he observes that 'The prince himself is about a piece of iniquity, stealing away from his father with his clog at his heels' (4.4.674-80). Autolycus' exchange of clothing with Florizel, the beggar and the prince switching rôles, comically stages the political fear of the lower class replacing a higher one. Autolycus' language does not change, however, as he assumes the trappings of 'great authority' (4.4.800-1): 'Whether it like me or no, I am a courtier. Seest thou not the air of the court in these enfoldings? Hath not my gait in it the measure of the court? Receives not thy nose court-odour from me? Reflect I not on thy baseness court-contempt? Thinkest thou, for that I insinuate to toze from thee thy business, I am therefore no courtier? I am courtier cap-à-pic' (4.4.730-6).

Autolycus is 'cap-à-pic' a courtier, while Jack Cade, we were told in The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI), expected men to treat him 'in capite' (4.7.121). Cade's attempted ascent to a kind of peasant kingship, Poor Tom's elevation to the position of 'learned justice', Autolycus' comical reversal in status from vagabond peddler to gentleman and courtier—these reversals suggest that the beggar's status in these plays is therefore not only to speak the voice of the dispossessed, which they do insistently, and not only to represent a socio-political inversion which impersonates the voice and values of those above them, but also to be that force which naturally seeks to rise, and therefore constitutes a politicized energy.

Though they are very different characters, Cade, Poor Tom, and Autolycus share many common attributes in their language: it is almost exclusively prose, highly colloquial, filled with puns and dramatic irony, semantically and syntactically unstable, invariably refracting the imagery and thematic concerns of the 'high' language of the plays. But beyond the obvious political themes in their language, the most political aspect of it is that it exists at all. As discourse, the voices of Cade, Poor Tom, and Autolycus enact their own ideological positions. Shakespeare may not have quoted his knowledge as frequently as some playwrights, and he certainly seems to have known less about beggars and vagabonds than Dekker did, but that was true of everyone. What he does understand, perhaps better than others, is the profound connection in the underclass between their politics and their language.


1 E. W. Ives, 'Shakespeare and History: Divergencies and Agreements', Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), 19-35; p. 28.

2 Ives, 'Shakespeare and History', p. 35.

3 The best general works on the problem of poverty in Shakespeare's time are A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 (London, Methuen, 1985), and Paul Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, Longman, 1988).

4 For a recent consideration of this connection, see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 32-51, and Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988).

5 Quoted in John Walter, 'A "Rising of the People"? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596', Past & Present, 107 (1985), 90-143; p. 98.

6 Walter, 'A "Rising of the People"?', p. 108.

7 Walter, 'A "Rising of the People"?', pp. 107-8.

8 Thomas Heywood, The Dramatic Works, vol. 1 (New York, Russell & Russell, 1964; rpt. 1874), p. 9. On enclosure as a continuing cause of disorder and riot, see Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts.

9 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 3 (London and New York, 1960), p. 114.

10 Samuel Rowlands, The Complete Works, vol. 2 (New York, Johnson Reprint, 1966; rpt. 1880), pp. 44-5.

11 Among the recent commentaries on the play's ideological position, see especially Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theatre: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York, Methuen, 1985); Richard Wilson, '"A Mingled Yarn": Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers', Literature and History, 12 (1986), 164-80; Michael Hattaway, 'Rebellion, Class Consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI', Cahiers Élisabéthains, 33 (1988), 13-22; and Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. In Shakespeare's Prose (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), Milton Crane described Cade's prose as simply 'scurrilous and incoherent' in comparison with 'the noble and simple verse of Lord Say' (p. 133). In The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London, Methuen, 1968), Brian Vickers offers an excellent technical analysis of Cade's prose, acknowledging the rhetorical variations in it, but still concludes that Shakespeare creates a 'totally unsympathetic portrait' (p. 26).

12 Thomas More, Utopia, ed. Robert M. Adams (New York, Norton, 1975), p. 15.

13 Richard Morison, A Remedy for Sedition (London, 1536), E3 . v

14 Thomas Lodge, Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madnesse (London, 1596), p. 67.

15 R. H. Tawney and Eileen Powers, eds., Tudor Eco-nomic Documents, vol. 2 (London, 1924), p. 341.

16The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1594) (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1957), line 247.

17The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1594), lines 84-5.

18 William C. Carroll, '"The Base Shall Top Th'Legitimate": The Bedlam Beggar and the Role of Edgar in KingLear', Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (1987), 426-41.

19 John Awdeley, The Fraternitye ofVacabondes (Lon-don, 1561), printed in The Rogues and Vagabonds of Shakespeare's Youth, ed. Edward Viles and F. J. Furnivall (London, 1907), p. 3.

20 Thomas Dekker, O per se O (London, 1612), M2 . r

21 Thomas Dekker, The Belman of London (London, 1608), D3 . r

22Timber, or Discoveries, in Johnson, eds. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, vol. 8 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 574.

23 See elsewhere in this volume Margot Heinemann's fine essay on King Lear.

24 For a stimulating discussion of the dynamics of sym-bolic inversion, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1986).

25 Quoted in the Arden The Winter's Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford (London, Methuen, 1963), p. xxii.

26 E. de Maisonneuve, Gerileon of England (1592); quoted in the Arden The Winter's Tale, p. 100.

27 See, for example, The Pedlers Prophecie (London, 1595): 'What lacke you, what buy you, any good pinnes etc', D3 . r

28 An extensive list of cant terms appears in Thomas Harman's A Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors Vulgarely Called Vagabones (London, 1568). Harman's Caveat went through four editions, followed by more or less open plagiarisms in The Groundworke of Conny-Catching (1592) arid Dekker's The Belman of London (1608); Dekker's plagiarism was pointed out by Samuel Rid, Martin Mark-all, Beadle of Bridewell (1608), who nevertheless quoted, and amplified, the list once again.

29Tudor Economic Documents, vol. 2, p. 339.

30 Beier, Masterless Men, p. 126.

Derek Cohen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Poor: 2 Henry VI" in The Politics of Shakespeare, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 55-72.

[In the following essay, Cohen probes Shakespeare's rendering of the poor in 2 Henry VL]

The examples of Shylock, Othello, Caliban, and, later, Malvolio, al demonstrate the relative ease with which society can contain and control its marginalized individuals. Simply put, it gangs up on them, using the persuasive forces of socially sanctioned violence, scapegoating, and other ideological apparatuses by which the ruling class determines what is politically correct and what is not. Strangers and outsiders have little chance. In the case, however, of class animosities, there are significant differences. The ruling class has to control a collectivity of people which is larger than itself. It must dominate them but use the instruments of domination in less categorical ways than it uses them against easily separated individuals. One of the chief ways in which the poor are deromanticized, singled out, and controlled, is by ridicule and by being characterized as somehow 'in the wrong'. Poverty, like blackness or Jewishness, is a kind of defect.

The poor in Shakespeare's history plays receive short shrift. They tend to be violent, stupid, aggressive, vacillating, sycophantic, vicious, brutal and unkind. Though the rich and powerful are often no better, it is only in their ranks that we find a proportionate representation of complementary virtues. The poor appear to need the strong hand of patriarchal monarchy to provide them with moral and intellectual direction and purpose. Only infrequently do they cast up leaders from their ranks and, when they do, these leaders turn out to want, more than anything, to be like their masters, the rich and the royal. Poverty is indeed a curse in these plays, but it is as often as not represented as a curse on those who deserve it—a punishment for being poor. In representing the condition of poverty as a social and moral contagion, Shakespeare was, of course, perpetuating a truism of Western economic thought. Poverty in these plays is constructed by the author, but the construction is, as always, abetted by a vast complex of determinants including class and economics.

There have been some attempts to argue that Shakespeare's poor in the histories are ultimately sympatheticaly or, at best, ambivalently drawn. These attempts have tended to coincide with such upsurges of ideological and economic individualism as produced the scholarly works of Bradley, say, or those of Tillyard, Dover Wilson, and R. W. Chambers—periods when it was only with reluctance that ideological 'deficiencies' in Shakespeare were acknowledged. Thus, for example, R. W. Chambers attempts to argue in 'Shakespeare and the Play of More' that the poor of the histories (2 Henry VI in particular) are treated with genial and poetic sympathy but ultimately need the steady guiding hand of the powerful to achieve happiness. Chambers, almost elaborately, feels sorry for poor people, as his Shakespeare apparently did, and regards it as a mark of Shakespeare's superiority that he showed his sympathy for poverty in his plays.1 There is at least one other and opposite way of regarding this alleged sympathy—as self-protective condescension. But within Chambers's world view, sympathy for the unfortunate is a moral rather than a political choice; it is a good or bad thing and not a decision about one's relation to society. With such sympathy and its concomitants and consequences—charity for example—the division between rich and poor can be justified within liberalism's moral framework by being ameliorable without threatening the economic structure. After making the claim for a sympathetic and compassionate poet, Chambers is obliged to identify himself and Shakespeare not with the poor but with the rich who judge them. Thus, the pauper's demand for sufficient food to eat is described by the critic in the terms in which they are presented in the play as 'false economics.'2 The sympathy which Chambers detects in the plight of the poor is, apparently, sabotaged by an absurdity inherent to the poor and poverty, and discernible in 'the typical Shakespearean attitude to the mob. . . . These absurdities, depicted by the dramatist with fun and merry good humour, are, by a terrible combination, coupled with . . . merciless savagery.'3

Indeed, R. H. Tawney has argued powerfully that with the Reformation and the Protestant work ethic it was not long before poverty was regarded as a punishment for idleness and wealth as a reward for thrift and industry.4 It is in large measure because so little compassion is expended on the poor by the rich in Shakespeare that Lear's 'Poor naked wretches' speech is regarded with so much admiration by Christian and Marxist critics alike, and almost everyone in between. The second tetralogy provides the best-known examples of poor and 'working class' characters, beggars and ill-paid working folk, whose plight remains unchanged in the end, and who remain, finally, in the very condition in which they first appeared. The would-be leaders amongst them end up discomfited by the conservative forces of a self-sustaining and self-referential patriarchal politics. The leaders who end up leading the poor are drawn from the aristocracy and nobility. Thus, to cite one well-used example, Prince Hal is far more popular with the poor than Falstaff, who is virtually, if anomalously, one of them. The tavern-folk of Henry IV 1 and 2 include the notorious Francis who supplies so much amusement to the prince and whose plight inspired G. L. Kittredge's lofty observation that 'Sentimental readers . . . need not distress themselves. When Francis grew up and became an innkeeper himself, we may be sure that he often told with intense satisfaction how he had once been on intimate terms with Prince Hal.'5 Michael Bristol has evaluated this impulse of both drama and criticism to neutralize and disarm plebeian dissatisfaction with the ruling class. But, he notes, a 'wish to discourage or ignore manifestations of popular culture will not of itself cause that culture to disappear.'6 Plebeian culture has been attacked and diminished by the potent literary weapon of ridicule. It is simply not a serious alternative to present rule in the minds of bourgeois dramatists and their audiences and critics. Sympathy for the lot of the poor is a very different thing from letting them take their plight into their own hands. Unless the remedy is seen to lie within the power of their rulers, the dominant culture's helplessness has to be acknowledged. This was and is unthinkable to the adherents of that culture.

Commentary and criticism have been complicit in such constructions of Shakespeare's weak and working class. They are known as the low characters, the farce characters, the fools, the butts, the knaves and whores. One might consider the various critical celebrations of Feeble (2 Henry IV), who declares that he will fight for his king because we 'owe God a death' (III,2,230). This simple, straightforward and courageous remark has elicited disproportionate praise from generations of bourgeois critics and audiences because its source has been deemed so unlikely—Feeble is a rural working man who possesses a valiant mind—and because every other impressed citizen seems to be aware of how small his stake will be in the victory of either side in the dispute and would rather go home than fight. Why Feeble has any interest in fighting on behalf of the illegal and corrupt monarchy is one of the great unasked questions of Shakespeare criticism. Why the critics have been so delighted by his exhibition of patriotic loyalty to his monarch is less difficult to understand. Shakespeare studies have, perhaps until recently, overwhelmingly been the preserve of middle-class, liberal and conservative practitioners whose values are vividly expressed in such things as the admiration for Feeble's loyalty to his monarch, a loyalty that plainly and simply opts for an entrenched monarchical order. The very absence of critical self-consciousness about how patronizing the critics have sounded in this praise is itself an index of how offensive it really is. The theatre too has, for the most part, supported this kind of characterization or construction, though it would be unfair to neglect the many honourable exceptions to this generalization. A number of well-known Shakespeare productions have, indeed, hinged upon powerful and sympathetic representations of the poor. Yet, there remains substantial truth in Margot Heinemann's remark that 'in modern productions these characters are routinely presented as gross, stupid and barely human—rogues, sluts and varlets with straw in their hair, whose antics the audience can laugh at but whose combination of Loamshire dialect and dated jokes often makes the comments unintelligible anyway.'7 This kind of presentation will be familiar. Poverty on the Shakespeare stage is mainly—though not inevitably—comic. Poor people are made to sound funny; their accents and their mangling of what we are taught to understand as The English Language are a prime source of humour; their wit, while often effective and wise, is devalued by being unrefined and inelegant. Their clothes, often mere rags, and a scutcheon of their wearer's social worthlessness, are also a frequent source of humour (it is sometimes forgotten that the stylized diamond pattern on Harlequin's costume is a carryover from his older commedia dell'arte humorous costume of tatters and patches).8 Peasants are a staple of laughter in Renaissance art, Stephen Greenblatt affirms, while he reminds us of the distinction between Rabelaiseian shared laughter that stresses the crossing of social boundaries, and Sidneian laughter that underscores social differences.9 It is the unavoidable practice of Shakespeare's plays that they represent the 'rich' as normal, and the poor as abnormal—though it has been argued that rational economic and sociological reasons determined this bias. Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that the poor population of Shakespeare's England vastly outnumbered the rich and the comfortable, it is a feature of the plays that the poor person is represented as a defective rich person. This representation is made the more normal by the fact that the dearest wish of the poor person is almost always to be a rich person.

The disproportionate characterizations of rich and poor are contingent on historical forces that have created the unequal distribution of wealth and power and force them to succumb to these distortions of presentation. Though the poor hugely outnumbered the rich, the contingencies of urban life and the economics of the theatre produced a false picture of the real proportions—as it undoubtedly does in theatre today where the poor are notable for their absence, both onstage and in the audience. In real life the poor would have been almost everywhere except in the court and the theatre, which both would have functioned as refuges for the wealthy from the normally ubiquitous poverty. Poverty in the midst of plenty is always a threat to plenty, and it is reasonable to regard the theatre as a culturally validated means of defusing that threat through ridicule, sentimentality, or demonization. Theatre audiences have usually included only a minority of the poor; the plays reinforce the notion of the harmlessness of poverty by similarly including only a minority of—usually risible or dangerous—poor amongst their dramatis personae.

Class hatred is given powerful play in 2 Henry VI. All classes are represented as profoundly flawed, and hopelessly corrupt. The nobility is reckless, power-crazed, divided within itself. It is torn by the wranglings of ambitious people who have within their grasps the possibility of tyrannical power. The poor are quasicomic in their villainous lust for wealth and power, and simply and utterly stupid in their notions of how to use either. Their means of achieving power are brutal and savage. Their sheer 'otherness' in the England of the play is that of dark, strange, bestial foreigners from whom the rest of society needs protection. The middle class, represented by the minor politicians like the Mayor of Saint Albans, and such functionaries as the Clerk of Chatham, are nervous, pusillanimous presences who are, however, concerned about national political and social stability in ways that seem not to touch the warring nobles and peasantry.

2 Henry VI is an interesting study in rich-poor relations particularly because amongst the rich and powerful there is such intense and nasty dissension and disagreement that the stability of the hierarchy is in constant danger of collapse. The parties are various, the divisions are multiple, and rancour lurks on every side. The king himself is an impotent weakling and his wife loves a noble who is killed not by a friend of the king but by one of his enemies. Duke Humphrey seems immobilized by his overweening sense of himself and his honour, and it is a relief when he is killed. The queen is faithful only to power and ambition. Political stability, that is, and moral direction are virtually absent amongst the powerful; this becomes especially true after the deaths of the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Say who had possessed some potential moral leadership. And yet, for all that rage and murderous hatred are pervasive within the ruling class, the poor and the working people are seen as so many fools and dolts, easily misled by a villain who promises them anarchy, wealth, and revenge against their enemies, the rich. But they are equally capable of fighting for the king merely because they are exhorted to do so. John Cade, the leader of the only revolution of the poor in Shakespeare, is seen by the nobles as a violent, vicious and ambitious villain; this perception of Cade is almost unanimously shared by critics and audiences alike, deriving from some incontestable brutalities and lies he commits. But it derives as well from the fact that he is supported and encouraged by the poor, those whose interests are in precise opposition to those of play-makers, audiences, and critics through the ages.

Cade threatens revolution, upheaval, bloodshed and civil war—if, that is, you are on the other side of him. To that side it is axiomatic that he must be exterminated, and when he is killed by Alexander Iden, the rhetorical forces of drama conspire in word, action, and verse to imply that his death is a decidedly good thing. Yet, to the poor he is a serious political figure who is willing, and who sees the need, to use violence to effect political change. The play tends to ridicule the potential seriousness of his challenge to monarchy by belittling his followers and falling back automatically onto the stereotyping discussed above. The drama (the playwright?) discredits him before he appears onstage. He is not given the chance to seem the revolutionary hero that many of his followers would have celebrated. The Duke of York discloses, for example, that far from being an independent rebel with a cause, Cade is really in his pay, hired to stir up strife and dissension in the kingdom, 'To make commotion, as full well he can / Under the title of John Mortimer.' (II,1,358-9) He is, in other words, a false pretender to the throne. But when Cade gets up some steam of his own, he shows an ideology that has less to do with his claim to the throne than with an awareness of the needs and aspirations of the poor, which are characteristically mocked. Cade promises his followers,

your captain is brave and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven haìf-penny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hoop'd pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass. And when I am king, as king I will be,—

All. God save your Majesty!

Cade. I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

Butcher. The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

(IV, 2, 62-73)

It is well and interestingly documented by Robert Darnton that old peasant fairy tales often hinge on the provision of a good square meal as the dearest wish of the subject;10 to the poor peasants of fairy tales, magic alone is capable of providing such extravagances as a sufficiency of meat and drink on demand. The crowd in this passage who hail Cade as their king are represented as ingenuous fools who believe in magic. Their belief in the possibility of enough food becoming available by merely changing rulers is represented as the height of naïveté. Their credulity is mocked at the same time that their hunger is given focus. This discontinuity in the text—almost a contradiction as audience sympathy and ridicule are uncomfortably conjoined—supplies a moment of disruption in the smooth flow of mockery of the poor. It is not possible or necessary to determine which impulse is uppermost in the text—that is, are they more fools than hungry or more hungry than fools? It is, however, important to see that the two needs expressed here coexist dependency because of a political system in which suppressions create their own resistances. The desire for a benevolent monarch is expressed in the clamour for Cade who will, he says, grant wishes. The fantasy of unlimited food and drink means in this context simply the absence of hunger. Michael Bristol is too literal-minded in his dismissal of the logic of 'seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny'; he sees numbers where he ought to see words. A 'half-penny loaf describes not a price but a thing, a loaf of bread of a certain size and weight. It costs a half-penny, Cade could be saying, but it ought to cost a seventh of a penny.11

So deep-rooted is individualism as a means to independence and freedom that a Cade—or for that matter, a Falstaff in another context—can only conceive of liberation through the acquisition of power within the existing framework of monarchy. And yet, even within the hopeless fantasy with which Cade attempts to deceive his followers, there is a notable difference. For although Cade wishes to be worshipped as a lord, he proposes an unusual kind of community of his worshippers. The abolition of money is to be accompanied by a sufficiency of the necessaries of life and a single livery for all to designate the brotherhood and equality of those beneath him. One must not make too much of this fantasy as an economic and political policy, though it bears a rather uncanny resemblance to certain totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century as well as strikingly anticipating some of the communal economic and political ambitions and programmes of the Diggers and Levellers of the mid-seventeenth century.12 However, Cade's depiction of political happiness strikes directly at the failure of the patriarchal monarchy to supply contentment. It is of course clear that Cade's notions are represented as ludicrous; and the sight of this megalomaniac being prematurely hailed as 'Majesty' by a credulous mob is designed to discredit both the majesty and the mob. But at the same time the sheer want expressed in the enthusiasm for the idea of enough to eat and drink is itself a subversion of what is. That men need a leader is a given of the political plays; that a leader will inevitably, therefore, emerge from amongst men is an equally unquestioningly held belief.

The evident illegitimacy of Cade as a leader rests on a number of factors, such as his palpably false claim to the throne and his subornation by York. However, we have seen such things often enough in Shakespeare, and we have seen equally fraudulent claims to the throne succeed or nearly succeed. No, what really discredits Cade is his poverty. He is separated from real power by a class system that is so rigidly inscribed into the political dogmas of the play as to be ultimately insuperable. Within the text, Cade has no means of escaping from the language, manners, and habits that have made him or the followers who are tainted in the same way. Within the supertext or intertext—that body of customs and prejudices which determine and are determined by the surrounding political and cultural networks that have nurtured the play through history and, as well, Cade in his incarnation as a villain—Cade is defeated by the bourgeois conventions of comedy. His rough, ugly violence is rough and ugly because of his class and the class of his followers and manipulators. Part of what makes Cade a dramatically implausible monarch is the prospect of him in social and political control of the aristocracy. This is a prospect which is implicit in everything he does and says, but its absurdity is ideological, not inevitable. Dick the Butcher's immortal 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers', (IV, 2, 73) is one of the best remembered and funniest lines in the canon because it expresses a fantasy in terms of the purest comic exaggeration. It is also one of those rare jokes that transcend class by constructing in hyperbolical fashion the truism that lawyers are themselves a class and are the enemy of everyone in society regardless of social standing. But part of its humour lies in the class of the person who says the line. He really means it, and we are prepared to laugh at him because of the sheer, lovely, mad naïveté of the sentiment. The very modesty of Cade's promises is comic—seven half-penny loaves for a penny—because it refers to a way of life that accepts poverty as well-earned, and alleviation as simple yet beyond reality. The idea of a monarch promising a chicken in every pot is not humorous because in some way the monarch's authority is sufficient to realize the fantasy. Cade's promise of virtually free bread and drink is comical because it is removed from reality by virtue of who Cade is: the fantasy is discredited by the traditional relation of comedy and poverty.

While bourgeois plays like this one construct poverty as comic by exploiting class differentiation, so violence is constructed as class-referential. The violence of the poor, like the violence of the rich, can take many forms. But, amongst the rich, violence is more complex and is more complexly imbricated into the social fabric. Unlike the poor, the rich are able to perform acts of violence that can purify and dignify the social formation. They can also, of course, do the opposite: the rich can participate in acts of violence that cause disharmony and social discontinuity, as amply evidenced in 2 Henry VI. Amongst the poor, however, violence usually lacks the political direction and determination perceptible as the basis of violence amongst the rich who, having money, want to stabilize their wealth by additional power. Acts of violence by the poor in the histories are denigrated and ridiculed by their actual remoteness from the reaches of real power. A man who would overthrow his monarch for the sake of bread is represented as clottish, while the man who would overthrow the monarch in order to assume the monarch's power is aggrandized as menacing, evil, ambitious, proud. In this play the outrageous stupidity of the poor is exposed in their manipulability, their easily broken alliances, their unreliability, and their greed. What might, in another context, be characterized as the deliberate product of their hopeless and tragic dependency on the rich, is here mocked as mental and psychological weakness. When in Act IV, scene 8 Old Clifford appeals to his 'countrymen', the Cade rabblement, to follow the king rather than Cade, they obligingly cry 'God save the King!' (19) Minutes later they are acclaiming Cade again: 'We'll follow Cade, we'll follow Cade!' (33) One stirring speech further on and the clamour is for 'A Clifford! a Clifford! we'll follow the King and Clifford.' (54)

Violence itself is a politically constructed concept in the plays. There are the violent acts of the rich and the violent acts of the poor. The violence of the rich and powerful is always hedged with a rhetoric of righteousness, with the anxious claim that it is necessary for the good of society—however phony that claim proves to be. The examples of Hal and Hotspur will stand out. To Hal the killing of Hotspur is an act of purification and vindication; his language declares his purpose. He promises his father not merely to strike down his enemy, but to stain his favours in a bloody mask. Hotspur too, justifies his violence on equally grandiose lines. 2 Henry VI is no exception to this habit of partiality. Even the brutal manner of Suffolk's death declares his own magnificent courage in a way that is typical of the violent deaths of many a noble villain. His last words insist on the importance and meaning of his life:

Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can, That this my death may never be forgot. Great men oft die by vile bezonians. A Roman sworder and ban ditto slave Murder'd sweet Tully; Brutus' bastard hand Stabb'd Julius Caesar; savage islanders Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.

(IV, 1, 132-8)

Cade's career, on the other hand, is represented as one lurch from random, violent destruction to the next. He is engaged in an orgy of killing that shows no sign of letting up. It is, of course, politically expedient for the dominant culture to represent the forces that threaten it in the light of chaotic and mad destruction, but where Shakespeare's plays fit into the progress of that culture is a complex question. For example, do they advance these stereotyped notions or do they interrogate them? Do the poor in his plays—and in this one in particular—conform to the idea of them held by the rich or that held by the poor, or both? Are our criteria for evaluating and analyzing the construction of poverty and violence those fostered by the plays, our own notions and ideologies, Shakespeare's own, or those of the histories of poverty and violence over the last four centuries? The best answer to these questions is all of the above. For indeed it is not possible to perceive stage violence without reference to a knowledge of actual violence. And that knowledge will have been determined by a great multiplicity of ordinary experiences shaped by psychological, cultural, historical, literary, philosophical and religious forces in our lives.

The uniqueness of 2 Henry VI is in the fact that this is Shakespeare's only play in which the political structure of patriarchal monarchy is actually threatened, is almost destroyed. In other plays that structure is endangered by those who would replace the monarch—we might think of the possibility of a Falstaff as the nation's Lord Chief Justice, for example—but here the spectre of the rule of the poor and disadvantaged is presented seriously. The established order undergoes its greatest challenge. John Cade and his 'rabblement' (they are decidedly not freedom fighters or, even, soldiers) actually defeat contingents of legitimate soldiers and frighten the established authority by raising the alarm of a revolution. This is a cultural and historical possibility that is treated with considerable anxiety in Shakespeare's political plays. The demonization of the poor in these plays is no less, and no less complex than, the demonization of other marginalized social entities in the other plays—Jews, blacks, women. Like those other marginal types, the poor are endowed with qualities that make them unincorporable into the mainstream of power politics. By definition they are 'wrong' or deformed, and incapable of being absorbed into the echelon of the dominant authority.

Though the poor always do and always will outnumber the rich, because the rich possess wealth and its concomitants, power, authority, and control of literacy, it is they who get to define and theorize poverty. Hence a poor person takes on the persona of a defective rich person in the cultural languages of middle-class societies. Endued with qualities that are inherently comic, according to bourgeois standards and traditions, they are disqualified from true leadership. Cade, we need to recall, is always operating under the secret aegis of the Duke of York. Comedy, we might remember, is synonymous with an underdeveloped moral sense in this play. The histories raise a very important related question in which something of an answer to the dilemma of poverty as moral degradation is offered. Why is it that the noble forces opposing the monarchy—those of the Lancasters, the Percies, the Plantagenets, the Nevils etc.—are represented as plausible (though not always desirable) alternative governments to those of the standing monarchies while the poor who would assume power are represented as megalomaniacal and absurd? And how are these representations accomplished?

In those situations in which the rich would overthrow the monarch, it is always the case that they and the threatened monarch share the common economic interest of wealth, which is denied the large mass of people. All contestants in such conflicts wish to maintain a feudal social structure which is sharply and deeply divided along lines of power and powerlessness, or wealth and poverty. At no time do the pretenders to the throne offer a redistribution of wealth—as we have seen Cade do in his promise to alleviate hunger. The powerful all want one thing—more power—and they see the means to that increase in power and wealth in the monarchy itself. Hence a myriad spurious and not so spurious claims to a monarchy that has anyway been so often disjoined in history that a pure lineage no longer exists. All claimants to the throne are following old precedent, as Richard II fully recognizes in his speech on the history of violence in his own monarchy—'all murdered'. They want, in other words, to maintain a hierarchical economic structure with themselves at the top, for the sake of which the present monarch must be removed, normally by violence. For such a structure to survive, as the depressing conclusion of King Lear indicates—at least in Jonathan Dollimore's reading of it13—the poor need to remain in a permanent condition of want. The claims of these nobles on the poor whom they will or do govern are themselves interesting. Never do they offer the poor redress of their poverty though they acknowledge them as the poor in a variety of ways. They offer them stability, friendship, even in the case of Henry V, brotherhood ('this little band of brothers'); they doff their bonnets to oyster wenches, but their poverty and their place in the hierarchy is understood to be fixed. This, of course, is not news in itself. But, in the context of the Cade uprising, it is extremely interesting. Cade, unlike Shakespeare's other contenders for the crown, offers them a new society, though he is damned for it in every conceivable dramatic form.14

The violent means of the noble pretenders always propose a predictable and known end. Though Duke Humphrey is hideously and brutally murdered, the purpose of his murder is to install a monarch who will command a monarchy that a patriarchally-oriented society will be familiar with. There will in this and other such cases—Richard III and Macbeth, for example—be a monarch whose hold on power will remain contingent upon the unequal division of wealth and power and whose loss of power in no way disturbs this basic economic reality. Cade is a menacing anomaly because he offers no certainty. His case provokes a certain anxiety, reflected in the text in large measure by the unpredictable consequences his success would produce. But his solution to the economic woes of his followers threatens the entire economic structure by which the monarchy exists. Cade, in his rather crude way, is offering communism to his followers. It is indeed an undeveloped and untheorized communism, but essential to it is the promise of state-supported and financed sufficiency of food and drink—to each according to his needs. Of course, the notion is treated with ridicule; its sheer pie-in-the-sky lunacy is foregrounded, so that it is made to seem little more than a mad joke. But we, unlike Shakespeare, live in a world in which such programmes and platforms, occasionally no more articulate or sophisticated than Cade's, have facilitated the overthrow of oligarchies in various parts of the world. But Cade is discredited from the start as the hero of a radical revolution bent on change. He is directed by York. He bases his credibility as a leader on a specious claim to high birth—his father was a Mortimer, he claims, his mother a Plantagenet—in doing which he valorizes the principle of lineal succession. And his sheer lying crudeness, ridiculed even by his followers, makes him into an essentially unserious threat to the monarchy of Henry.

Cade's promise of food and drink in large and cheap supply further undermines his leadership. The idea is marked as preposterous and leads directly to the fantasy of killing all the lawyers. This notion interestingly incorporates the lawyers as a class, as a recognizable obstacle to the freedom of the poor, and enables Cade to sidestep the role of the aristocracy in suppressing the poor. What follows from the threat to kill the lawyers is a maniacal orgy of revenge against other cultural institutions which are seen as oppressive. The Clerk of Chatham is brought before the rebels and sent to execution largely on the grounds that he is able to read and write. Such rough justice, of course, is shocking to a middle-class audience schooled in the values of literacy. Perhaps it is more shocking to us today, who are all literate, than it might have been to societies in which literacy was the exception rather than the rule; hard, violent societies where reading and writing were justifiably regarded as the means to power accessible only to the few, rather than to the many. Annabel Patterson has noted that the attack on literacy is a 'primitivist defence of the old crafts against mechanization . . . blurred by a negative focus on language skills as an evil science [which] gives place . . . to the connection between educational disparity and unequal access to legal justice'.15 A man who, like the Clerk of Chatham, can write, possesses in such societies a secret and privileged means to power; he is then reasonably regarded as an object of suspicion. The notion that literacy is available to all, within the means of the whole society, and that the power it supplies is open and accessible, is a very modern notion. We make a mistake to ridicule the murder of a man on the grounds that he is literate, for it is a tragically serious act, much imitated in modern history. We ought to understand more quickly, perhaps, than the benighted followers of Cade, the real and immense and potentially tyrannical power of writing. Certainly this power has been well understood by those dictators in our own century who have burned books. That act is, in a way, the greatest act of deference to the power of a book.

The desire to kill all the lawyers and the actual execution of the Clerk of Chatham by a mob of working poor are themselves eloquent expressions of the degree of alienation of the poor from the positions of power. There is a way of reading these moments in the play as a warning against the rule of the mob. If the mob had its way, the argument goes in this play and insistently in the two parts of Henry IV, there would be poor people in power. This by definition would mean a rule of scum, ruffians, criminals, dirty, dishonest, envious people with no sense of social good. The plays proliferate with metaphors, emanating from the echelons of power, which combine to suggest that the laws of nature itself have ordained that political power belongs to the rich and the noble; any attempt to reverse or invert this law, according, let it be noted, to those who design the metaphors, will lead to social catastrophe in which all members of society will suffer. The mad and murderous career of Cade is so constructed as to suggest this law in action. We are shown the injustice, the perversion of values, the lying, and the random cruel violence to which the Cades of this world and their followers are particularly prone. These followers, interestingly, all have trades—they are a working class. But they are the embodiment of the many admonitions Henry IV gives his son.

So much is easy. However, it is important to recognize that this text resists such simplicity of interpretation by constantly, though not very obviously or deliberately, displacing the finality of such judgements onto the opposing forces of disturbance in the social formation. The dominant paternal authority of the play is in a state of high disarray. Conflict and sabotage are normal; the warring factions of the rich and powerful are all bent on controlling the hapless monarch. There are significant ways in which this intestine intra-class warfare differs from the strife in the ranks of the poor. When the rich fight they virtually disregard the poor as subjects in their struggles. To them the poor are mere pawns or instruments in the achievement of their ambitions. To the poor, on the other hand, the rich are the impediment itself to their access of power. Thus, the transgressive energy that expresses itself among the poor is doubly illegitimate. For, as the rich renegade or traitor might wish to overthrow the monarch, he needs to be able to reassure a significant portion of the nobility of his need of them and of his determination to bolster their own power. He can succeed only if he can convince his powerful and aristocratic allies of his devotion to the law that has sustained them to this point. Thus, of course, much of the political wrangling in all the political plays is around the very complex and indeterminate issue of legitimacy. All sides within the aristocratic communities claim legitimacy. The poor, by contrast, throw the whole notion of legitimacy into question. They cannot succeed in their quest for power by adhering to the laws, as the rich constantly argue they can. The fear expressed in the desire to kill all the lawyers and in the execution of the Clerk of Chatham underscores the authority that the written word and the letters of the law represent to the poor.

Cade's nemesis is Alexander Iden, used by Shakespeare to put a full stop to the rebellion without compromising the values of noblesse oblige. Phyllis Rackin and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Greenblatt have examined the implications of Iden's class and his motive for murder. He is not an aristocrat fighting the rebels and protecting the interests of power and wealth: on the contrary, he is a country gentleman protecting his property and his person from a thief who aggressively threatens his life—'Nay, it shall ne'er be said, while England stands,/That Alexander Iden, esquire of Kent,/Took odds to combat a poor famish'd man.' (IV, 10, 41-3). Rackin argues that 'Shakespeare's representation of Iden's act and his character rationalizes a new source of status, the ownership of private property, in the emblems of an older world'. She notes that 'Cade is finally reduced to a mechanism for ideological containment. Shakespeare's representation of Cade invokes the stereotypes of murdering thief and comic villain, the first to project and the second to defuse the anxieties of privileged property owners.'16

The dialogue between George Bevis and John Holland amusingly highlights some of the sources of the discontent in the underclass. But like most such social criticism, this is neutralized by virtue of the comic language in which it is couched. In another context the satire might be telling, striking as it does at the inequities of class; yet once again the moral wisdom of the poor is made the substance of easy humour:

Holland. Well I say it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up.Bevis. O miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen.Holland. The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.

(IV, 2, 6-14)

The significant dividing line between classes in the play is literacy itself. The poor attack the rich for their ability to read and for their control of the instruments of literacy. In his condemnation of Lord Say, Cade accuses him among other things of 'traitorously corrupt[ing] the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school. . . . It will be proved thou has men about thee that usually talk of a noun, and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.' (IV, 7, 30-8) The connections between literacy and the law and the law and oppression is given shape in Cade's command: 'Away! burn all the records of the realm; my mouth shall be the parliament of England.' (IV, 7, 12-4) Few moments in the play more vividly contribute to the demonization of the poor. The spectacle of a nearly successful leader of a peasant revolt bent upon the destruction of the civilization is not pretty. The construction of the fickle mob of handicraftsmen and peasants as potential rulers makes the mad violent hijinks around the throne seem tame. But, as we easily slide into the wholesale condemnation of the philistines who would destroy the records of our civilization, we might do well to consider the many ways in which the fear of literacy is justified, and how literacy itself has been an instrument of the oppression. For this play confirms the relationship of wealth and literacy, and, by extension, of power and literacy, and consequently of morality and literacy. For morality, like the other ideological formations, is defined and controlled by those who articulate cultural norms.


1 R. W. Chambers, 'Shakespeare and the Play of More', Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies in English Writers, from Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939), pp. 204-49.

2 Chambers, p. 216.

3 Chambers, p. 218.

4 R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), pp. 227-75.

5 Admiringly quoted by J. Dover Wilson in The For-tunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), p. 49.

6 Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebe-ian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 45.

7 Margot Heinemann, 'How Brecht read Shakespeare', Political Shakespeare, edited by Dollimore and Sinfield, p. 225.

8 Kenneth M. Cameron and Theodore J. C. Hoffman, The Theatrical Response (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 138.

9 Stephen Greenblatt, 'Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion', Learning to Curse: Essays in Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 116.

10 Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 32-4.

11 Bristol, p. 89. Bristol's literal reading of this line is typical. To Greenblatt, and most other critics besides, the sheer bufoonery of Shakespeare's rebels is exemplified by this apparently illogical promise. See 'Murdering Peasants', Learning to Curse, p. 124.

12 Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (London: Nelson, 1961).

13 Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ide-ology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 189-202.

14 For a description of the background to the pre-1640 class hostility and the movements to which it referred, see Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London: Temple Smith, 1972), especially pp. 11-46.

15 Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 49.

16 Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 216. In 'Murdering Peasants' Greenblatt proposes that in this scene status relations 'are being transformed before our eyes into property relations, and the concern . . . for maintaining social and even cosmic boundaries is reconceived as a concern for maintaining freehold boundaries. Symbolic estate gives way to real estate.' (p. 125)

Shakespearean Comedy And The Elizabethan Social Order

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32347

John M. Love (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Though Many of the Rich are Damn'd: Dark Comedy and Social Class in All's Well that Ends Well," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 517-27.

[In the following essay, Love contends that All's Well That Ends Well is a dark comedy associated with the corrupting power of class.]

However distinctive their separate approaches to the play, twentieth-century critics have largely agreed that the suspicions of Johnson, Dowden, and most Augustan and Victorian critics that All's Well that Ends Well is a "dark" comedy were ill-founded, and that an audience might safely take its cue from the King's final words, "The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet."

In 1922, W. W. Lawrence argued that the Elizabethan audience would have recognized the Clever Wench of folk tales in Helena, and the motifs of the Healing of the King and the Fulfillment of Tasks in her labors to win Bertram. Thus, her reconciliation with Bertram would have served to dispel any shadows that Shakespeare might have introduced into the story.1 Lawrence's view of the play prevailed throughout the thirties and forties, and the archetypal criticism of the play that John Arthos and G. Wilson Knight began in the mid-fifties derives in part from Lawrence at the same time that it incorporates dements of the play that Lawrence passed over.2 These archetypes, however, also involve comic patterns of reconciliation, procreation, and fruition.

Although scholars had previously observed features of the old Vice in Parolles and of the prodigal Youth in Bertram, not until 1960 did Robert Y. Turner present a strong case for All's Well as a prodigal play. This view, unlike the folktale and archetypal approaches, deals directly with the very source of darkness that Johnson had pinpointed when he observed, "I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram." Turner's argument, and those amplifications of it that followed, rest heavily upon the Elizabethan audience's undeniable familiarity with Tudor Youth morality and with the prodigal plays of the 1590s.3 Furthermore, Turner bestows upon the ubiquitous Parolles the importance that his prominence in the action suggests he should possess, as the wicked influence Bertram must escape before his own purgation by trial and redemption by Helena's love.

Yet Parolles hardly seems Bertram's seducer. Just before Helena's first appearance at court, he urges the Count to "steal away bravely" and to "use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords" (II.i.29, 49). In addition, the Countess consoles herself, and Lafew later echoes her, in blaming the Captain for her son's misdeeds:

A very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness. My son corrupts a well-derived nature With his inducement.


No, no, no, your son was misled with a snipp'd-taffeta fellow there, whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbak'd and doughy youth of a nation in his colour.


Parolles is an accessory to Bertram's flight from Helena and to his plan to seduce Diana, yet he incites neither, and plays no visible part in the Count's other wickednesses: his scornful rejection of Helena, his cold and sneaking farewell from her after their marriage, his smug report to the French lords concerning her death and Diana's supposed dishonor, his broken vows and second flight, and the perjury and slander that he commits in the final scene. Unlike every Vice from Newgyse to Iago, Parolles never confides in the audience any plot against the hero. In fact, he never even speaks in soliloquy until after his exposure in act 4, something that in no way improves Bertram's character. The Count returns home in the foppish garb of his parasite, "with a path of velvet on's face. . . . delicate fine hats, and most courteous feathers which bow the head and nod at every man" (IV.v.90-102), and thereafter tells a string of lies and slanders to elude Diana.4

Both Shakespeare's blackening of the character of Bertram as found in earlier prose narratives, and the unfitness of Parolles for the Vice's part, have led Robert G. Hunter to challenge previous interpretations in his Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965). Unlike Lawrence, Hunter focuses upon changes that Shakespeare made in the original story and argues that "Instead of a clever wench who must prove herself worthy of an aristocratic husband, we have an unworthy husband who must be made worthy of his wife. . . . an erring mortal in need of regeneration and forgiveness" (p. 112). Hunter also takes issue with Turner, insisting that "Parolles is a symptom rather than a cause of Bertram's disease" (p. 121), and, more important, that the regeneration of Bertram is sudden and miraculous, not a dramatized process: "To cure him Helena must, in a sense, repeat, on a spiritual plane, the miracle of the king's restoration to health. . . . In doing so, she has once again served as the instrument of God's grace" (pp. 112-28).

Hunter's essay encompasses previously neglected features of All's Well but in its particulars the crucial final scene makes a mockery of both forgiveness and repentance. The audience's knowledge of Bertram's still undisclosed offenses casts an ironic light over the ceremony of forgiveness and repentance with which the scene begins:

Ber. My high-repented blames Dear sovereign, pardon to me.King. All is whole. Not one word more of the consumed time.


Within fifty lines, Bertram's momentary gesture of contrition has given way to several palpable lies, and, as before, he soon presumes upon his rank to shelter him from the consequences of his actions:

My lord, this is a fond and desp'rate creature Whom sometime I have laugh'd with. Let your highness Lay a more noble thought upon mine honour Than for to think that I would sink it there.


Further pressed, he resorts to a slander as vicious as any of Parolles's: "She's impudent, my lord, / And was a common gamester to the camp" (V.iii.186-87). Even if the audience could accept his later "O pardon!" as both genuine and a sufficient answer to Helena, he makes no such gesture towards Diana, whom he has mightily abused, and Helena never presumes to act as if Bertram required her forgiveness. Their final exchange reminds the audience that the burden of proof has always lain upon Helena:

Hel O my good lord, when I was like this maid I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring, And look you, here's your letter. This it says:When from my finger you can get this ring And is by me with child, &c. This is done; Will you be mine now you are doubly won?Ber. If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.Hel. If it appear not plain and prove untrue Deadly divorce step between me and you!


A mere "O pardon!" cannot by itself resolve all the contradictory action of the play into regeneration and forgiveness.

Hunter observes that a crucial element in the comedy of forgiveness is the revelation that the worst of the hero's offenses never took place, and cites the discovery in The Winter's Tale that Hermione had not died. This revelation would undoubtedly tend to make a surprised audience all the more ready to forgive Leontes his much-repented jealousy. Yet while the trial scene absolves Bertram of Helena's death and Diana's undoing, that absolution does not concern the omniscient theater audience nearly as much as it concerns Bertram's onstage judges. Helena's dramatic return from rumored death would therefore mitigate Bertram's offenses less than Hermione's did those of Leontes. Moreover, alone among the heroes that Hunter discusses, Bertram commits further offenses in the very scene that clears him of those he did not commit. And, finally, while Claudio, Angelo, Posthumus, and Leontes, the other forgiven heroes, must in some measure atone for their sins as well as repent them, and submit to the absolute sway of their injured ladies as part of their penance, nothing of the kind is ever asked of Bertram.

That Shakespeare has emphasized neither repentance nor forgiveness in All's Well does not mean, as Roger Warren has suggested, that he meant to leave Helena in the arms of a reprobate.5 Had he been able to conceive such an ending, the audience of his day would scarcely have understood it. Yet in the final scenes of four of the five comedies that immediately precede All's Well in his canon, Shakespeare recalls something alien to love and the comic spirit which love's ostensible triumph cannot quite eradicate. In The Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock, and the Venetian world of usury, intolerance, and revenge that he embodies, a world from which all the lovers but Portia have come. In Much Ado About Nothing, it is Don John and his malevolence; in As You Like It, Jaques and his contemptus mundi; and in Twelfth Night, it is Malvolio, and the disruption of household order that his pride threatens and his enemies bring about.

The alien, ineradicable element of All's Well that Ends Well and the source of its darkness is the barrier of class. Class debases the characters of Bertram and Helena throughout the play, and in the final scene it determines their fates and that of Parolles, despite the measure of virtue and vice each character possesses. At that point Helena, "a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire" (II.ii.30-31), must plead with a pampered husband, Bertram's fellow-prodigal Parolles appears beaten into due submission, and Bertram is, in Johnson's words, "dismissed to happiness." The difference between All's Well and the comedies that preceded it lies in its greater darkness, for class pervades the action and influences all the main characters.

Shakespeare's Helena hardly resembles the heroine of William Painter's tale of "Giletta of Narbona," the likeliest source of the play. In the first place, she has been deprived of the wealth and independence that made Giletta her spouse's equal in all respects save those of blood. Giletta, "diligently loked unto by her kinsfolke (because she was riche and fatherlesse)," clearly managed her own affairs. Having "refused manye husbandes, with whom her kinsfolke would have matched her," she journeyed to Paris alone and unaided, and there sealed her bargain with the King. Once married, she "went to Rossiglione, where she was received of all his subjects for their Lady. And perceyving that through the Countes absence, all things were spoiled and out of order: she like a sage Ladye, with greate diligence and care, disposed his thinges in order againe, whereof the subjects rejoysed very much, bearing to her their harty love & affection."6 By contrast, from the moment the Countess presents Helena to Lafew as Gerard de Narbon's "sole child . . . bequeath'd to my overlooking" (I.i.35-36), Helena's dependence upon her mistress and adopted mother is apparent. As much "unseason'd" as Bertram, she presumes to travel to Paris only with the Countess's knowledge and approval, "my leave and love, / Means and attendants, and my loving greetings / To those of mine at court" (I.iii.246-48). There, with the aid of Lafew, Helena gains a timid entrance to the King. But she does not in any sense come into her own upon her return to Rossillion as the wife of Bertram.

In those scenes which Painter's narrative suggested, Helena's application to the King in act 2 and her encounters with Diana and the Widow, Helena displays a heroic confidence in the heavenly source of her healing power and in her eventual success. Elsewhere in the play, in keeping with the dependent status that Shakespeare bestowed upon her, she remains mistrustful of others, fearful of earning their contempt by her slightest gesture of self-assertion, and self-effacing before her wayward husband.

Fearfulness leads her first of all to deceive the Countess, ironically her staunchest ally. After the soliloquy she utters upon Bertram's farewell, Parolles's meditation on virginity, and his farewell, "Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee" (I.i.210-11), the soliloquy with which Helena concludes the first scene clearly outlines a plan to win Bertram by means of the king's disease:

Our remedies oft in ourselves doe lie, Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull. . . . The king's disease—my project may deceive me, But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.


Under persistent questioning by the Countess, Helena admits her love, but equivocates, and finally denies any intention of pursuing Bertram, notwithstanding the audience's knowledge to the contrary:

. . . I follow him not By any token of presumptuous suit, Nor would I have him till I do deserve him; Yet never know how that desert should be . . . . . . O then give pity To her whose state is such that cannot choose But lend and give where she is sure to lose; That seeks not to find that her search implies But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies!


Helena admits only that Bertram's journey reminded her of the king's illness, and when in the scene immediately following her interview with the Countess she demands of the King, "What husband in thy power I will command" (II.i.93), the deception becomes unmistakable. Helena's guardedness in the first scene and her frequent reiteration of courtesy titles and deferential gestures in the presence of the Countess suggest the acute consciousness of an inferior place that might lie behind this unwarranted secrecy.

Helena remains uneasy even after her miraculous cure of the King. In act 2, scene 3, she balks at the mere prospect of choosing a husband from among the assembled courtiers, anticipating a rebuke even though the King has expressly forbidden one:

Please it your majesty, I have done already. The blushes on my cheeks thus whisper me: "We blush that thou should'st choose, but, be refused, Let the white death sit on thy cheek for ever, We'll ne'er come there again."


The terms of her address to individual lords indicate that Helena fears contempt for her class, not her person or unmaidenly forwardness:

The honour, sir, that flames in your fair eyes Before I speak, too threat'ningly replies. Love make your fortune twenty times above Her that so wishes, and her humble love!

Be not afraid that I your hand should take; I'll never do you wrong, for your own sake.

You are too young, too happy, and too good, To make yourself a son out of my blood.


Like the unswerving support of the Countess, the young lords' protestations at being passed over underscore the extent of Helena's misapprehension.

Thereafter, the most poignant moments of the play grow out of Helena's self-effacement in the presence of her renegade husband: her choosing of him, "I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live" (II.iii.102-03); their farewell, in which Bertram denies her the courtesy of the kiss that she can barely bring herself to ask; her self-accusing letter to the Countess; her bitter-sweet recollection of the rendezvous with Bertram, "But, O, strange men! / That can such sweet use make of what they hate" (IV.iv.21-22); and finally, her dramatic reappearance at Rossillion:

King. Is there no exorcist Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes? Is't real that I see?Hel. No, my good lord; 'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; The name and not the thing.


Though Shakespeare gave Helena a far greater advantage over Bertram than Giletta held over Beltramo, Painter's heroine confronted her husband far more conscious of her power: "knowing that they were all assembled. . . . shee passed through the people, without chaunge of appareil, with her twoo sonnes in her arms. . . . 'My Lorde, . . . I nowe beseche thee, for the honoure of God, that thou wilt observe the conditions, which the twoo (knightes that I sent unto thee) did commaunde me to doe: for beholde, here in myne armes, not onely one sonne begotten by thee, but twayne, and likewyse thy Ryng. It is nowe time then (if thou kepe promise) that I should be received as thy wyfe.'"

Unlike her mistrust, Helena's humility is a virtue, yet the circumstances under which it appears make her at least potentially a pathetic heroine. Her nature and her circumstances ally her more nearly to the heroines of the later romances than to her predecessors in the festive comedies, but the pathos she evokes finds its closest counterpart in Desdemona. Even though it leads to a reconciliation with Bertram, her manner during the final scene cannot but recall her character and status throughout, as well as the somber emotions she has frequently stirred.

That the unworthy husband presumes upon the class barrier that works against his virtuous wife is one of the pervasive ironies of All's Well, and in that sense Bertram's nobility of blood corrupts him by licensing his misdeeds. But Shakespeare's juxtaposition of each stage of Bertram's career and its counterpart in Parolles's creates a second irony, for the two finally emerge as wayward youths, possessed of the same degree and kind of vice, but distinguished by class and thus by fate.

The parallel courses that Bertram and Parolles run begin with their farewells to Helena in the opening scene. The Count, characteristically attentive to the niceties of rank, departs with the charge, "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her" (Li.73-74). The farewell between Helena and Parolles that follows parodies Bertram's patronizing air, from the opening gambit:

Par. Save you, fair queen!Hel. And you, monarch!Par. No.Hel. And no.

(I.i. 104-07)

to the valedictory:

Par. Little Helen, farewell. If I can remember thee, I will think of thee at court.Hel Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.


That in the presence of the despised Parolles Helena relaxes the guard she had earlier maintained, and that his absurd meditation on virginity proves more fruitful advice than the elders' precepts, only increases the apparent distance between Helena and the nobles, a distance that her earlier silence and tears had suggested.

Parolles's fall from grace likewise mirrors Bertram's. In the same scene in which Bertram's presumption earns the King's rebuke, the Captain runs afoul of Lafew for forgetting his proper place:

Laf Your lord and master did well to make his recantation.Par. Recantation! My lord! My master!Laf. Ay. Is it not a language I speak?Par. A most harsh one, and not to be understood without bloody succeeding. My master!Laf. Are you companion to the Count Rossillion?Par. To any Count; to all Counts; to what is man.Laf. To what is Count's man.

(II.iii. 186-94)

Lafew objects less to Parolles's outlandish garb and manner than to the pretensions to equality with his social superiors which the manner and garb signify: "Why dost thou garter up thy arms a' this fashion? Dost make hose of thy sleeves? Do other servants so? . . . You are more saucy with lords and honourable personages than the commission of your birth gives you heraldry" (II.iii.245-58). In this sauciness Parolles copies Bertram, yet reverses the attitude of his fellow-commoner, Helena. In his own humiliation Parolles seconds Bertram's resolve to flee "to those Italian fields / Where noble fellows strike" (II.iii.286-87), strengthening the parallel.

Throughout the third and fourth acts, each step of the French lord's plot against Parolles immediately precedes the corresponding step in Helena's winning of Bertram. In the final two scenes of act 3, the lords unfold their scheme to Bertram and enlist his aid, and Helena does the same with Diana and the Widow. Act 4 begins with the ambush of Parolles, and his vow to reveal "all the secrets of their camp" (IV.i.84), a promise that seals his fate as surely as Bertram's gift of his family ring and promise of a rendezvous seals his in the scene following. In act 4, scene 3, the parallel lines converge. Not only does Bertram report his nocturnal meeting, which the audience knows to be the last stage of Helena's plan, but Parolles's exposure becomes the exposure of both wayward youths. Although they would have Bertram believe that they aim at Parolles only "for the love of laughter" (III.ii.32), among themselves the French lords "would gladly see his company anatomiz'd, that he might take the measure of his own judgements" (IV.iii.30-32). Their disapproval of Bertram's conduct with Helena and Diana, his concern over the Captain's confession, "Nothing of me, has a'?" (IV.iii.109), the pointed warning that "If your lordship be in't, as I believe you are, you must have the patience tó hear it" (IV.iii.l11-12), the aptness of Parolles's slanderous portrait of the Count as "a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish" (IV.iii.207), and the contrast between Bertram's rage and his companions' amusement at the slanders, all serve to unite the two youths in folly.

Once the time comes for Parolles and Bertram to answer for these equivalent offenses, the parallel abruptly breaks off. In the soliloquy that follows his exposure, Parolles seems beyond chastisement:

Yet am I thankful. If my heart were great 'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more, But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft As captain shall. Simply the thing I am Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart, Let him fear this; for it shall come to pass That every braggart shall be found an ass. Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live Safest in shame; being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive. There's place and means for every man alive. I'll after them.


Nevertheless, his offenses earn him the lowest place and the poorest means. When he reappears in the fifth act, he shows respect even to the Clown, whom he had earlier patronized: "Good Master Lavatch, give my Lord Lafew this letter; I have ere now, sir, been better known to you, when I have held familiarity with fresher clothes; but I am now, sir, muddied in Fortune's mood, and smell somewhat strong of her strong displeasure" (V.ii.1-5). In the same scene, he abjectly confesses to Lafew, "O, my good Lord, you were the first that found me" (V.ii.41). He acknowledges Bertram as his master in the trial scene, and that Lafew will see to it that atonement follows conviction of sin and repentance is apparent from the charge he gives his newest servant as they observe the lovers reunited: "Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher. So, I thank thee. Wait on me at home, I will make sport with thee. Let thy curtsies alone, they are scurvy ones" (V.iii.315-18).

Bertram sins more than this and suffers less. He arrives at Rossillion unmuddied, spared the "exceeding posting day and night" (V.i.l) that Helena endured, needing no letter to the King, and in the height of fashionable attire. In the trial scene, Parolles suffers the contempt of Diana, Lafew, the King, and even Bertram, while Bertram lies, contemns, slanders, but finally embraces Helena. In the absence of Parolles, one might call the treatment that Bertram receives mercy; the Captain's presence makes it something less attractive than that.

Shakespeare's undermining of the elders in the play is another source of darkness. Their oft-uttered wisdom invariably proves ineffectual, and the shadow of death hangs over them, from the opening lines, in which the deaths of two of their comrades are announced, to Helena's final exclamation to the Countess, "O my dear mother, do I see you living?" (V.iii.313). Yet in the Clown, Shakespeare carries the darker implications of class to the extreme. In the first place, Lavatch is the arrantest upstart of all, from his first saucy appearance on stage, in the company of the dutiful steward. He mimics Helena in his marriage plans, Bertram in his sudden courtly contempt for Isbel, and Parolles in his "O Lord, sir!" He even fortells the death of the Countess. But what justifies his claim to be "A prophet, madam; and I speak truth the next way" (I.iii.56-57) is his observation of the corrupting effects of class. Early in the play he notes, "tis not so well that I am poor, though many of the rich are damn'd" (I.iii.14-15), but, more important, at the end of the fourth act, while Helena, Bertram, Parolles, and the King are converging upon Rossillion for what the audience knows will be the climax, he reminds us and Lord Lafew, "I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire, and the master I speak of ever keeps a good fire; but sure he is prince of the world; let his nobility remain in's court, I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter; some that humble themselves may, but the many will be too chill and tender, and they'll be for the flow'ry way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire" (IV.v.44-52). As in all of Shakespeare's plays, no one of the characters heeds the fool.


1 William Witherle Lawrence, "The Meaning of All'sWell that Ends Well," PMLA, 37 (1922), 418-69.

2 John Arthos, "The Comedy of Generation," EC, 5 (1955), 97-117; G. Wilson Knight, "The Third Eye," The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), pp. 93-160. See also John F. Adams, "All's Well: The Paradox of Procreation," SQ, 12 (1961), 261-70; James L. Calderwood, "Styles of Knowing in All's Well" MLQ, 25 (1964), 272-94; and David M. Bergeron, "The Mythical Structure of All's Well that Ends Well" TSLL, 14 (1973), 559-68.

3 Robert Y. Turner, "Dramatic Conventions in All'sWell that Ends Well," PMLA, 75 (1960), 497-502. See also Robert Hapgood, "Dramatic Conventions in All's Well that Ends Well," PMLA, 79 (1964), 177-79; Jay L. Halio, "All's Well that Ends Well, " SQ, 15 (1964), 33-44; J. Dennis Huston, "'Some Stain of Soldier': The Function of Parolles," SQ, 21 (1970), 431-38; Carl Dennis, "All's Well that Ends Well and the Meaning of agape" PQ, 50 (1971), 75-89; and Michael Shapiro," 'The Web of Our Life': Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well that Ends Well" JEGP, 71 (1972), 514-26.

4 Jules Rothman, in "A Vindication of Parolles," SQ,Ti (1972), 183-96, and Robert G. Hunter, in Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), both take issue with the identification of Parolles as Vice.

5 Roger Warren, "Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram, and the Sonnets," SS, 22 (1969), 79-92.

6 G. K. Hunter's Arden edition of All's Well (London: Methuen, 1959) is the source of all quotations from and references to the play and to Painter's tale of "Giletta of Narbona," the thirty-eighth novel of The Palace of Pleasure (1575).

Thomas Moisan (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'Knock me here soundly': Comic Misprision and Class Consciousness in Shakespeare," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 276-90.

[In the following essay, Moisan investigates three comic exchanges between members of differing classes in Shakespeare's plays, which he suggests hint at social inversion but ultimately leave the standards of social privilege unquestioned.]

As sites in which to ponder the representation of "class" in Shakespeare's plays—and at the dual risks of making much of little and offering less a single thesis than a collage—I propose here to examine three moments from three plays that stand as three variations on a familiar form of Shakespearean comic business: the exchange between a social superior and his inferior wherein verbal misprision produces a comic impasse that momentarily renders the superior thwarted, his inquiries and commands deflected, the basis of his superiority questioned, and the inferior ultimately left beaten or silenced or dismissed from the stage, more serviceably docile, the basis of his inferiority forcibly reaffirmed. In tracing this configuration in the exchanges between Petruchio and Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew (1.2.5-46), between Lorenzo and Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice (3.5.27-70), and between the tribunes Flavius and Murellus and the workmen in Julius Caesar (1.1.1-62),1 I would suggest that the collisions these scenes inscribe are of interest surely not as rigorously definitive commentaries on the taxonomies of class in Tudor England but as evocations of the social anxieties and antagonisms, along with the myths and contradictions, by means of which classification in Tudor England gets nourished and even "mystified." Differences notwithstanding, central to the comic "confusions" of each exchange is a disruption or blurring of distinctions between superior and inferior, master and subordinate, that the former in each pairing can only resolve through an appeal to radical differentiations of the kind to which the hierarchies of a class system respond. And if, at a glance, the scenarios enacted in these scenes offer little to contradict Keith Wrightson's account of the emerging, economically driven class consciousness of the era, so too in the hints we hear in each of a paternalist bond between superior and inferior are we reminded of the familial, affiliative bond Peter Laslett takes as controlling his envisioned patriarchalist, "classless," or, rather, "one-class" society.2 In turn, in the comic crisis initiated by the inferior's failure to obey and the superior's failure to exact obedience, we are reminded of the talismanic, mystificatory, and ultimately circular role of "obedience" in the enforcement of contemporary social distinctions, whereby obedience becomes both the means to an end and the end itself, in semiotic parlance both signifier and signified, at once the object and guarantor of social distinctions.3

Here it might be objected that the grouping I have made for this discussion on the one hand capriciously elides significant distinctions of genre and on the other overlooks the numerous occasions in which comparable verbal impasses occur in other plays by Shakespeare, in contexts as ostensibly disparate as the confusions squared of The Comedy of Errors and the graveyard interrogatories of Hamlet. To which I would respond that it is precisely because they are familiar and do, indeed, blur prescriptions of genre that the trio of moments I have chosen seem at once a convenient, representative, and yet intriguingly problematic set to consider. Spanning much of the Elizabethan half of Shakespeare's dramatic career, the trajectory traced by these moments fuses class consciousness and comic dramaturgy in an interesting nexus, punctuating the most feckless of comic business with the inflections of class consciousness, ameliorating and suppressing the asperities of class division within the inflections of comedy.

Hence, inseparable from our inspection of these moments is the question of what light, if any, they may shed upon our sense of the ways in which Shakespearean theater negotiates and mediates the social realities to which it gives dramatic life and in which it is implicated, a question that has been rendered ever more problematic by the brave and bouncing debates over the nature of Shakespeare's audience, the coloration of his ideological affinities, and the relative weights assumed in his plays by the competing impulses of "subversion," "containment," and "recuperation." Nor have I made this question easier to address by looking away from those moments in Shakespeare where issues of class arise with conspicuous and confrontational directness, as in the violent irruptions of Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI, or, in Coriolanus, where class consciousness appears at once to be a nutrient of the eponymous hero's character and a source of his undoing. Instead, in choosing as the textual foci for my discussion moments that are ostensibly but marginal bits of comic business and where issues of class must at times be teased to the surface, I have also chosen to make the very marginality of these moments a point of inquiry and to raise the possibility that Shakespeare gives voice to the tensions inhabiting contemporary class relations and stages comic challenges to authority only to marginalize them, only to contextualize them as minor, diversionary moments in which the social subordinates are effectively reduced to the harmless, recuperable status of clowns, and in which the issues of class can easily be sublimated and read as metaphors for "larger," more central, and ultimately less socially disruptive issues.

In examining this possibility—and while seeking to evade the Scylla-and-Charybdis-like reductivism of casting all interpretative options as a choice between recuperation and subversion, a binarism Theodore B. Leinwand has recently diagnosed as the pervasive and constricting strategy of new historicist analysis—I would argue that within the dynamics of the exchanges themselves, or what Leinwand might call these "micro-encounters,"4 Shakespeare strikes a characteristically canny and playful balance. On the one hand, he pays obeisance to the "higher" laws holding the hierarchies of class intact, while simultaneously putting those obeisances in the mouths of those who use them to deflect commands from those to whom their obedience is due; this, in effect, leaves the prerogatives of social privilege unquestioned, while leaving those who would enforce those prerogatives unpropitiated. On the other hand, to the degree to which these moments do invite us to read them as exemplary, and as reflections of or metaphors for other, more central issues and relationships, their effect is at least gently subversive and admonitory. For with their momentary levelling of intellect and parity of misunderstanding, and in the curious dialectics they enact, wherein the protocols of status are invoked to ensure compliance only to give way to blunt applications of force, they put in comic perspective the claims to authority made when the scenes shift to the main action of their plays and to the struggles for power in the domains of hearth, heart, and state.

Certainly we get a vivid rehearsal of that dialectic in the approximately fifty-line exercise in misunderstanding that marks the entrances of Petruchio and "his man," Grumio, in The Taming of the Shrew. Here Petruchio's simple command, "knock" (1.2.5), elicits from Grumio a "strong" but flawed effort at semantic disambiguation, a "rap" on the responsibilities and concerns of servingmen, and a "knock" at capricious masters, but neither the "knock" nor "rap" at the gate of Hortensio's house it had been intended to produce; while Grumio's display of passive, non-violent non-cooperation elicits from Petruchio, in turn, a threat to teach by example and apply the errant "knock" to Grumio's "pate" instead (1. 12). In a play that so much calls attention to itself as theatrical contrivance,5 Grumio's professed inability to take the word "knock" in the sense in which Petruchio intended it, and in which it is most obvious to the audience, has, of course, an undeniable logic and highlights the audience's complicity in the perpetration of this theatrical illusion, since only the audience's own willing suspension of disbelief can put a house onstage and equip it with a "gate" on which to "knock" in the first place.6 Yet the transitive construction of "knock me" through which Grumio effectively deconstructs—in fact, "destructs"—Petruchio's command humorously responds to a deeper logic and reveals much about Grumio's vision of the relationship of servingman and master. From Grumio's sanguinary interrogations of "knocks" emerges a binary concept of service fusing devotion and terror, in which the servant's duty is to divert "knocks" from the master or absorb them from him—a professional worldview not out of line with Foucault's definition of "service" in the Renaissance as "a constant, total, massive, nonanalytical, unlimited relation of domination, established in the form of the individual will of the master, his 'caprice.'"7 Binding himself, for the record at least, to this notion of service, and justifiably wary of his master's "caprice"—as Petruchio's violence here and later in the play would attest—Grumio permits himself only two options: on the one hand, to take literally Petruchio's command to "knock me here soundly" (1. 8); and, on the other, to disobey that command, "I should knock you first, / And then I know after who comes by the worst" (11. 13-14). With Hegel, Grumio might well have agreed that "the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom,"8 though Grumio's fear of the lord is represented as, and comically confused with, fearer the lord: "Is there any man has rebus'd your worship?" (1. 7-8).

Hence, no small part of the comedy of this exchange derives from the degree to which Grumio appeals to a highly "subordinate," highly traditional notion of service in order to justify insubordination. In doing so, however, he incarnates the anomalous position "enjoyed" by servants in the social mythography of the times. For despite all the attention paid in Tudor England to assigning the various professions and occupations their respective places in the hierarchy of "estates, degrees, and sorts" and to regulating their wages,9 the social identity of the servingman in particular seems often to have eluded neat taxonomies and to have been assessed in patriarchalist terms as an extension of the master or house served. "A Seruing-man," Overbury observes, "Is a creature, which though hee be not drunke, yet is not his owne man."10 Cast adrift from service and into the flotsam, or "great swarms of idle servingmen," the dis-employed servant in William Harrison's Description of England ranks no higher than the "fourth and last sort of people in England," "profitable to none . . . enemies to their masters, to their friends, and to themselves."11 In service, however, the servingman is idealized, not simply as a valuable employee but as an integral member of the family. Thus J. M., the author of A Health to the Gentlemanly profession of Seruingmen: or, The Seruingmans Comfort, even as he laments the materialism of the age and the decline of hospitality, and acknowledges that modern servants "are for the most part, though not all, of a baser mettali then they were wont to be," nonetheless rhapsodizes about the pre-lapsarian days of service, when the love between a master and his servant "was in maner equall with the Husbandes to the Wyfe, and the Childes to the Parent."12

In a sense, then, Grumio's performance in this scene only gives comic expression to contemporary stresses inhering in the servant's occupational role as employee and in his quasi-mythic identity as surrogate family member and extension of his master. Having so internalized the ideology of service and the best interests of his master, Grumio cannot compromise his principles for the mere sake of obeying his master and discharging his duty as an employee; nor, or so he pretends, can he understand why his master would want him to do so. In fact, so thoroughly does he merge his identity with—or confuse it for—his master's, that he even comes at one point to address Petruchio as a master would a truculent or incorrigible servant, complaining that "My master is grown quarrelsome" (1. 13). In turn, when Hortensio, aroused less by any knocks on his gate than by the knocking and shouting taking place at the gate, arrives to "compound the quarrel" and close the fissures that have been opened between Petruchio and the intractable yet indignant Grumio, his peacemaking implicitly pays homage to the ideal of the special, even familial, bond between servant and master, "My old friend Grumio! and my good friend Petruchio!" (11. 20-21), but reassuringly underscores Grumio's place in the relationship by ladling upon him epithets that could easily be bestowed upon an old family collie: "ancient, trusty, pleasant" (1. 47).

Yet focus as we may upon the servant or social inferior as the source and purveyor of confusion and its resulting disorder, what sustains the comedy of impasses like the one between Grumio and Petruchio is the mutual obtuseness of the combatants and the impression they convey that they are not speaking—or not choosing to speak—the same language. And though conventions of interpretation may readily lead us to identify Grumio as the clown figure who torments and teases language out of sense, we may still ask why it is that Petruchio plays so well the part of "straight man," and how it comes about that a character distinguished by his verbal adroitness, or what Grumio later in the scene calls Petruchio's "rope-tricks" (1. 112), cannot manage to talk his way around the obstructions and "rope-tricks" of his own servant. In looking at Petruchio's behavior in this exchange, we find a character whose verbal horizons are as much limited by his status as master as are Grumio's by his position as servant, so that Where Grumio hears in the word "knock" something to be deflected or received from his master, Petruchio can hear in the word only a command he has given, a command to be obeyed; and even as Grumio's vision of service leads him to resist giving the obedience he owes, so Petruchio's insistence upon obedience precludes his gaining the service he so desires, except, perhaps, by force. In turn, even as we chortle at Grumio's overlooking what we take to be the obvious valence of "knock," we cannot overlook Petruchio's inability to imagine that the word could have a meaning other than the one he has intended.

So verbally constricting, in fact, is Petruchio's insistence that Grumio obey him that no form of verbal remonstration occurs to him other than to repeat the command and couple it with an abusive epithet. Hence, having been rebuffed once, he retorts with "Villain, I say, knock me here soundly" (1. 8), a formulation so persuasive that he tries it again, with only minor variation, three lines later. "Through the rhetoric of abuse," Ralph Berry has recently observed, "one sees class absorbed into a moral system,"13 evidence of which we find here in Petruchio's apostrophes to Grumio, the villein turned, through the witting collusion of culture and etymology, "villain." Yet Petruchio's need to contextualize Grumio's insubordination in reassuring ways leads him to resort not only to a moral system of reference but to an intellectual one as well. "A senseless villain!" (1. 36) is Petruchio's most fully elaborated assessment of his servant, which he declares immediately before he invokes the ultimate privilege of the aggrieved superior to command the stage: "Sirrah, be gone, or talk not, I advise you" (1. 43). In the social relations sketched in the exchanges we are considering here, the labels of "villain" and "senseless" and their cognates get attached so casually to the uncooperative subordinates that they might well seem synonymous with each other and intrinsic to the status of being a social inferior. And yet, to use the example of Petruchio, the two epithets reflect significant but complementary emotions in the psychology of class differentiations: the convenience of "ideologizing" the disobedience of one's command as a transgression of a larger, moral order, and the need to dismiss as "senseless" anything the superiors' "sense" of their own status renders them unable or unwilling to hear.

Still, to listen to the stresses in the relationship between Petruchio and Grumio is to wonder whether or how they may affect our perception of the central relationship of the play, that of Petruchio and Kate. Surely an audience inured to hearing the prescriptions of gender and the hierarchies of class treated homologously and receptive to the proposition that the bond of the good servant and his master "was in maner equall with the Husbandes to the Wyfe,"14 would have little difficulty in seeing in Petruchio's master-ful treatment of Grumio a rehearsal of his relationship with Kate, a demonstration of hands-on shrew taming, a sneak preview of the strategy that produces the spectacle of Petruchio Triumphans at the end of the play, exulting in the prospect of "peace . . . and love, and quiet life, / An aweful rule, and right supremacy" (5.2.108-9). Indeed, if encouragement were needed to make this inference, it would come from the parallels and contrasts provided by the Lucentio-Bianca plot, where Lucendo's clear intellectual dependence upon his servant Tranio and his changing places with him might well be taken as harbingers of his ultimate inability to control Bianca.15

To the extent to which the exchange between Petruchio and Grumio does anticipate the relationship of Petruchio to Kate, however, it italicizes rather as an anti-masque the darkest elements of that relationship, highlighting with coarsened accents the "methods" by which Petruchio "tames" while rendering slightly more precarious the certitude with which he proclaims his final victory. In his insistence upon Grumio's obedience and upon having his words mean only what he takes them to mean, and in his ultimate resort to violence and a demand for silence to enforce his will, we can easily recognize here the Petruchio who will so peremptorily set "all this chat aside" to announce to Kate that, "will you, nill you," she is to be his wife (2.1.268, 271); who will torture Kate into submission; and who will insist that the sun above "shall be moon, or star, or what I list" (4.5.7). At the same time, for the master who would be obeyed, the spectacle of Grumio paying homage to the ideal of service even as he withholds his own service to Petruchio would surely emblematize the dangers of having a subordinate presume to articulate the terms of his, or her, subordinations, even, or perhaps especially, when they are articulated in so fulsome a discourse as Kate's notorious homage to the ideal of wifely service (5.2.136-79). In turn, even as Hortensio arrives to dispel and marginalize the spat between Petruchio and Grumio through the ameliorating paternalist rhetoric of servant-as-trusted-retainer, so we are reminded of the way in which the play is orchestrated to suppress, rather than resolve, the dissonances it evokes in the march to its festive close, where Kate will play the part of but a "shrewder" Grumio, coupling her paean to a husband's "aweful rule" with the capitulation and obedience Grumio's testimony to service had lacked. In sum, even as Kate gives Petruchio the victory denied him in his encounter with Grumio, so the earlier confrontation allows to come to the surface the obsessions and vulnerabilities of "mastery" that the ending of the play would exorcise by concealing.

If in The Taming of the Shrew polarities of class affix themselves to personages with clearly and mutually antithetical places in the social hierarchy, in other plays Shakespeare italicizes these same tendencies towards polarization by having them arise between individuals whose relative positions in society are less well defined. One such exchange occurs near the end of Act 3 in The Merchant of Venice (3.5.27-70) in a dialogue between Lorenzo and Launcelot Gobbo, when these two and Jessica find themselves left in temporary occupancy and custodianship of Belmont by Portia, who, with Nerissa, is secretly on her way to Antonio's trial in Venice. It is a scene the provenance of which has been disputed, and which may owe its very being simply to the practical need to allow Portia and Nerissa time to change into male clothing for their courtroom masquerade.16 Yet its very marginality reflects that of its three participants, none of whom "belongs" at Belmont, but all of whom have been for the moment accidentally thrown together to form a comic community of assorted lovers, friends, and Christians—and newly begotten Christians—in exile, subsisting on Portia's largesse. Like so much of the dramatic action in this play, this scene is shaped by arguments—albeit presumably good-natured ones. Immediately preceding the less genial argumentation of the climactic trial scene (4.1), Act 3, scene 5, presents all possible variations of argumentative pairings among its participants, opening with a contention already underway between Jessica and Launcelot, blending this with more presumably playful bickering between Launcelot and Lorenzo, and culminating in yet more supposedly playful disputation between Lorenzo and Jessica that goes offstage for dinner and Act 4 only to resume at the outset of Act 5. In its enactment of unresolved argumentation, the scene epitomizes the dialogic pattern informing the rhetorical structure of the entire play, which with consistent skepticism examines moral issues through the prism of dichotomous points of view that become less distinct as the play proceeds and are left notoriously unreconciled.17 At the same time, in the degree to which the scene exposes the tensions that at once bind and divide its comic community, making use of the evocations of class consciousness to produce those tensions, it glances at issues contested more ill-naturedly in the world of Venice and thus contributes to that erosion of the distinction between the worlds of Venice and Belmont that is central to our experience of the play.

Here, then, I will consider the second of the three dialogues in the scene, which commences with the entrance of Lorenzo just after Launcelot, in what Lawrence Danson has called "a wonderful confusion of carnal matters and spiritual,"18 has explained to Jessica that she cannot go to heaven since she is a Jewess, but that her conversion to Christianity would only succeed in hurting the "commonwealth" by decreasing the supply, and thus increasing the price, of pork (11. 21-26). Like the exchange between Petruchio and Grumio, the conversation between Lorenzo and Launcelot, or what Horace Howard Furness called "Lorenzo's unpleasant banter with Lancelot [sic],"19 will reach a comic climax when Launcelot, like Grumio a "rebuser" of language, engages in verbal "confusions" in such a way as to evade Lorenzo's direct command; indeed, like Grumio, Launcelot even invokes at one point a decorum of service in order to withhold service, misconstruing Lorenzo's command to "cover" the table: "Lor. Will you cover then, sir? / Laun. Not so, sir, neither, I know my duty" (11. 53-54). No less pointedly than in the exchange between Petruchio and Grumio, the impasse here reduces the nominal superior to—or reveals him to be—someone so obsessed with exacting obedience that he cannot or will not entertain the notion that the wording of his directive could bear multiple interpretations. When Launcelot quibbles on Lorenzo's successive attempts to get the household to prepare for dinner, the stymied Lorenzo chides Launcelot with,

Yet more quarrelling with occasion! wilt thou show the whole wealth of thy wit in an instant? I pray thee understand a plain man in his plain meaning: go to thy fellows, bid them cover the table, serve in the meat, and we will come in to dinner.

(11. 55-60)

Unlike the exchange between Petruchio and Grumio, however, where disobedience was the ironic by-product of Grumio's affirmation of social distinctions, here Launcelot's near disobedience serves very much to render those distinctions problematic. On the one hand, his disobedience reminds us of the fragility of Lorenzo's claim to authority in a household where, after all, he is only the designated, temporary master—and "master" over Launcelot, who, after all, is not his servant; on the other hand, Launcelot's resistance exposes the tenacity of the need to affirm social distinctions when their features have been blurred. Indeed, in this exchange the demand for obedience seems to arise less as something that social distinctions are to ensure than as something designed to demonstrate and ensure social distinctions, less a desired end than a means to an end. Lorenzo only issues his first command to Launcelot when Launcelot proves himself more than Lorenzo's equal at parrying verbal thrusts:

Lor. . . . the Moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

Laun. It is much that the Moor should be more than reason; but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I took her for.

(11. 39-42)

This induces Lorenzo to resort not only to commands, which change the subject, but also to a variation on the frustrated superior's tactic of dismissing as senseless anything the sense of which he cannot see, while physically dismissing the subordinate in order to put him and his senselessness out of sight and earshot:

How every fool can play upon the word! I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable in none only but parrots. Go in, sirrah, bid them prepare for dinner.

(11. 43-47)

Unable to tolerate the license to which Launcelot's status in the play as "fool" or "clown" conventionally entitles him, Lorenzo italicizes Launcelot's identity as servingman and in this way attempts to make Launcelot more responsive to commands.

In the course of this exchange, the limits to the paternalistic idealization of the servant as part of an extended family are sharply defined. At the outset of the scene, that idealization might seem to be quite in place, with Launcelot engaged in what we take—or hope—to be merry banter with the erstwhile daughter of his erstwhile master. When Lorenzo enters and receives the report of Launcelot's supply-demand spirituality—a conflation of things temporal and spiritual obviously subversive in this play in the degree to which it effaces the distinction between Christian and Jew—his response is not to counter what Launcelot has said but to marginalize Launcelot himself by putting him in his place, his class, impugning the propriety not simply of Launcelot's sexual conduct but also of his choice of company. With a non sequitur that has struck commentators as "topical"—and, therefore, elusive—Lorenzo deflects Launcelot's barb that, in having Jessica convert to Christianity, Lorenzo is hurting the commonwealth with the taunt:

I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly; the Moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

(11. 37-39)20

As the exchange develops, any hint of cordial jocularity one might have been tempted to posit in Lorenzo's opening greeting to Launcelot ("I shall grow jealious of you shortly, Launcelot, if you thus get my wife into corners" [11. 29-30]) is dispelled by the inflections of social differentiation and distancing, inflections we hear even in Lorenzo's choice of second-person pronouns, with the more formal, more impersonal "you" being displaced by the more intimate and therefore more presumptuous and patronizing "thee" and "thy."21 From this exchange Launcelot takes his leave, perfunctorily submissive but intoning his own variation on the "caprice" of masters:

For the table, sir, it shall be serv'd in; for the meat, sir, it shall be cover'd; for your coming in to dinner, sir, why, let it be as humors and conceits shall govern.

(11. 61-64)

In a play that pays so much attention to culturally canonized distinctions between Christians and Jews, the scene brings to the fore a sense of the invidious, economically constituted distinctions that may exist among and between Christians, while at the same time illustrating the paradoxically demeaning effect of asserting one's place in a social hierarchy. In the liminal world of courtships and elopements, after all, Lorenzo had hitherto passed as merely one more prodigally impecunious, because prodigally romantic, Christian lover, like Bassanio, vaguely "noble," perhaps, but on the whole curiously unaccountable to class in his very impecuniousness. From the moment Portia entrusts "into [his] hands / The husbandry and manage" of her household (3.4.24-25), Lorenzo is put into "service," and his "class" seems to become circumscribed by the very process that defines and enfranchises his authority. From the belittling with which he attempts to subordinate Launcelot, it is Lorenzo who emerges diminished, sounding very much like someone who with more practice could "grow" to become Malvolio, an officious steward and superior among inferiors.22

Again, however, even as we listen to these exchanges for their interrogation of the psychology of class, we cannot dispel the sense that to listen to them at all is to give them a voice their plays would invite us to ignore or to treat proleptically and with an ear for the bigger issues the more important dialogues and relationships to come. If such a thought attends our experience of comically digressive moments within comic plays, as in exchanges between Petruchio and Grumio and between Lorenzo and Launcelot, all the more does it color our response to comic moments at the outset of tragic plays, as in the third and last case I will consider, the exchange at the opening of Julius Caesar between the tribunes Flavius and Murellus and, as the stage directions call them, "certain Commoners" bent upon taking a "holiday to see Caesar, and to rejoice in his triumph" (1.1.30-31). Here, our sense of the marginality of the exchange is actuated by its apparent incongruity, and even as we may derive pleasure from the comic impasse by which the exchange is sustained, our expectations as spectators awaiting The Tragedy of Julius Caesar are apt to lead us to want to get on with the "main" business of the play, and apt to bring us into a curious if unwitting alliance with the virulently anti-plebeian tribunes, who in Shakespeare's adaptation of his source emerge as far more anti-populist than they are in North's Plutarch and than they are likely to have been historically,23 and who, from the first line of the play, attempt to sweep the "commoners" from the stage: "Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!" So with at least one eye cast towards what we take to be the significant action to come, we may well feel invited either to look past the low-comic exchange between the commoners and tribunes or to find ways in which to trope it and turn it into a metaphor for the main concerns of the play. And again, we hear our own impulses co-opted and echoed by Murellus, who puts the commoners in tropic perspective by reifying them as "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things" (1. 35), and by turning them into an occasion for an aureate eulogy on the slain Pompey and a meditation on the fleetingness of fame (11. 32-55).24

To look at, however, and not merely past the exchange between the tribunes and commoners in this opening scene is to put Murellus' speech itself in perspective as one more example of the fury of a superior—or, perhaps, would-be superior25 —scorned, and to see it as another case in which the distinctions of class get invoked as a means of coping with and anatomizing behavior deemed objectionable. As in the other two instances we have examined, the attempt by the tribunes here to assert authority only prolongs the very conduct they would suppress, thus necessitating and sanctioning an ever more forcible "pulling of rank." So it is that Flavius undermines his opening attempt to send the commoners "home" by coupling it with the demand, "what trade art thou" (1. 5)—something of a redundancy since, even with their failure to dress appropriately and wear "the sign / Of [their] profession" (11. 4-5), Flavius has already inferred that they are "mechanical" (1. 3); moreover, it is a question that the commoners will, in turn, spend the better part of the next thirty lines not answering to the tribunes' satisfaction, thereby keeping themselves onstage a bit longer than Flavius had initially intended. As it unfolds, the comic misprision on display here offers yet another tableau of superiors who are unable to "read" those they would presume to command and thereby render inferior, and who in the very attempt to assert their power and manipulate the commoners give them conflicting and tactically questionable signals that, instead of dispersing and neutralizing the commoners, will reconstitute them as a class and, as subsequent events show, a force to be reckoned with. Hence, no sooner has Murellus finished his harangue condemning the Caesar-worshipping commoners for having forgotten their erstwhile hero, Pompey, than Flavius attempts to play upon what he would have them believe is their guilt by dispersing them—only, curiously, to order them, and all of their "sort," to regather en masse:

Flav. Go, go, good countrymen, and for this fault Assemble all the poor men of your sort; Draw them to Tiber banks, and weep your tears Into the channel, till the lowest stream Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.

(11. 56-60)

For Granville-Barker, as for Flavius, the sight of the commoners vanishing, "tongue-tied in their guiltiness" (1. 62), is evidence of their servility, a sign that "they are easily persuaded now, controlled and brought to silence."26 And yet when we recall that it is not the commoners but Flavius and Murellus who will "vanish" shortly and be, as Casca informs us, "put to silence" (1.2.286), Granville-Barker's gloss acquires an ironic resonance, and we get our first hint in the play of how elusive that control is, and how limited even persuasive power may prove.

To the extent to which this opening scene bears adumbrations of later, greater things, we are likely to think first, of course, of that most "memorable scene" in the Forum (3.2) in which "the Plebeians" will once again listen to long speeches by their "betters" seeking by persuasion to subdue and control them. Even more resonantly, however, does the comic misprision that entertains us at the start of Julius Caesar reverberate and horrify us in what Granville-Barker calls "the devastation of the third act's end,"27 where, in a violent inversion of the opening scene, the plebeians turn the tribunes' earlier interrogatories into a brutally peremptory round of "twenty questions" directed at Cinna the poet (3.3.5-12). And if in the opening scene the inability, or disinclination, of the commoners to discern the sense of the tribunes' questions had enabled them to deflect the tribunes' demands, here in 3.3 that same "mis-constructive" power the play of language warrants is transmogrified, permitting the plebeians not to distinguish between Cinna the poet and Cinna the conspirator—much to the former's chagrin and personal inconvenience: "It is no matter, his name's Cinna. Pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going" (11. 33-34).

Here, to be sure, it could be argued that the destructive force this scene dramatizes, serving most obviously to effect another shift in power in a play that is very much about the pendular character of power, functions principally as "exhibit A" of the "mischief set "afoot" by Mark Antony by the close of the preceding scene in the Forum (3.2.259-60), and as testimony both to the manipulative and demagogic powers of Antony's rhetoric, and, thus, to Antony's control and growing ascendancy. Yet if Antony has an insight into power that Brutus, most notably, lacks, it may lie in his momentary acknowledgement that the popular "mischief he unleashes and apostrophizes is ultimately beyond anyone's control: "Take thou what course thou wilt!" (1. 260). In turn, the genuine wantonness of the ensuing violence, epitomized in the plebeians' murderously "playful" dissociation of language from reference, and in the plucking of names from hearts, is admonitory on several counts. Underscoring both the power and caprice of language, it demonstrates the precarious life expectancy of any authority won by appeals to a word like "obedience," and it offers a sober assessment of the chance any leader—or demagogue—would have of remaining atop the wave he rides to power. More interestingly, the irony through which the quibbling power of language is turned destructively against none other than a poet conveys a warning—Shakespeare's disquieting admonition to himself, perhaps, and to other writers—of the perils that lie in the very "sort" of marginalization in which Julius Caesar would appear at the outset to engage, with its reduction of the divisions of class to harmless wordplays and diverting quibbles of the kind that mark the opening exchange between the commoners and the tribunes.

At the same time, then, the confusions on which the humor of the opening scene depends may be of special interest in the degree to which such confusions metonymize a dual focus in the play and reflect not simply the upheavals and social strains in ancient Rome but also stresses more contemporary and local. Indeed, from the opening words of Flavius to the commoners, and, therefore, well before the oft-noted clock has anachronistically struck (2.1.192-93), the play calls attention to its temporal distancing from the events it represents by having the tribunes and commoners speak to, and through, each other across a temporal and cultural divide, a divide that, even as it reminds us that this is an Elizabethan glimpse at ancient Rome, serves also to italicize certain social taxonomies and mythologies of Elizabethan England. Whatever, for example, Shakespeare's audience may have presumed about sartorial protocols and social stratification in ancient Rome, it is unlikely that they could have listened to Flavius and Murellus' insinuation that the commoners had transgressed i)y divesting themselves of the uniforms appropriate to their station and trade without being reminded of contemporary Elizabethan sumptuary prescriptions linking attire to rank.28 Nor would Flavius and Murellus' attempts to disperse the commoners have seemed unfamiliar to an audience who had, as we know, been repeatedly admonished by the Tudor state about the dangers posed—and the penalties incurred—by idling itinerants and "masterless men."29

In turn, much of the "logic" and humor of the colloquy between the tribunes and the Cobbler underscores this dual temporal perspective and turns temporal dissonance into the stuff of comic cognitive dissonance. So it is that the Cobbler repeatedly deflects and frustrates the interrogation of the tribunes by giving them punning answers that would have made far more "sense" to the Christian Elizabethan audience than to a pair of pagan Roman tribunes, who would not, presumably, have been able to make total sense of, or catch the joke in, the Cobbler's describing himself as, "sir, a mender of bad soles" (1.1.13). In his reiterated play on his profession as "mender," the Cobbler assumes a stance of comic moral authority and irreproachability similar to what the characterist Overbury would grant to the Tinker, whose "conuersation," Overbury maintains, "is unreproueable; for he is euer mending."30 Not being "in" on the joke, and not having had the benefit of sketches like Overbury's, the Roman tribunes find the Cobbler's discourse quite "reproueable," and to the extent to which they find it at all comprehensible, they, like their counterparts in the other exchanges we have considered, deem insubordinate his appeal to a power at once spiritual and thus different from, higher than, and therefore, unaccountable to theirs: "What mean'st thou by that? Mend me, thou saucy fellow?" (1. 18).

In fact, there is a kind of insubordination in the spectacle of the jocular Cobbler lecturing his social betters on the moral excellencies of his craft, an insubordination of a genial sort that Shakespeare's audience might well have associated with what Laura Stevenson has described as the figure of the "gentle craftsman,"31 a figure popularized and incarnated in Thomas Deloney's and Thomas Dekker's representation of that "mad shoemaker of Tower Street" and eventual "mad lord mayor" and confidant of kings, Simon Eyre. As Stevenson's analysis suggests, the myth of the "gentle craftsman," while it ostensibly celebrated a bourgeois, egalitarian ideal epitomized in the figure of the wise, virtuous, and—most important—prosperous Eyre, may, in fact, have served a recuperative purpose by representing bourgeois aspirations as something that could be harmoniously reconciled with, and under, a beneficently paternalistic order, an order personified in Henry V, whose most famous victory, after all, had been fought and won on the feast of the patron saint of shoemakers.32

In the opening of Julius Caesar, in a scenario that might well be subtitled "what really happens when shoemakers go on holiday," it seems that no such reconciliation is to be entertained, and that the myth of the "gentle craftsman" is evoked only to be peremptorily rejected by the representatives of legal authority—evoked, that is, just enough to be revealed as mere myth. Indeed, evoked and dispatched so summarily as to suggest that within the world of the play, at least, the division between higher and lower "sorts," between the "people" and those in authority, is something not to be bridged. And if, finally, it might be argued that it is only within the Roman world represented in this dramatic fiction that this yawning gap between the classes exists, the effect of the exchange between the commoners and the tribunes, like the exchanges we have examined in The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, is very much to leave unaffirmed the contemporary mystifications of the social order of Shakespeare's England to which it alludes, while giving voice to the discordancies of class those mystifications would suppress.


1 All references to Shakespeare's plays are contained within the text and are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), with Evans's square brackets removed.

2 Keith Wrightson, "Estates, Degrees and Sorts in Tudor and Stuart England," History Today, 37 (1987), 17-22; Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost further explored (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), pp. 1-52. Admittedly, in any discussion of the term there lurks the disquieting thought that the very notion of "class"—especially if one conceives of it as an invention of Marxist economic theory—may be of debatable relevance to the discussion of Shakespeare's plays, which are literally "classless" in their total avoidance of the word. Yet, as Wrightson for one argues, though the operant vocabulary of social taxonomy in the Renaissance may have appropriated the terminology of medieval "estates," "degrees," and "sorts," the employment of these terms in Renaissance discourse may, in fact, have had more in common with the modern use of class to differentiate social caste and status group than with medieval usage. See Wrightson, p. 18. Indeed, in his De Republica Anglorum: The maner of Government of policie of the Realme of England (London: Henrie Midleton, 1584), Thomas Smyth even uses the terms interchangeably when, for example, he comes to describe "[t]he fourth sort or classe amongest us" (p. 33).

3 In fact the "confusions" these encounters perpetrate might be read merely as comedic representations of the chaos that Elizabethans were told would result if the bonds that held society together were sundered through disobedience. Hence, in a classic formulation, the anonymous author of the Homily on Obedience (1559) asserts the instrumental role of obedience in maintaining order in "[e]verye degre of people in theyr vocation, callyng, and office" and lands hard on Peter's admonition: "Servauntes obeye your Maistres with feare, not onely if they be good and jentle, but also if they be frowarde." See "An exhortation, concerning good order and obedience, to rulers and Magistrates" in Elizabethan Backgrounds: Historical Documents of the Age of Elizabeth I, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975), pp. 44-70, esp. pp. 60, 64.

4 "Negotiation and New Historicism," PMLA, 105 (1990), 477-90, esp. pp. 477-79.

5 Most obviously, of course, by means of the fiction of the Induction, which contextualizes Taming as an entertainment and diversion for Sly, but also by means of the introductory speeches by Lucendo (1.1.1-24) and Petruchio (1.2.1-5), which, as successive announcements of where the scene of the play is laid, have the effect of calling attention to the scene as scene, as a placename the audience is to agree to accept as Padua.

6 The willingness of that suspension is underscored by Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesie when he asks, rhetorically, "What childe is there that coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old doore, doth beleeve that it is Thebes?" See The Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, 4 vols., ed. Albert Feuillerat (1912; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), Vol. 3, p. 29.

7 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 137.

8 G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper and Row, 1967). The passage in which this sentence appears reads,

. . . this bondsman's consciousness is not only this total dissolution in a general way; in serving and toiling the bondsman actually carries this out. By serving he cancels in every particular aspect his dependence on and attachment to natural existence, and by his work removes this existence away.

The feeling of absolute power, however, realized both in general and in the particular form of service, is only dissolution implicitly; and albeit the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not therein aware of being self-existent. Through work and labour, however, this consciousness of the bondsman comes to itself, (p. 238)

9 See Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964-69), Vols. 2, 3, passim.

10 Sir Thomas Overbury, The "Conceited News" of SirThomas Overbury And His Friends, ed. James E. Savage (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968), p. 95.

11 William Harrison, The Description of England (1577), ed. George Edelen (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1968), p. 119.

12 fols. H4v, C2v (London: W. W., 1598). Clearly, the Shakespearean embodiment of the kind of servant and service J. M. finds conspicuous in their absence is Old Adam of As You Like It, who carries fidelity to the ideal of service to the master to the extreme of bestowing all of the "thrifty hire" he had saved during his years of serving Sir Rowland de Boys upon Sir Rowland's fugitive son, Orlando (2.3.38-55), and to whom Orlando offers the apostrophe, "How well in thee appears / The constant service of the antique world" (11. 56-57).

13Shakespeare And Social Class (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1988), p. xv.

14 J. M, fol. ; C2v consider also the comments on the husband's rights over his wife in Smyth's De Republica Anglorum (cited in n. 2, above), pp. 102-3.

15 We are invited to read the parallels and contrasts between the relationships of Lucentio and Tranio, on the one hand, and Petruchio and Grumio, on the other, from the opening two scenes of Act 1, where the two relationships are juxtaposed and present themselves, first, as specimens of two distinct models of comic theater grafted from two distinct sources, and, in turn, as two distinct versions of relations between master and servant.

16 See, for example, the notes on this scene in TheCambridge Merchant of Venice, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1926), pp. 107-8, where it is argued that Act 3, scene 5, was written by someone other than Shakespeare. In The Arden Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1955), the editor acknowledges that "the authenticity of this scene has been doubted," but he notes that it "contains Shakespearian phrases and ideas" and "also marks the passage of time" (p. 98).

17 In no treatment of the play are its recurrent moments of irresolution more adroitly mapped than in Norman Rabkin, "Meaning and The Merchant of Venice" in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), esp. pp. 4-32.

18The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), p. 97.

19 Cited in Quiller-Couch and Wilson, p. 107.

20 See Quiller-Couch and Wilson, pp. 107-8; Brown, p. 99; and The New Cambridge Merchant of Venice, ed. M. M. Mahood (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), p. 132.

21 Berry (cited in n. 13, above), pp. xvi-xvii.

22 Indeed, Lorenzo's social classification undergoes a definition comparable to the social identification of Gratiano. For Berry, Gratiano "can adequately be characterized as a determined social climber, intent on getting an invitation to the great house and exploiting what must seem to Nerissa his sexual charm so as to remain there" (pp. 46-47). Yet, rather like Lorenzo, Gratiano's social identity paradoxically shrinks as it gains definition from his efforts to enhance it, conveying the impression in his climbing of someone who has a long distance to "climb from."

23 In Plutarch, after all, Murellus and Flavius are denoted by their full title, Tribunes of the People ("Tribuni plebis "), a reminder that tribunes were representatives of the plebeian class, affiliated with plebeian families either by blood or adoption, and chosen by the plebeians. In constructing his opening scene, Shakespeare pits Murellus and Flavius against the "commoners" who are on holiday "to rejoice" in Caesar's "triumph," whereas in Plutarch "the people" initially side with Murellus and Flavius in pulling down the images of Caesar and arresting those who had promoted the idea of Caesar's kingship. See Sir Thomas North, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Englished by Sir Thomas North in The Tudor Translations, 12 vols., ed. W. E. Henley (1896; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1967), Vol. 5, pp. 62-63; also, Sir Paul Harvey, comp. and ed., The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), pp. 436-37; and Catherine B. Avery, ed., The New Century Classical Handbook (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962), p. 1113.

24 So it is, for example, that Granville-Barker, affirming inadvertently but unquestioningly the italicizing of social distinctions through differences in rhetorical style, contrasts what he calls the "first full-bodied speech" (my emphasis) in the play, the apostrophe by Murellus on Pompey (32 ff.) to "the chattering prose of the cobbler," which Murellus' speech peremptorily displaces. See Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 5 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1927-48), Vol. 2, p. 383.

25 Again, though tribunes were legally empowered to be superiors among the class they represented, Shakespeare inflects the speech of Murellus in particular with the kind of anti-popular sentiment and class superiority Plutarch assigns to Cassius when he attempts to persuade Brutus that it is not "cobblers, tapsters, or suchlike base mechanical people" who have been urging Brutus to take actions against Caesar but "the noblest men and best citizens that do it." See North's Plutarch, Vol. 6, p. 191.

26 p. 383.

27 p. 383.

28 Consider the minutely detailed and socially comprehensive royal decree of 6 July 1597, "Enforcing Statutes and Proclamations of Apparel" in Tudor Royal Proclamations (cited in n. 9, above), Vol. 3, pp. 174-79.

29 See the royal decree of 14 December 1576, "Enforcing Statutes against Vagabonds," ordinances on "masterless men" in Tudor Royal Proclamations, Vol. 2, pp. 415-16, and that of 24 September 1590, "Enforcing Curfew for Apprentices" in Tudor Royal Proclamations, Vol. 3, pp. 60-61.

30 Overbury (cited in n. 10, above), p. 124.

31Praise and Paradox: Merchants and Craftsmen inElizabethan Popular Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 161-213.

32 Hence, though, as Stevenson, pp. 192-93, argues, a work like Dekker's The Shoemakers' Holiday inculcates bourgeois virtues, it does so while leaving distinctions of class and the inherent supremacy of monarchs unchallenged. Thus, when near the end of The Shoemakers' Holiday King Henry intervenes to force Sir Roger Otley, the bourgeois Lord Mayor of London, and the aristocratic Sir Hugh Lacy to acquiesce in the marriage of Lacy's son and Otley's daughter, the event is treated less as an erosion of class distinctions than as testimony to the democratizing power of love and royal fìat, as evidence of the first of which Henry points to the willingness of the young Lacy to "stoop / To bare necessity" and don the guise of a shoemaker to woo his beloved (5.5.102-15). See Thomas Dekker: The Dramatic Works, 4 vols., ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953-61), Vol. 1, pp. 86-87.

Peter Holbrook (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Social Symbolism of Art," in Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nash, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare, University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 105-24.

[In the following excerpt, Holbrook discusses Shakespeare's dramatic inversion of social hierarchy in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew.]

"To begin, then, with Shakespeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient, poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul."1 Dryden's tribute resonates in many ways, but for this study we may single out one implication—the social. We can credit Dryden with the identification of a characteristic quality of the Shakespearean text: its capacity to comprehend vast social differences, its sheer sociological inclusiveness and richness, and it is in this sense that one may, still, be allowed to speak of the "universality" of Shakespeare. Again, Dryden's praise reminds us of that other quality traditionally attributed to Shakespeare and variously signified: his "myriad-mindedness" (Coleridge)2 or "multidimensionality" (Robert Weimann),3 his complementary, open, or profoundly dramatic technique (essentially an art of contrast), his dialectical approach, where, as Germaine Greer has put it, every play is in the nature of an "experiment" and every idea receives "full imaginative development."4 Thus much seems implicit in Dryden's "comprehensive." Of course the two senses of the word drawn out here—the sociological and "philosophical"—may not be unrelated: if particular social strata can have exclusive values, ideologies, or "structures of feeling"5 attributed to them, then the dialectical energy of Shakespeare's art and thought may be grounded in the seeming rich mimesis of Shakespearean drama, its tendency to convey the effect of a total representation of social life.6 Obviously, this would not be the whole story—not every conflict in a Shakespeare play is ideological or the expression of a social contradiction (in particular, distinctions within a social group may be dramatically, let alone historically, as or more important than those marking it off from other strata). Nonetheless, there seems nothing inherently implausible in attempting to relate the dialectical method of Shakespeare's art to the plays' social dialectics—seeing a many-sidedness of viewpoint as produced by the poetic evocation of a complex, various, differentiated social scene. Clearly, this approach would be related to the far more ambitious project of a Marxist criticism of Shakespeare, whereby the richness of his drama would be grounded in an interpretation of the age as one of fundamental—indeed, epochal—historical transition. But while such a total synthesis of economic, social, political, and cultural factors in the period has obvious, immense appeal, the problems involved in conducting an argument of such generality are also immense, possibly insuperable.7

I propose to take a narrower approach than this Marxist one, considering social complexity in a few Shakespeare plays selected because . . . they seem especially interested in social differences, turning "degree" into poetic subject matter, and because their interest in playing with radical social contrasts tends to involve the complication or problematization of literary mode. I shall anticipate the argument a little by suggesting that where these plays seem preoccupied with social differences, they are correspondingly self-aware about the social meaning of literary modes and "art" generally (and, vice versa, that literary self-consciousness is accompanied by attention to social distinctions). Thus the extremely complicated social character of these plays (they are all "mixed" in some sense) induces, I suggest, a certain self-consciousness about form, literary forms being conspicuously implicated within (indeed, unthinkable outside of) broadly social or "nonliterary" distinctions. To put this in more concretely dramatic terms: interplay between high and low characters or milieux throws the work into an attitude of critical self-awareness about the social character of its modes. (. . . [I have observed elsewhere] how Nashe's work—like Shakespeare's in its tantalizingly various and complex social affiliations—is also highly self-conscious about literary form as social form, deliberately adopting and playing off against each other putative popular and elite modes, or exploiting their social ambiguity. Certainly, in respect of such "comprehensiveness," Nashe is as dialectical as Shakespeare: a key element in many texts by both authors is a rich interplay—among, of course, every other kind of contrast—between supposed aristocratic and nonelite manners, attitudes, modes of expression, and so on.) I should add that, as with claims for the individuality of Shakespeare's characters (such as Pope's),8 claims for the social diversity of Shakespeare's texts are apt to be exaggerated: not every Shakespeare play is equally interested in manipulating or playing with social hierarchy, or in exploring the social symbolism of modes. Of course, social differences exist in all the plays, because all have some commitment to a rhetoric of mimesis or representation. But not all such differences are as vividly or profoundly evoked as they are in, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream or the Henry IV plays—works that would be unrecognizable were the social contrasts in them diminished or erased, their structure and meaning hinging upon a to-and-fro between noble and common spheres of life. But in a play such as Much Ado About Nothing, while the resolution of the Hero-Claudio imbroglio turns upon the discoveries of the lower-class watchmen, we need not suppose the play to be developing a really significant contrast between the nobility and the Dogberry group. Other distinctions are just as important, one of the most obvious being that between one kind of heroine and another. Again, Ralph Berry has pointed out that there are important scenes involving, or passages alluding to, the common people in Richard II (the "poor groom" and his description of "roan Barbary" [5.5.72, 78], for instance, who now bears Bullingbrook rather than Richard), but, except for these brief glimpses of the common people, the play concerns itself almost exclusively with nobles and is not concerned to elaborate detailed social contrasts.9 Instead, the real focus of interest is the aristocratic power game, and popular characters, the allegorizing gardeners of 3.4, for example, are subordinated to it.10 So the play does not aim at the impression of a complete, dialectical anatomy of society. It is where this interest in comprehensiveness occurs, I think, that there may arise a critical self-awareness about the social functions, meanings, and limitations of literary modes. But before turning to the plays, it will be useful briefly to consider why some of the period's drama should register a sensitivity to social hierarchy and to the social symbolism of modes of writing. It will be necessary, then, briefly to touch again upon the question of how to formulate the social meaning of the English Renaissance stage.

Marxist critics, working on the sociology of the Elizabethan stage and its complex relation to populace and elite in the period (a line of inquiry originally opened up by such scholars as Alfred Harbage, Muriel Bradbrook, and C. L. Barber) have tended to stress the contradictory social character of Shakespeare's theater.11 Although there are substantial problems with this formulation, especially in the area of who precisely attended the theaters, and although the term "contradiction," implying some notion of class struggle, is most likely misleading about the character of early modern social relations, the basic emphasis on the social complexity and heterogeneity of the institution is probably correct. A part of this complexity involved the relatively humble origins of the writers. One needs to stress "relatively": in Stratford terms Shakespeare's family was, as Samuel Schoenbaum has reminded us, an important one, with aspirations to gentility.12 Nashe . . . —like Peele, Greene, and Marlowe—was able to tread a more conventional path to respectability than Shakespeare's: the university degree. Still, each of these writers improved his situation while contending with the uncertain status of the professional writer. (Greene's anxiety about this ambiguity is especially clear: witness the defensiveness of "Utriusque Academiae in Artibus magister" on the 1591 title page of Greenes Farewell to Folly, as well as his snobbish attacks on the "upstart crow" and on players in general.)13 Professional men of letters, then, were, like the players, another gray area in the traditional or ideal hierarchy of Tudor-Stuart England.14 The important point here, however, is that, given the ambiguous position of these writers, it would not be strange if they displayed in their works a special interest in rank (we may note emblematically that the play that might be taken as beginning the modern movement in Elizabethan tragedy, Tamburlaine, is the story of a shepherd turned conqueror-king),15 and the wager of this book has been that in certain texts this interest informs the manipulation of literary modes, which are themselves understood in terms of social hierarchy. Indeed, the marginal, anomalous social position of the commercial stages suggests the possibility of their writers enjoying a certain freedom in their handling of hierarchical relations, as C. L. Barber has argued: "The stage . . . was a middle-class property and point of vantage. In the commercial theater, Shakespeare could use the power of dramatic form to develop aggressive, ironic understanding of the court world."16 I proceed, then, from the assumption that Shakespeare (like Nashe and, in all probability, those professional playwrights considered above) did not, like a Sidney, inherit art as his birthright—that is, the high modes of literature that were in his world the symbolic property of the aristocratic elite.17 Thus these "bourgeois" professional writers do not live a simple relation to the institutions or modes of literature,18 but manipulate the forms of elite culture more as outsiders than insiders; and this ambivalent, complicated relation to literature may itself be articulated in particular works—we may find, that is, that certain works register an awareness of the sociocultural meaning and force of literary modes or that they register the author's own sense of outsiderness with respect to the institutions of art. None of which implies that, because these writers do not naturally inhabit the aristocratic modes they manipulate, they are therefore on the side of the angels and to be identified with an oppositional "popular culture"—literature after all being precisely the means by which they advance, or seek to advance, themselves. We should not suppose that their ambiguous position with regard to elite culture requires that they have (as Barber in the quotation above too readily assumes) an interest in attacking, ironizing, or generally subverting it. (Perhaps the opposite, in fact—their real interests lying in manipulating elite modes as effectively as possible, so hitching their wagon to the court's.) Yet we can expect that the relation of such outsiders to the modes of elite culture is bound to be complicated.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96; pub. 1600) is one of Shakespeare's plays that works with a radical social contrast and that is also deeply self-conscious in its use of dramatic form and art in general. I shall suggest that the play's sensitivity about differences of rank is the basis for its consciousness of genre and the potential social uses of art. This is a play notably ambivalent about social hierarchy, soliciting from its audience both pleasure and alarm at the confusion of social boundaries.19

"Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated" (3.1.118-19). So Quince on Bottom's metamorphosis. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about "translation," or change, and this has from the first a conspicuous social dimension. Bottom moves from the human to the fairy world, but he is also transformed, apparently, into a gentleman: "gentle mortal," "gentleman" are Titania's titles for him (3.1.137, 164). And of course Bottom's fancy language upon his elevation ("I beseech your worship's name. . . . I pray you commend me to Mistress Squash. . . . I shall desire you of more acquaintance" (3.1.179-80, 186, 188-89) is preposterously refined and gentle—or at least attempts refinement and gentility. The comedy of these scenes depends on the incongruity between what Bottom is (a weaver) and what he becomes (a courtier, and an especially favored one at that). The play can, then, be characterized as delighting in the promiscuous mingling of rank in the Bottom/Titania complication. Puck's voice, at any rate, is gleeful: "My mistress with a monster is in love. / Near to her close and consecrated bower, / While she was in her dull and sleeping hour, / A crew of patches, rude mechanicals, / That work for bread upon Athenian stalls . . ." (3.2.6-10). The tantalizing force of this is all in the idea of the proximity of the mechanicals to the "close and consecrated bower." Clearly the play has some fun (we might call it its Utopian aspect) with the upsetting of hierarchy and decorum: there is excitement and pleasure in this suggestion of the bottom becoming (for a time only, of course, and with every qualification) the top. But Shakespeare's presentation of this reversal is nonetheless ambiguous. First, it is only by virtue of Oberon's manipulation of events (admittedly bungled in one important respect) that the play can have its fun with hierarchy: we know, in other words, that order will be restored, that "Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill: / The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well" (3.2.461-63), that social prerogative and "degree" will once again be in place. Seen thus, comedy takes on a conservative appearance, effectively guaranteeing the social structure: it is because Bottom's ascent is so temporary that it can be allowed to be enjoyable—indeed, that it can happen at all. Second, the nature of this elevation is itself ambiguous. It is, after all, an as(s)cent: in proportion as Bottom is exalted he is humbled. We might think of this particular humiliation, the "ass's nole" (3.2.17), as the price of promotion: a control on the potentially destabilizing implications of Bottom's career. By making Bottom even more ridiculous than he already is, any threat in this suspension of normal hierarchical relations is defused. (Against the notion of this suspension being reduced to absurdity must be balanced Bottom's supreme, victorious confidence in his role, his ability to take us along with him, or that general buoyancy of his which disarms a belittling, condescending laughter. I shall return to this point later in a comparison with Shakespeare's Christopher Sly; for now we may note that, to the extent that Bottom is a figure of fun, we find the idea of his elevation correspondingly ludicrous.) Further, this revolution in the social system takes place in an enchanted, exotic wood, in a play striving for a lyrical and fantastic atmosphere, and consequently, it might be argued, there can be no danger in imagining such an upset, since there is no pretence of addressing reality. (By comparison, we might note the revulsion social rising generates in the tragic and politically realistic context of King Lear, where the "finical" Oswald is sinister proof that the time is. out of joint [2.2.19].) Even so, from the first our delight in Bottom's change is mingled with less pleasant feelings. For Oberon it is part of a grotesque disorder, a "hateful fantas[y]" (2.1.258) properly evoking pity rather than pleasure ("Her dotage now I do begin to pity" [4.1.47]). But Bottom's and Titania's liaison looks different from Bottom's humble position, and the play is careful to include this perspective. For him it has been ineffably lovely, "past the wit of man to say what dream it was" (4.1.205-6). But Titania, restored to reason, can only exclaim, "O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!" (4.1.79), and Oberon observes that when Titania adorned Bottom's head with flowers

. . .that same dew which sometime on the buds Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls, Stood now within the pretty flouriets' eyes, Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.


From a ruling-class perspective (here identified with Nature), Bottom's "translation" can only ever have a "tragic" significance—or rather tragicomic, since things are put right in the end. Merely by including this conservative attitude, however, the play can once again be said to attempt the "containment" of the radical possibilities of translation.21

If A Midsummer Night's Dream takes an ambivalent pleasure in complicating hierarchical relations, we are more or less always aware that these are to be reinstated by the end. But the text's playful attitude to hierarchy is also obvious with the lovers' time in the wood, likewise a "translation" though, in contrast to Bottom's, one that moves downward. For there is a general suspension of gentle behavior: Demetrius is rude to Helena, Lysander can abandon Hermia, Helena thinks the others cruelly mock her: "I thought you lord of more true gentleness" (2.2.132, to Lysander), and later:

If you were civil and knew courtesy, You would not do me thus much injury.

If you were men, as men you are in show, You would not use a gentle lady so;

None of noble sort Would so offend a virgin . . .


It is easy to see in the lovers' bewilderment and unhappiness how far they have come from the polite, sophisticated court of Theseus. There is a sense in which the move from Athens to the wood is a move from a relatively idealized and (in the terms of this play and of other texts we have considered) thus an elite or aristocratic milieu, to a less cultivated one. For the wood, while it is sociologically a various place, is in part, and in the aspect in which the lovers encounter it, seen as a place of naïve, folkloric wonder and surprise. Of course it is impossible to fix the character of this wood in sociological or in any other terms: it is at once Ovidian and literary and the setting of old wives' tales, beautiful and ugly, incomparably charming and terrifying as well.22 The noble Oberon and Titania are at home in it, the craftsmen frightened out of it. Nonetheless, for the aristocratic lovers it is an obscure locale utterly different from the urbane, enlightened Athenian scene, presided oyer by a self-styled connoisseur of the arts. We can read the lovers' discomfiture partly in terms of a "translation" to a folk realm of fancy and superstition. The important point is that this translation is unpleasant, that in contrast to Bottom's dream it is more akin to nightmare, and that in this play whether something is tragic or comic seems to depend quite a lot on which social level you belong to: Bottom's sojourn with the Faerie Queene is exquisitely pleasurable, but the lovers experience the wood's uncertainties as tragical, and comedy may be said to mean their restoration to themselves, or, perhaps, to truer versions of those selves, a crucial aspect of this restoration being reinstatement in a courtly, aristocratic milieu. The comic end of the play thus involves a return of the lovers not only to themselves and their true desires, but also to a leading place in the social hierarchy after a disturbing period of estrangement from it. "Playing" with social hierarchy, "playing" with social position—this adequately describes some of the play's interests, so long as we keep in mind the different emotional contents such "play" can have, contents that tend to divide along social lines, as we have seen.

If the various loosenings of social order are open to different generic constructions—tragic or tragicomic from the point of view of elite characters, intoxicatingly comic and splendid from the point of view of the major plebeian character—then the figure who embodies the text's fascination with social interplay is Puck. His social character, as we have noted, is extraordinarily difficult to pin down: he is a "shrewd and knavish sprite" (2.1.33) who, like Nashe's personae, combines in himself the perspective from above and from below.23 On the one hand, Puck is linked with common village life, is given a homely speech, and is less ethereal ("thou lob of spirits" [2.1.16]) than the other fairies. His role as servant and jester also separates him from the elite of the play. Yet equally plain is his feeling of difference from the "hempen home-spuns" (3.1.77), as well as from the unseen but vividly evoked cottagers and "villagery" (2.1.35) inhabiting the nonelite social space of the play.24 But if he is a richly complementary figure, neither strictly high nor low, and thus an instance of the play's social dialectics, his radical indefinability in terms of hierarchy, his anomalous and mixed social character, is presented not as threatening but as overwhelmingly delightful. Of course, we may feel that it is precisely because he is presented as a figure of fancy that he is unthreatening. The unreality of A Midsummer Night's Dream thus begins to appear as the means by which a liberated social interplay is both licensed and contained.

The temptation, then, to concur unreservedly with Elliot Krieger's assessment of the play—that its movement overall is conservative, leading toward the reaffirmation or regrounding of hierarchy (a hierarchy all the stronger and more inevitable and necessary for its temporary upsetting)—is compelling. (In line with this assessment, we may suppose that what Krieger calls the "second world" of the play, the green wood, performs a crucial function in naturalizing this hierarchy, a legitimation achieving its richest expression in Puck's valedictory blessing of the house and couples at the end.) Krieger is surely right to see the playlet of Pyramus and Thisby performing an important role in this conservative reordering ("putting the mechanicals in their place" by virtue of their awkwardness in the aristocratic setting).25 Yet there are certain problems involved with assuming that the play's overall cast is therefore conservative. I shall argue with this interpretation in subsequent pages; for the moment, following Krieger, I should like to consider the function of genre and tragedy in the reimposition of hierarchy in the play.

Perhaps the first thing to notice about the playlet is that it is another form of "translation," this time plebeians translated into the conditions of noble life and story. At least, such is the intention—in fact, the effort of the mechanicals to assimilate themselves to elite society is so inept as to reemphasize their proletarianness, as Krieger shows. Secondly, we should notice the social role of the performance itself, for it is through its clumsiness that the court group reaffirms its own solidarity (originally threatened in the opening, quasi-tragic, scene). Thus the play presents a true knowledge of art, of genre and of decorum, as a not insignificant factor in ruling-class unity. (The mechanicals' ignorance underscores their exclusion from this class, but it does more than that: their amateur miscomprehensions in art reaffirm their incapacity in politics, a knowledge of one implying competence in the other. The implication is that the principle of decorum and fitness, involving notions of subordination and degree, is as fundamental to politics as to poetics.)26 Thirdly, A Midsummer Night's Dream is clear about the social meaning of tragedy, because though the poetry and performance of Pyramus and Thisby are incredibly poor, it is not only the badness of the piece that is in question. What is also felt as ridiculous is the connection of the idea of tragedy with plebeians. Tragedy is consciously taken to exclude lower-class experience, and the juxtaposition of the two is clearly an incongruity to be savored: plebeian tragedy is comical tragedy. In short, social and poetic categories are not separated out. Finally, for the courtiers one of the silliest aspects of the entertainment is simply its generic incoherence:

"A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth." Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?

That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?


This orthodox, neoclassical assertion of the purity of genres is, I think, the assertion of a social, as well as aesthetic, conservatism: it reasserts ideals of order, stability, and decorum, after the "discord" of those scenes of radical social mixing and translation (confusion, from one point of view) in the wood. (We may note that Theseus's aesthetic language just before the lovers' return to the city and the official recognition of their loves "in the temple" [4.1.180] also expresses this apparent restoration of the status quo, with its talk of a "musical confusion / Of hounds and echo in conjunction" [4.1.1 10-11]—that is, of an order robust enough to include and contain "confusion.") The social symbolism of A Midsummer Night's Dream may thus be thought of as describing dramatically a contradiction between disorder and order akin to the stylistic opposition between Nasheian variety and Lylean order: the contrast is similarly imagined as between what is essentially a court aesthetic and ideology and something potentially undermining it. In any case, we may see a tension in the play between the "impure," discordant, dialectical impulse toward translation, involving a promiscuous interplay between social groups, and the opposed ideal of a hierarchy of genres and ranks inhibiting this impulse. Although, as we have seen, the conservative ideal is perhaps dominant by the end of the play, its middle scenes exhibit a heady interest in social translation.

We can appreciate the daring of the social dialectics in the wood of A Midsummer Night's Dream by comparing the more conservative version of metamorphosis offered in the induction to The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94; pub. 1623). Like Bottom the Weaver, Christopher Sly the tinker is temporarily translated into a gentleman. A nobleman finds him dead drunk outside a tavern, and decides to play a joke on him. "What think you," he asks his huntsmen,

. . . if he were convey'd to bed, Wrapp'd in sweet clothes, rings put on his fingers, A most delicious banquet by his bed, And brave attendants near him when he wakes, Would not the beggar then forget himself?

1 Hun: Believe me, lord, I think he cannot choose.2 Hun; It would seem strange unto him when he wak'd.Lord: Even as a flatt'ring dream or worthless fancy.

(induction, 1.37-44)

This reference to dream, as well as the lush, richly decorative rhetoric singing the delights of the new life Sly has entered upon ("Wilt thou have music? Hark, Apollo plays, / And twenty caged nightingales do sing" [induction, 2.35-36]) in some ways anticipates Bottom's idyll with Titania. While Sly is thus translated, so is the lord, taking on the role of a servant. Clearly the nobleman's fascination with this social experiment is the play's too: the reversal of social status is itself felt as dramatically interesting (an interest in such social translation perhaps helping to explain, as suggested in the Introduction, the pervasiveness of humble disguises in both comedy and tragedy in the period).27 As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, this scene of elaborate social interplay is at the same time occasion for a certain artistic consciousness, especially an awareness of genre. A messenger tells Sly,

Your honor's players, hearing your amendment, Are come to play a pleasant comedy, For so your doctors hold it very meet, Seeing too much sadness hath congeal'd your blood, And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy. Therefore they thought it good to hear a play, And frame your mind to mirth and merriment, Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.

Sly: Marry, I will, let them play it. Is not a comonty a Christmas gambold, or a tumbling-trick?Page: No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff.Sly: What, household stuff?Page: It is a kind of history.

(induction, 2.129-41)

Here the allusion to comedy is at once a formal definition ("a kind of history") and a crucial separating out of high and low milieux, seeming almost to safeguard hierarchical difference against the mixing that has, albeit in a highly restricted sense, taken place.28 If the crossover of Sly and the lord momentarily (and playfully) upends distinctions of degree, making them appear manipulatable and open to change, it is in this moment of aesthetic self-awareness that they are reinstalled: Sly's immovable plebeian-ness is emphasized in his ignorance of the nature of comedy, just as the mechanicals' low status is affirmed through their ignorance of the nature of tragedy. Thus "art" is, it seems, in either play deployed to consolidate social hierarchy. What is remarkable about this scene from the Shrew and Pyramus and Thisby is that formal self-consciousness is so closely implicated in an awareness of rank, and emerges out of a scene of explicit interaction between ranks. Thus the meeting with the drunken Sly is followed by the entrance of the players and the lord's Hamlet-like Compliment to them, displaying his own discrimination in such affairs: "that part [Soto's] / Was aptly fitted and naturally perform'd" (induction, 1.86-87; compare Philostrate's disparagement of the plebeian players in the Dream: "not one word apt, one player fitted" [5.1.65]). The important thing to note in both plays is just how the discourses of art and hierarchy merge.29 Yet the social dialectics of the Shrew's induction are in no way as intense as those of the Dream, for where in the former the reversal is safely stage-managed by the nobleman, in the latter the young aristocrats' bewilderment and Titania's sense of disgrace toward the end of the play are genuinely felt and powerfully disorienting emotions. Moreover, despite the fact that the mechanicals are to some extent "put in their place" by Pyramus and Thisby, we feel no compulsion to second the smugness of the aristocrats, whom we have watched behave in ways scarcely less absurd than Bottom and his friends.30 The elite characters of this play, then, are more challenged by translation than in the Shrew induction. Bottom, in addition, does not cut the purely buffoonish figure Sly does: apart from his possessing a realistic, commonsensical wisdom (his philosophic remarks on reason and love, for instance [3.1.142-47]), as well as an imaginative impressionability of which the tinker shows scant evidence, Titania's election of Bottom is an intense, ecstatic experience of a different order altogether from the mirthless, deliberate practical joke played on Sly. And where with Sly we are conscious only of his unsuitability for the greatness thrust on him, the harsher, more disciplinarian comedy of that play inviting us to laugh with the lord and servants at him, with Bottom as courtier we register the incongruity, but are amazed at the capacity almost to bring it off: there is a sense in which he manages to convince despite everything. In any case, both plays are remarkable for their showing social hierarchies and art to imply each other: both imagine intriguing scenarios of social mixing and interplay, but art counts as a deeply conservative check to this imagining.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, I have suggested, art appears as a means by which basic social distinctions are rediscovered after a potentially disturbing (or liberating—the play allows for both evaluations) interval in which they have been suspended, an interval of topsy-turvydom or translation, and I have also suggested that a similar thematization of the conservative social role of art occurs in The Taming of the Shrew.31 In this play, it seems, the theater and poetry are represented not in terms of any liberatory or subversive potential, but as means for enforcing social norms and hierarchies. Thus the disorderly Sly, who "will not pay for the glasses [he has] burst" in the tavern, defies the town constabulary, and is "fourteen pence on the score for sheer ale" (induction, 1.7-8, 11-15, 2.23) is made to watch a "pleasant comedy" (induction, 2.130) whose moral is intensely conservative, and which enforces the familiar analogy of patriarchal and political authority, or "aweful rule, and right supremacy" (5.2.109).32 The lord enlists, we should remember, professional players in this "pastime passing excellent" (induction, 1.67); what is notable about this scene is its self-consciousness, with the theater presented as enforcing social order.33 It is true that the experimental, open element of play—of social translation, whereby a tinker becomes a nobleman and a nobleman a servant—is also present, and this is what makes the Shrew a companion to A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the central difference between the two works lies in the overriding emphasis on "art" in the Shrew, on the lord's virtuoso, illusion-making art (indeed, the art of the theater-poet), and the consequent closing down of social possibilities such an art seems to imply. It is this social power of art that is emphasized, its ability to control and manipulate appearances and thus social relations, even to create subjects whose self-understanding is fantasized by the powers-that-be. We have seen that, by comparison, the translations in the Dream are more vertiginous and apparently unpredictable (not even Oberon gets everything right first go round), and this lack of control suggests a corresponding measure of possibility. This is the case even though, as suggested above, the very daringness of the play's manipulation of hierarchy is predicated upon the comic guarantee that "all shall be well" (3.2.463). (For about even this supposed restoration of decorum at the close of the play there is, as we have also seen, a striking irony, as the courtiers condescend to a play almost as unreasoning as their own love adventures.) But in the induction to the Shrew, the emphasis is all on the nobleman's control and skill, on a virtuosity, including a powerful eloquence, capable of overcoming Sly's resistance to manipulation. The induction, then, figures the theater as a social force, in a fantasy of total authority: the nobleman possesses a Prospero-like power for manipulating others, which is founded upon theater and capable of fashioning the very identity of his auditors:

Sly: Am I a lord, and have I such a lady? Or do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now? I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak; I smell sweet savors, and I feel soft things. Upon my life, I am a lord indeed, And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.

(induction, 2.68-73)

What this passage and the scene as a whole suggest is a role for the theater in the ideological formation of subjects: the outsider Sly is through theater led to identify with aristocratic culture.34 And it is specifically the theater, with its duplicitous techniques of impersonation, which effects this "false consciousness," or mystified experience of social reality: thus the directions to "Barthol'mew my page," who must be "dress'd in all suits like a lady" to impersonate Sly's noble wife, and who will be able to "rain a shower of commanded tears" by "An onion . . . / Which in a napkin (being close convey'd) / Shall in despite enforce a watery eye" (induction, 1.105-6, 125-28). Art is represented as a mode of elite social authority, employing fancy or the imagination for orthodox ends.35 (By contrast, the Dream sets fancy in powerful opposition to social orthodoxy, as a mode for its—temporary, perhaps, but in no way easily forgotten—undoing.) What is crucial is the emphasis in the Shrew on technique or manipulation. Where in A Midsummer Night's Dream the disruptions of the social system have a magical or uncanny authority, so that they cannot be dismissed as merely illusory—at least not by the audience, Bottom, or the lovers—in the Shrew there is no such suggestion of an alternative, more fluid social reality; instead we see art serving authority, and we realize, even if he doesn't, that Christopher Sly is only a tinker and will remain one. The translations in the Dream, however, are not nearly so obviously unreal, so simply the result of technique—it is not clear that Bottom is now a mere weaver, for in an important sense he remains the consort of the Faerie Queene, able "to discourse wonders" (4.2.29); nor are the social translations of the play engendered, and so contained, by an aristocratic "art," but are on the contrary imagined as profound alternatives to the rigidity and conservatism of art: art is brought in to recontain and close down the dizzying possibilities for social relations, felt as fearful and delightful all at once, which are released by the play.36 The disturbingly frank (for modern taste) identification of the art of the poetic theater with aristocratic authority in the Shrew turns upon genre: it is because what Sly watches is not "a Christmas gambold, or a tumbling-trick"—not a naïve popular entertainment but an example of deliberate and socially sophisticated art, a "kind of history"—that ensures that the lesson of the drama is essentially conservative. It will be useful to turn now to this "kind of history" itself, for it too, in the context of play with social distinctions and hierarchy, seems to recognize the power of art, its functioning as a mode of elite social symbolism and control.

It was suggested some pages back that the unreality of the Dream was necessary for its pleasurable loosening of the social structure, and thus that its fantastic aspects must be regarded as functioning conservatively, rendering the notion of social translation an "antic fable" or harmless "fairy toy" (5.1.3). Yet a comparison with the undoubtedly conservative Taming of the Shrew has shown that such a reading too easily accepts Theseus's complacent and facile dismissal of what has occurred in the night, and it is by now a critical truism that "the story of the night . . . / . . . grows to something of great constancy" (5.1.23, 26), and that the play throws into disarray ruling dualisms like reality and dream.37 Thus, "strange and admirable" (5.1.27) as the play's envisioning of social translation might be, it is not canceled out by the end of the play; and its exoticism, fancy, and magic is to be compared with the contemporary and, in the body of the play, harshly materialistic and urban setting of the Shrew, which imposes, it seems, its own limitations on the idea of social translation—or at least gives this notion a conservative meaning. What I am suggesting is that upsets of social relations in the Shrew are more anxiety-producing affairs than in the Dream: to the extent that the play experiments at all with such reversals they are invariably the occasion for cuffs and blows, for verbal sparring and comic anger, and in general for the aggressive high spirits of slapstick. Vincentio's stupefaction, rage, and bewilderment at Tranio and Biondello's non-acknowledgment of him are typical (see 5.1.45-111). We are, of course, still in a comedy, even if, by comparison with the Dream, a highly realistic, unromantic one, so these instances of complication and reversal of traditional relations are not equatable with the anguish, disbelief, and shock that social translation gives rise to in, for example, Lear, where even the impudence of an Oswald is implicated in a narrative of cosmic ruin—yet the connection with comic versions of the same process is there, and Lear exploits it. An undercurrent of violence and tension pervades the social relations of the Shrew: "Was ever man so beaten? Was ever man so ray'd? Was ever man so weary?" complains Grumio on arriving at Petruchio's country house (4.1.2-3). Yet in their turn the servants are incorrigibly saucy: Grumio and Biondello are maddening quibblers and logic choppers (see, for example, the exchanges with Petruchio and Baptista at 1.2.5-44 and 3.2.30-41). These playful yet aggressive "sets of wit"38 underscore one's impression of social relations characterized by a tendency toward force and violence (Kate's shrewishness has to be seen within the context of this generalized aggressivity), and this competitive, tense atmosphere clearly sets limits to the kinds of social translation imaginable. Nonetheless, the play does experiment with certain reversals of degree: "Tranio is chang'd into Lucentio" (1.1.237) so that the latter might have access to Bianca (the stage direction at 1.2.217 giving us "Tranio brave" and, at 2.1.38, "Lucentio in the habit of a mean man"). Still, such translations of social role do not suggest the profound renovation of social hierarchy hinted at in A Midsummer Night's Dream; and the reason for this reluctance of the play to press the idea of translation seems connected, once again, with the role of the foregrounded dramaturgical principle of "art" as a conservative check on this process. Thus the play's emphasis on "counterfeit supposes" (5.1.117), or on the "mystaking or imagination of one thing for an other" (prologue to Gascoigne's Supposes)39 as a result of deliberate counterfeiting (such as Lucentio, Tranio, Biondello, Hortensio, Gremio, and Petruchio all engage in), is an emphasis on deft technique entirely absent from the Dream. This stress on the artful, theatrical manipulation of social reality lacks the implication of a thoroughgoing (and lasting) revision of the social structure that we encounter in the Dream; for the Shrew, with its emphasis on clever deceit, or the strategic trickery of art, preserves the notion of an unchanging social reality only temporarily distorted by these fictions and subterfuges. The reversal of role Tranio and Lucentio engineer ultimately only confirms the "truth" of the established order: finally, Tranio is Tranio and Lucentio is Lucentio; and when this is not so, it is because of the feigning of art—but what Bottom experiences in the woods, whatever it is the lovers undergo, is not a mere "suppose." Rather it is something that transcends or is more mysterious than "art," in something of the same way that the enigmatic, remote Hippolyta is a stranger, more alluring figure than the day-lit Theseus. In the Shrew, therefore, social translation operates in accordance with a technical rhetoric, or in terms of clever impersonation and the crafty manipulation of appearances; in the Dream it involves a far-reaching enchantment and wonder and poses, briefly but memorably, an alternative social reality. The notion of art is central: for in the Shrew the emphasis is on strategy, intrigue, and the manipulation of other people and social situations or, at a higher level of abstraction, of the plot by an author. (A manipulation Petruchio figures: obviously, he uses, along with physical force, a histrionic-poetic power to subdue Kate, even as Sly is subdued by this faculty in the nobleman's hands: just as Sly is made to identify with aristocratic life, so is Kate with patriarchy). This calculating, unillusioned rhetoric of art, characterizing the Shrew's version of social interplay, seems appropriate to the "realistic" atmosphere of a town and its life of unapologetic getting and gaining: Athens and its wood is finally an ampler, less crowded place, its social structure less defined and constricting, than Padua. We may think of the change in Kate as like the translation Bottom undergoes—but unlike Bottom's, its logic is conservative, toward the reassertion of a hierarchical social relation rather than its unorthodox overturning or problematization. What we seem to see in the Shrew is Shakespeare's recognition of art's role in backing up "aweful rule, and right supremacy"; in the Dream art is similarly represented as a conservative force, but the play is more dialectical than the self-satisfied courtiers at its end, and they and their art do not have the last word. The point, then, is that none of the rearrangements of social role in the worldly, metropolitan comedy of the Shrew (the lord's, Lucentio's, Petruchio's—who is "mean apparell'd" at his wedding, so that it is "shame to [his] estate" [3.2.73, 100]) suggest that quality of wondrous, revisionary enchantment experienced in the apparently artless mix-up of social relations in the Dream.

I have suggested that the social dialectics of particular Shakespeare plays underlie or provoke a formal awareness—that their complex social makeup fosters an attitude of self-consciousness about form and that this involves an awareness of the social provenance, meaning, and potential uses of modes and of art generally. This suggestion can be further explored in a play with some striking similarities to A Midsummer Night's Dream: George Peele's The Old Wives Tale (ca. 1588-94; pub. 1595). Describing this work's social character is difficult, since it unites the most diverse material. On the one hand it is, in Muriel Bradbrook's words, a fantastic popular "medley," derived from folktale and naïve tradition; on the other hand, its use of this material is sophisticated, knowing, and literary.40 This sophisticated viewpoint is located in the three pages of the play who, lost in a wood, are welcomed into his cottage by Clunch the Smith, and who persuade his wife Madge to pass the night by telling them an old winter's tale:

Antic: . . . methinks, gammer, a merry winter's tale would drive away the time trimly. Come, I am sure you are not without a score.

Fantastic: I' faith, gammer, a tale of an hour long were as good as an hour's sleep.

Frolic: Look you, gammer, of the giant and the king's daughter, and I know not what. I have seen the day, when I was a little one, you might have drawn me a mile after you with such a discourse.

(lines 85-90)

The tone is witty and aware, yet sympathetic rather than merely condescending. Like the . . . Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night's Dream or some of the late plays, Peele's play is consciously double in its social affiliations, both of and not of a "popular tradition." The meeting between Antic, Fantastic, and Frolic, and Madge and Clunch, is a socially inclusive scene, but the important thing about it is that this meeting between a nobleman's clever pages and simple country people is also a scene of aesthetic self-consciousness, as is evident from the device of the frame itself (once Madge has actually begun her tale this frame does not play much of a role, though it is in the theater a potentially continuous visual presence). As Patricia Binnie observes,41 the beginning of Madge's tale is a veritable catalogue of folk motifs—clearly Peele wants to make these particular (popular) conventions as visible as possible:

Madge: Once upon a time there was a king or a lord or a duke that had a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was; as white as snow and as red as blood; and once upon a time his daughter was stolen away, and he sent all his men to seek out his daughter, and he sent so long that he sent all his men out of his land.

Frolic: Who dressed his dinner, then?

Madge: Nay, either hear my tale, or kiss my tail.

Fantastic: Well said! On with your tale, gammer.

Madge: O Lord, 1 quite forgot! There was a conjurer, and this conjurer could do anything, and he turned himself into a great dragon, and carried the king's daughter away in his mouth to a castle that he made of stone, and there he kept her I know not how long, till at last all the king's men went out so long that her two brothers went to seek her. O, I forget! She (he, I would say) turned a proper young man to a bear in the night and a man in the day, and keeps by a cross that parts three several ways, and he made his lady run mad. Gods me bones! who comes here?

Enter the Two Brothers

Frolic: Soft, gammer, here some come to tell your tale for you.

(lines 113-34)

The first thing to say about this passage is that it is under conditions of social mingling that these conventions are recognized as such. (This attitude of self-consciousness is maintained in the rest of the play, where, as in Madge's introduction, fairy-tale motifs are foregrounded by their very abundance.) Moreover, these conventions are not treated as if they were poetic only—we are not dealing with a merely formal self-consciousness—but instead are presented in terms of their putative social character, that is, as conventions of popular narrative. The pages can enjoy such tales as Madge's, but the play is concerned to represent their distance from them as well (Frolic's "Who dressed his dinner, then?" is a reminder of this distance).42 Again, artistic self-consciousness is predicated upon social- or rank-consciousness. We may call this particular attitude of the text a "realism," because conventions are viewed realistically, from outside, in a detached, critical way, and because artistic conventions are referred to social, economic, and political reality (instead of simply responding to the story, it is itself contextualized, and we apprehend it as popular). The techniques of "epic theater" are relevant as a modern parallel to this sixteenth-century dramatic "realism," but Maynard Mack has also set out the terms for its discussion in his analysis of that "fine poise" in the Elizabethan theater "between elements making for engagement and those making for detachment."43 Thus The Old Wives Tale can be analyzed in terms similar to those we have brought to bear on other Renaissance works, where the text's complicated social situation is seen as precipitating a formal self-consciousness or a distancing of particular discursive modes as social-cultural forces: so-called bourgeois tragedy, in attempting a serious treatment of nonaristocratic life, develops a critical distance on tragic conventions, and Nashe, in a move interpretable as articulating his own ambiguous social position, plays off against each other elite and "popular" discourses to produce a socially undecidable, ironic, and elusive body of writing. Realism is an appropriate term for describing the characteristic stance of these texts, for each sees modes and conventions as aspects of social reality or as articulations of degree, and art as expressing elite social authority. In this respect The Old Wives Tale forms something of an exception to the texts examined so far, its self-consciousness regarding the social character of literary modes being directed not at art but at the naïve notion of the tale.


1An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, in Dryden, Essays, 1.79.

2 "The myriad-minded man . . . Shakespeare": in vol. 1 of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, 2d ed., ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor (London, 1960), 89.

3Shakespeare, 246; see also 177.

4 Greer, Shakespeare (Oxford, 1986), 18, 85, 125. Shakespearean "negative capability" has been formulated diversely. Margot Heinemann in "How Brecht Read Shakespeare" (Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield [Ithaca, N.Y., 1985]), observes Brecht's modeling of his epic theater on "the many-sided, dialectical, argumentative style of Shakespeare" (211). W. R. Elton, "Shakespeare and the Thought of His Age," in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum (Cambridge, England, 1971) sees Shakespeare's dialectical art as giving appropriate form to a contradictory, transitional age, articulating the "complexity and variety, inconsistency and fluidity" of Renaissance thought (180; see 197-98). Otto Ludwig's comment that "Shakespeare's entire art is based on contrast" is cited by Weimann, Shakespeare, 245; Clemen, "Characteristic Features of Shakespearian Drama," stresses contrast and the combination of "opposite and diverse material in order to form a new unity" as essential (202; 202-3). Rossiter, Angel with Horns, formulates the dialectical spirit of Shakespearean tragedy less as an argument than as a matter of "diabolical" irony and "Gothic" grotesque (292): in Shakespeare's "comic-ironic" universe "the tragic includes its seeming opposite"; the "view is the double-eyed, the ambivalent: it faces both ways" (270, 272, 292). Norman Rabkin in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967) analyzes the "principle of complementarity" in the plays and finds that the "true constant" of Shakespeare's texts is their "dialectical dramaturgy" (27, 11, and passim); see also his Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago, 1981) on the irreducible "existential complexity" of the plays (32 and passim).

5 See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford, 1977), 55-75, 128-36: "structure of feeling" is a concept intended to "go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs" to include "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt" (132). See also Peter Erikson, "The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York, 1987), 117-18.

6 The social "inclusiveness" of Shakespearean theater in general, but above all of the Henry IV plays, is stressed by Barber in terms of the dramatic use of popular custom and ritual: see Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 192 and passim.

7 Influential Marxist accounts of Shakespearean "comprehensiveness" are Weimann's Shakespeare and Cohen's Drama of a Nation. Both emphasize the period as an age of transition from feudalism to capitalism: see Weimann, 161-69 and passim; Drama of a Nation, 82-84 and passim. See also Szenczi, "Shakespeare's Realism." Bristol, Carnival and Theater, accepts that "the theme of transition" from feudalism to capitalism remains generally "a valid interpretive strategy for elucidating social change in the Elizabethan period" (47), but argues that it needs supplementing by an awareness of the conservatism and relative permanence of the forms of popular culture—"what Fernand Braudel has called longue durée' or the 'structure of everyday life'" (48). Cohen defends "the quest for totality" (21) of Marxist modes of criticism in Drama of a Nation, 21-22.

8 In his edition: "every single character in Shakespeare is as much an Individual as those in Life itself: see vol. 2 of Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Brian Vickers (London, 1974), 404.

9Shakespeare and Social Class (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1988), 75-77.

10 Cf. Puttenham: "many a meane souldier and other obscure persons were spoken of and made famous in stories, as we find of Irus the begger, and Thersites the glorious noddie, whom Homer maketh mention of. But that happened (and so did many like memories of meane men) by reason of some greater personage or matter that it was long of; from Arte of English Poesie, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2.45.

11 See Harbage, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (New York, 1952); Bradbrook, Elizabethan Comedy and Rise of the Common Player; and Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. "A pervasive mixing of popular and elite elements . . . characterized the immediate institutional context of the drama" (Cohen, Drama of a Nation, 19; also 405 and passim). The major contemporary statement of this position is Weimann's Shakespeare: Elizabethan drama was "neither farcical nor learned nor courtly," but a theater universal "in its social and aesthetic appeal" (173 and passim). Both writers, however, formulate this social-cultural mingling in terms of a larger contradiction between ruling and subordinate classes: "in the Renaissance theater . . . the popular tradition was free to develop relatively independent of, and yet in close touch with, the conflicting standards and attitudes of the dominant classes" (Weimann, Shakespeare, 169, my emphasis). For Cohen the essentially "artisanal" (181) social character of the Elizabethan playhouse suggests "the inherent subversiveness of the institution" (183): even in a play with an overtly aristocratic outlook, "the medium and the message were in contradiction, a contradiction that resulted above all from the popular contribution" (183). Weimann, "Shakespeare (De)Canonized," has similarly argued for tension between dramatic content and performative context on the Elizabethan stage: see Introduction, n. 32.

12 See William Shakespeare, 227-32. On John Shakespeare's public career, see 33-39.

13 For Greene's attack on Shakespeare: ibid., 151, and 143-59. For the title page to the Farewell, see vol. 9 of Greene, Life and Complete Works, 225.

14 Even by 1640, when their status had been much improved, playwrights were still not very highly regarded, according to Bentley, Profession of Dramatist, 43.

15 For a sociological reading of Tamburlaine and other plays in terms of the special position in society of the "University Wits," see G. K. Hunter, "The Beginnings of Elizabethan Drama: Revolution and Continuity," in Renaissance Drama, n.s. 17 (1986): 29-52.

16 C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The WholeJourney: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley, 1986), 63.

17 Danby compares Sidney (as archetype of the aristocrat-poet) with "the tradesman's son from the country," Shakespeare, in Poets on Fortune's Hill, Ti.

18 For a conception of the forms of literature as "institutionally objective," see Fowler, Kinds of Literature, 260.

19 Snyder, Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies, shows that the upsetting of normal social arrangements can be comic or tragic in Elizabethan drama; thus the convention of social inversion in the romantic comedy of the 1580s and early 1590s, in which "women and servants" are commonly elevated above "their betters" (27), has a dark, ironic significance in King Lear (140-46).

20 I am grateful to Ay e Agi for drawing my attention to the different ways Titania and Oberon evaluate the Faerie Queene's infatuation.

21 "Shakespeare's plays are centrally, repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder": Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, 40; see also Arthur F. Kinney, Renaissance Historicism: Selections from "English Literary Renaissance, " ed. Arthur F. Kinney and Dan S. Collins (Amherst, Mass., 1987), xi.

22 On the play's synthesis of courtly and popular materials and its use of social contrast generally, see David Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream " (New Haven, Conn., 1966), 15, 30, 58-59; H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London, 1938; repr. 1959), 120; K. M. Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare's Contemporaries and Successors (London, 1959), 44; M. C. Bradbrook, "The Fashioning of a Courtier," in Shakespeare Criticism: 1935-1960, ed. Anne Ridler (London, 1963), 377-80; and R. W. Dent, "Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 125.

23 The fairies in general "are a fantastic 'mingle-mangle' blending classical and Germanic mythology with native folklore" (Weimann, Shakespeare, 174), and "Shakespeare's Puck . . . at once a product of the popular imagination as well as a part of the more literary traditions of Cupid and Ovid's Metamorphoses" (196).

24 Compare with Puck's superiority to, yet association with, the common people, Diccon in Gammer Gurions Nedle, whose mischief drives the play's complications: cleverer than his rustic victims, he nevertheless participates in much the same sphere of life as they.

25 Elliot Krieger, A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies (New York, 1979): "the play furthers the aristocracy's fantasy of its absolute social predominance" (61). Krieger proposes an ideological analysis of the "two-world" structure of much Shakespearean comedy: the "secondary" world (Arden, the wood outside Athens, Belmont) is a mystification of the class conflicts of the historical, "first" world of the plays; see his introduction, 1-8. This two-world theory of Shakespearean comedy (a movement from a "normal world," into a "green world," and back again to the "normal world") derives from Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), 182; see also 182-85.

26 Cf. Spingarn, Literary Criticism in the Renaissance: "the principle of decorum" necessarily entails the "much deeper question . . . of social distinctions": "The observance of decorum necessitated the maintenance of the social distinctions which formed the basis of Renaissance life and of Renaissance literature" (87).

27 On the popularity of disguise in both genres, see Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions, 17.

28 Sly' s reference to "a tumbling-trick" seems designed to signify a popular entertainment, as different as possible from the sophisticated "history" (or "story represented dramatically" [OED, sb. 6a]), of reasonably complex plotting, which the Shrew proper offers. But it is relevant to any discussion of the relations of "popular" to "aristocratic" culture in the period, and underscores the slipperiness of such distinctions, that tumbling or acrobatic performances were court fare as well: the Office of the Master of the Revels Account Book (1 November 1582 to 31 October 1583) records that "Sundrey feates of Tumbling and Activitie were shewed before her majestie on Newe years daie at night by the Lord Straunge his servauntes"; and the Book for 31 October 1584 to 31 October 1585 notes that "Dyvers feates of Actyvytie were shewed and presented before her majestie on newe yeares daye at night at Grenewich by Symons and his fellowes": see Documents Relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Louvain, Belgium, 1908), 349, 365.

29 A similar status-consciousness is, of course, discernible in Hamlet's advice to the players: the speech Hamlet heard once "pleas'd not the million, 'twas caviary to the general" (2.2.436-37); there are the distinctions between "the judicious" and "the unskillful" (3.2.25-26), or "the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise" (3.2.10-12). Aesthetic matters are thus discussed with a casual automatic reference to degree. Nonetheless, drama does not in Hamlet have the essentially conservative function it has in A Midsummer Night's Dream or, as I shall show, The Taming of the Shrew: in Claudius's court holding the "mirror up to nature" (3.2.22) is necessarily a disruptive act; the resources of theater are, as in Lear's scorching mocktrial of his daughters, the weapons not of the powerful, but of those striking back (from a position of vulnerability) at injustice.

30 G. K. Hunter discusses this irony in William Shakespeare: The Late Comedies (London, 1962), 14, 20.

31 The best-known study of a "Saturnalian" tradition of misrule or "topsy-turvydom" in English Renaissance theater is Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. An early consideration of Shakespeare's indebtedness to traditional pastimes and festivals (especially in the comedies but also in Lear) is Spens, An Essay on , Shakespeare's Relation to Tradition, 35-52: thus Sir Toby in Twelfth Night recalls the Lord of Misrule of the court, an office, along with the play's title, suggesting the play's "link with a folk-festival," the Feast of Fools (43, 41-43). Weimann's political interpretation of the tradition, whereby "the inverted vision of the world" is "a means of criticizing society" (Shakespeare, 40) has been influential. Thus Bristol, Carnival and Theater, in an analysis of carnivalesque popular culture derived from Bakhtin, stresses the capacity of festivity to act as a mode of resistance to the dominant elite and its "power structure" (4). But topsy-turvydom has a learned history too: see E. R. Curtius, "The World Upside Down," in European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, 1953), 94-98.

32 On the "parallel between domestic patriarchy and absolute monarchy" in the thought of the period, see Belsey, Subject of Tragedy, 144, 137-48. If the concluding Christopher Sly scene in The Taming of a Shrew (possibly a memorial reconstruction of Shakespeare's play) reflects an ending originally in some version of the text, the notion of Sly being subjected to order becomes less satisfactory—for, as a man, he also benefits from it, "know[ing] now how to tame a shrew": "I'll to my wife presently and tame her too an if she anger me"; see The Taming of the Shrew, ed. H. J. Oliver (Oxford, 1982), 235; on the textual problem of Sly, see 28-29, 40-43. But the play Sly watches still promotes order; and the Sly awakened by the Tapster, after the "dream" of being a lord (235), has certainly been put in his place.

33 Leonard Tennenhouse understands English Renaissance drama as an extension of elite power, or "a vehicle for disseminating court ideology," in Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York, 1986), 39. Stephen Orgel's "Making Greatness Familiar," in Power of Forms, ed. Greenblatt, is a salutary reminder of just "how little we really understand," from a sometimes perplexing historical record, of "what must have been a very complicated and ambivalent relationship" between government and players in the period (46).

34 Cf. Tennenhouse, Power on Display: the induction "calls attention to the role of the dramatist and his power to produce and shatter the illusions in terms of which one understands identity" (46). One would have to qualify this by distinguishing among spectators: Sly is an especially naïve one, and the play explores such social differences; we may suppose that the lord would not be as vulnerable to the power Tennenhouse specifies.

35 Not only the art of the theater, either: note the ravishingly beautiful "pictures" (induction, 2.49) offered Sly, all Ovidian subjects (Adonis, Io, Daphne), and done with exquisite skill and workmanship (56, 60). This aesthetic language introduces a note of control and discipline into Sly's social metamorphosis that removes it from the more natural changes in the Dream.

36 Even Oberon's manipulation of Titania seems significantly different from the lord's playing with Sly, for here too, as with the other translations in the Dream, there is the strong suggestion, in an enchanted natural scene, of the disclosure of certain unobvious or paradoxical truths; but Sly-as-lord is a mere distorting trick.

37 Thus according to Young, Something of Great Constancy, the play undoes "conventional Elizabethan dichotomies" (115); see "Bottom's Dream," 109-67.

38 Bradbrook uses this term (Themes and Conventions, 110-11) to describe a conventional mode for orchestrating the speech of elite characters like Beatrice and Benedick, yet it is applicable to Grumio's quibbling.

39 Quoted from vol. 1 of Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London, 1957), 112. On Shakespeare's use of Gascoigne, see Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, Conn., 1978), 19-20, and Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 1:66-68.

40 "Shakespeare's Primitive Art," in Interpretations of Shakespeare: British Academy Lectures Selected by Kenneth Muir (Oxford, 1985), 53, 60. See also Patricia Binnie's introduction to her edition (Manchester, England, 1980), 25-29.

41 George Peele, The Old Wives Tale, edited by Patricia Binnie, 43.

42 I spoke of a "popular" realism in Nashe's work challenging elite idealism. Such realism, as this passage shows, need not be "popular": the deflationary realism here comes from Madge's superiors (who, however, are still not to be identified with the elite). For Bakhtin, medieval and Renaissance folk culture expresses a "material bodily principle" at odds with elite or official idealism: see Rabelais, 18 and passim.

43 "Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays," in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo., 1962), 285. The Elizabethan audience of S. L. Bethell's Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944) is similarly "alert and critically detached" (39): "Elizabethan playhouse psychology" is characterized by "the dual consciousness of play-world and real world" (41).

Louis A. Montrose (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "A Kingdom of Shadows," in The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649, edited by David L. Smith, Richard Strier and David Bevington, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 68-86.

[In the following essay, Montrose analyzes A Midsummer Night's Dream as it displays Shakespeare's concern with the artist's place in the Elizabethan social order.]


In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the interplay among characters is structured by an interplay among categories—namely, the unstable Elizabethan hierarchies of gender, rank and age. For example, Titania treats Bottom as if he were both her child and her lover—which seems entirely appropriate, since he is a substitute for the changeling boy, who is, in turn, Oberon's rival for Titania's attentions. Titania herself is ambivalently benign and sinister, imperious and enthralled. She dotes upon Bottom, and indulges in him all those desires to be fed, scratched and coddled that render Bottom's dream recognisable to us as a parodic fantasy of infantile narcissism and dependency. But it is also, at the same time, a parodic fantasy of upward social mobility. Bottom's mistress mingles her enticements with threats:

Out of this wood do not desire to go: Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no. I am a spirit of no common rate; The summer still doth tend upon my state; And I do love thee: therefore go with me. I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee; And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep, And sing, while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep: And I will purge thy mortal grossness so, That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.


The sublimation of matter into spirit is identified with the social elevation of the base artisan into the gentry: Titania orders her attendants to 'be kind and courteous to this gentleman' (3.1.157), to 'do him courtesies' (167), and to 'wait upon him' (190); she concludes the scene, however, with an order to enforce her minion's passivity, thus reducing him to the demeanour prescribed for women, children and servants: 'Tie up my love's tongue, bring him silently' (104).

Titania vows that she will purge Bottom's mortal grossness and will make him her 'gentle joy' (4.1.4); Bottom's own company hope that the Duke will grant him a pension of sixpence a day for his performance as Pyramus. It is surely more than dramatic economy that motivated Shakespeare to make the artisan who is the queen's complacent paramour also an enthusiastic amateur actor who performs before the Duke. Bottom is a comically exorbitant figure for the common masculine subject of Queen Elizabeth. His interactions with the Queen of Faeries and with the Duke of Athens represent distinct modes of relationship to his sovereign: in the former, that relationship is figured as erotic intimacy; in the latter, it is figured as collective homage. Within Elizabethan society, relationships of authority and dependency, of desire and fear, were characteristic of both the public and the domestic domains. Domestic relations between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, were habitually politicised: the household was a microcosm of the state; at the same time, socio-economic and political relationships of patronage and clientage were habitually eroticised: the devoted suitor sought some loving return from his master-mistress. The collective and individual impact of Elizabethan symbolic forms frequently depended upon interchanges or conflations between these domains.

Like their companion Bottom in his liaison with Titania, the mechanicals are collectively presented in a childlike relationship to their social superiors. They characterise themselves, upon two occasions, as 'every mother's son' (1.2.73; 3.1.69); however, they hope to be 'made men' (4.2.18) by the patronage of their lord, Duke Theseus. Differences within the mortal and faery courts of A Midsummer Night's Dream are structured principally in terms of gender and generation. However, by the end of the fourth act, the multiple marriages arranged within the Athenian aristocracy and the marital reconciliation arranged between the King and Queen of Faeries have achieved domestic harmony and reestablished hierarchical norms. When Bottom and his company are introduced into the newly concordant courtly milieu in the final scene, social rank and social calling displace gender and generation as the play's most conspicuous markers of difference. The dramatic emphasis is now upon a contrast between the socially and stylistically refined mixed-sex communities of court and forest, and the 'crew of patches, rude mechanicals' (3.2.9), who 'have toiled their unbreathed memories' (5.1.72) in order to honour and entertain their betters. In the coming together of common artisan-actors and the leisured elite for whom they perform, socio-political realities and theatrical realities converge. Implicated in this particular dramatic dénouement are several larger historical developments: the policies and attitudes abetting Elizabethan state formation; the enormous growth of London as an administrative, economic and cultural centre; and the institutionalisation of a professional, secular and commercial theatre with a complex relationship to the dynastic state and the royal court on the one hand, and to the urban oligarchy and the public market on the other. In the present essay, I seek to articulate some of these implications.


The immediate reason for the presence of Bottom and his companions in A Midsummer Night's Dream is to rehearse and perform an 'interlude before the Duke and the Duchess, on his wedding-day at night' (1.2.5-7). However, their project simultaneously evokes what, only a generation before the production of Shakespeare's play, had been a central aspect of civic and artisanal culture in England—namely, the feast of Corpus Christi, with its ceremonial procession and its often elaborate dramatic performances. The civic and artisanal status of the amateur players is insisted upon with characteristic Shakespearean condescension: Puck describes them to his master, Oberon, as 'rude mechanicals, / That work for bread upon Athenian stalls' (3.2.9-10); and Philostrate describes them to his master, Theseus, as 'Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never laboured in their minds till now' (5.1.72-3). In the most material way, Bottom's name relates him to the practice of his craft—the 'bottom' was 'the core on which the weaver's skein of yarn was wound' (Arden MND, p. 3, n. 11); and it also relates him to his lowly position in the temporal order, to his social baseness. Furthermore, among artisans, weavers in particular were associated with Elizabethan food riots and other forms of social protest that were prevalent during the mid-1590s, the period during which A Midsummer Night's Dream was presumably written and first performed.2 Thus, we may construe Bottom as the spokesman for the commons in the play—but with the proviso that this vox populi is not merely that of a generalised folk. Bottom is primarily the comic representative of a specific socio-economic group with its own highly articulated culture. He is not the voice of the dispossessed or the indigent but of the middling sort, in whose artisanal, civic and guild-centered ethos Shakespeare had his own roots.3 During his childhood in Stratford, Shakespeare would have had the opportunity and the occasion to experience the famed Corpus Christi play that was performed annually in nearby Coventry. Bottom himself, the most enthusiastic of amateur thespians, makes oblique allusion to the figures and acting traditions of the multi-pageant mystery plays.4 Thus, Bully Bottom, the weaver, is an over-determined signifier, encompassing not only a generalised common voice but also the particular socio-economic and cultural origins of William Shakespeare, the professional player-playwright—and, too, the collective socio-cultural origins of his craft. A Midsummer Night's Dream simultaneously acknowledges those origins and frames them at an ironic distance; it educes connections only in order to assert distinctions.

Recent studies in sixteenth-century English social history have emphasised that a major transformation in cultural life took place during the early decades of Elizabeth's reign, and that this cultural revolution manifested a complex interaction among religious, socio-economic and political processes. Mervyn James concludes that

the abandonment of the observance of Corpus Christi, of the mythology associated with the feast, and of the cycle plays . . . arose from the Protestant critique of Corpus Christi, in due course implemented by the Protestant Church, with the support of the Protestant state. . . .

The decline and impoverishment of gild organizations, the pauperization of town populations, the changing character and role of town societies, increasing government support of urban oligarchies, were all factors tending toward urban authoritarianism. As a result, urban ritual and urban drama no longer served a useful purpose; and were indeed increasingly seen as potentially disruptive to the kind of civil order which the magistracy existed to impose.5

In a study of the world the Elizabethans had lost, Charles Phythian-Adams emphasises that

for urban communities in particular, the middle and later years of the sixteenth century represented a more abrupt break with the past than any period since the era of the Black Death or before the age of industrialization. Not only were specific customs and institutions brusquely changed or abolished, but a whole, vigorous and variegated popular culture, the matrix of everyday life, was eroded and began to perish. . . .

If the opportunity for popular participation in public rituals was consequently largely removed, that especial meaning which sacred ceremonies and popular rites had periodically conferred on the citizens' tangible environment also fell victim to the new 'secular' order.6

The brilliant scholarship of these studies appears to proceed from a position that sees in the advent of the early modern Protestant state the fragmentation and loss of a pre-existing organic community. This tendency has been challenged recently in the work of Miri Rubin. Of Corpus Christi, she observes bluntly that 'a procession which excluded most working people, women, children, visitors and servants, was not a picture of the community. . . . By laying hierarchy bare it could incite the conflict of difference ever more powerfully sensed in a concentrated symbolic moment.'7 Taking her point, I wish to emphasise a shift not from sacramental civic communitas to disciplinary state hierarchy but rather from a culture focused upon social dynamics within the local community to one that incorporates the local within and subordinates it to the centre.

Throughout most of the sixteenth century, the Tudor regime had been engaged in a complex process of consolidating temporal and spiritual power in the hereditary ruler of a sovereign nation-state. Consistent with this project, the Elizabethan government was actively engaged in efforts to suppress traditional, amateur forms of popular entertainment, including the civic religious drama. The Elizabethan state perceived this culture to be tainted by the superstitions and idolatrous practices of the old faith; because its traditional loyalties were local, regional or papal, it was regarded as a seedbed for dissent and sedition. Popular and liturgical practices, ceremonial and dramatic forms, were not wholly suppressed by the royal government but were instead selectively appropriated. In court, town and countryside, they were transformed by various temporal authorities into elaborate and effusive celebrations of the monarchy and of civic oligarchies; they became part of the ideological apparatus of the state. Such ceremonies of power and authority are epitomised by the queen's occasional progresses to aristocratic estates and regional urban centres; by her annual Accession Day festivities, celebrated at Westminster with pageants and jousts, and in towns throughout England with fanfares and bonfires; and by the annual procession and pageant for the lord mayor and aldermen of London, and analogous ceremonies maintained by other local, urban elites.8

The suppression of religious and polemical drama and the curtailment of popular festivities were policy goals vigorously pursued by the Elizabethan regime from its very inception. The custom of celebrating the queen's Accession Day began to flourish following the suppression of the northern rebellion and the York Corpus Christi play in 1569, and the promulgation of the Papal Bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth on Corpus Christi Day 1570. The process of suppressing the mystery plays was virtually complete by 1580. As Mervyn James puts it, 'under Protestantism, the Corpus Christi becomes the Body of the Realm'.9 At the same time, the queen's Privy Council and the court nourished the professional theatre—if only to the limited extent that it could be construed as serving their own interests. Commencing scarcely two decades before the writing of A Midsummer Night's Dream, resident professional acting companies, under the patronage of the monarch and her leading courtiers, were established in the vicinity of the City of London and the royal court at Westminster. Thus, the beginning of the fully professional, secular and commercial theatre of Elizabethan London coincides with the effective end of the religious drama and the relative decline of local amateur acting traditions in the rest of England.10 As a means of entertaining the court and the people, the professional theatre seems to have been perceived by the crown as potentially if indirectly useful, both as an instrument for the aggrandisement of the dynastic nation state and for the supervision and diversion of its subjects.

The decay of Coventry's traditional civic culture during the mid- and late sixteenth century paralleled the city's economic decline. Such cultural changes were abetted, however, by the Tudor state's active suppression or cooptation of popular ceremonies and recreations. Some specific instances of this general process can provide a context for construing Shakespeare's comic representation of civic, artisanal culture and its relationship to the state. Queen Elizabeth visited Coventry on progress in 1566. In his speech of welcome, the City Recorder alluded to the role of Coventry in the overthrow of the Danes, 'a memorial whereof is kept unto this day by certain open shows in this City yearly'; the reference is to the elaborate and rowdy annual Hock Tuesday play, in which the role of women combatants was prominent. Upon her actual entrance into the city, the queen viewed the pageants of the Tanners, Drapers, Smiths and Weavers that formed parts of the Corpus Christi play.11 Two years later, under the pressure of reformist preachers, the civic celebrations of the Hocktide shows were banned. Despite this, the queen had a subsequent opportunity to witness them at first hand. According to a putative eyewitness account, this was in 1575, during her celebrated visit to the earl of Leicester's estate at Kenilworth. Led by a mason who styled himself Captain Cox, the 'good-hearted men of Coventry' daringly presented their quaint show among the spectacular entertainments and displays with which the earl courted and counselled his royal mistress. The Coventrymen intended to make 'their humble petition unto Her Highness, that they might have their plays up again'.12 Nevertheless, it appears that, after 1579, the citizens of Coventry ceased to entertain themselves with either their Hocktide show or their Corpus Christi play. At about the same time, in the city records for 1578, there occurs the first of a number of extant entries for payments in connection with celebrations 'on the quee[n']s holiday' (Records of Early English Drama: Coventry, p. 286). In these fragmentary records, we glimpse instances of the complex ideological process by which traditional ceremonial forms and events that were focused upon the articulation and celebration of the civic community itself either became occasions for the city's celebration of a royal visit, or were displaced outright by a newly instituted calendar of holidays that promoted the cult of the queen by honouring her birthday and her Accession Day.

A Midsummer Night's Dream incorporates allusions to this changed and diminished world of popular civic play forms. In its very title and in passing allusions—to the festivals of Midsummer Eve and St John's Day, to the rites of May and to St Valentine's Day—the play gestures towards a larger context of popular holiday-occasions and customs that mixed together pagan and Christian traditions. In this context, it is significant that Corpus Christi, though a moveable feast, was nevertheless a summer festival, occurring between 21 May and 24 June—a circumstance that made possible its extensive open-air ceremonies and entertainments.13 Furthermore, the institutional basis of civic ritual drama in the craft guilds survives in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the names of the mechanicals, as enumerated by Peter Quince: 'Nick Bottom, the weaver', 'Francis Flute, the bellows-mender', 'Robin Starveling, the tailor', 'Tom Snout, the tinker', 'Snug the joiner'. The identification of the mechanicals in terms of both their particular crafts or 'mysteries' and their collective dramatic endeavour strengthens the evocation of the Corpus Christi tradition. Nevertheless, despite the conspicuous title of Shakespeare's play, and despite the oblique allusions to the guild structure of the civic community, the occasion for the artisans' play-within-the-play is not the marking of the traditional agrarian calendar, nor the articulation of the collective urban social body through the celebration of customary holidays. Neither is it the observance of the ecclesiastical calendar, the annual cycle of holy days, nor the dramatisation of the paradigmatic events of sacred history from the Creation to the Final Doom. Instead, the rude mechanicals pool their talents and strain their wits in order to dramatise an episode from classical mythology that will celebrate the wedding of Duke Theseus—an event that focuses the collective interests of the Commonwealth upon the person of the ruler.


As has long been recognised, A Midsummer Night's Dream has affinities with Elizabethan royal iconography and courtly entertainments. The most obvious features are Shakespeare's incorporation of a play performed in celebration of an aristocratic wedding, and Oberon's allusion to 'a fair vestal, throned by the west. . . . the imperial votaress' (2.1.158, 163)—the latter being invoked in a scenario reminiscent of the pageantry presented to the queen on her progresses.14 From early in the reign, Elizabeth had been directly addressed and engaged by such performances at aristocratic estates and in urban centres. In these pageants, masques and plays, distinctions were effaced between the spatio-temporal locus of the royal spectator/actress and that of the characters being enacted before her. Debates were referred to the queen's arbitration; the magic of her presence civilised savage men, restored the blind to sight, released errant knights from enchantment, and rescued virgins from defilement. Such social dramas of celebration and coercion played out the delicately balanced relationship between the monarch and the nobility, gentry and urban elites who constituted the political nation. These events must also have evoked reverence and awe in the local common folk who assisted in and witnessed them. And because texts and descriptions of most of these processions, pageants and shows were in print within a year—sometimes within just a few weeks—of their performance, they may have had a cultural impact far more extensive and enduring than their occasional and ephemeral character might at first suggest. Such royal pageantry appropriated materials from popular late medieval romances, from Ovid, Petrarch and other literary sources; and when late Elizabethan poetry and drama such as Spenser's Faerie Queene or Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream reappropriated those sources, they were now inscribed by the allegorical discourse of Elizabethan royal courtship, panegyric and political negotiation. Thus, the deployment of Ovidian, Petrarchan and allegorical romance modes by late Elizabethan writers must be read in terms of an intertextuality that includes both the discourse of European literary history and the discourse of Elizabethan state power.

There is an obvious dramaturgical contrast between A Midsummer Night's Dream and the progress pageants, or panegyrical court plays such as George Peele's Arraignment of Paris. In such courtly performance genres, the resolution of the action, the completion of the form, is dependent upon the actual presence of the monarch as privileged auditor/spectator. Her judgement may be actively solicited, or, in propria persona, she may become the focus of the characters' collective celebration and veneration; frequently, as in Peele's play, the two strategies are combined.15 However, there are also Elizabethan plays that do not require the queen's active participation in the action but instead refer the dramatic resolution to an onstage character who is an allegorical personage readily if not wholly identifiable with the queen. Such is the authoritative figure of Cynthia, the queen/goddess who presides over the action in both John Lyly's Endymion and Ben Jonson's Cynthia's Revels. These formal strategies are presumably motivated in part by the practical concern to make the play playable in more than one venue, and for more than one audience. The professional players had more people to please than the monarch alone. In any case, the queen was frequently unavailable to play her part; and—as Ben Jonson discovered, having written her into Every Man Out of His Humour (1599)—for someone else to have explicitly personated the monarch would have been a grave offence.16 The formal and dramaturgical responses to such manifestly practical concerns may have had larger implications. Such plays preserve the theatrical illusion of a self-contained play world. In doing so, they necessarily produce a more mediated—and, thus, a potentially more ambiguous—mode of royal reference and encomium than do those plays which open the frame of the fiction to acknowledge the physically present sovereign and defer to her mastery of acting and action. Thus, plays performed in the playhouses had a relatively greater degree of both formal and ideological autonomy than did exclusively courtly entertainments.

In royal pageantry, the queen was always the cynosure; her virginity was the source of magical potency. And in courtly plays such as Lyly's Endymion, such representation of the charismatic royal virgin continued to enact such a role—although the limitations and resources of dramatic representation opened up new and perhaps unintended possibilities for equivocation and ambiguity in the apparent affirmation of royal wisdom, power and virtue. Like Lyly's Endymion, A Midsummer Night's Dream is permeated by images and devices that suggest characteristic forms of Elizabethan court culture. However, Shakespeare's ostensibly courtly wedding play is neither focused upon the queen nor structurally dependent upon her actual presence or her intervention in the action.17 Nor does it include among its onstage and speaking characters a transparent allegorical representation of the queen—a character who enjoys a central and determining authority over the action. It has often been suggested that the original occasion of A Midsummer Night's Dream was an aristocratic wedding at which Queen Elizabeth herself was present.18 Whatever the truth of this attractive but unproven hypothesis, what we know for certain is that the title page of the first quarto, printed in 1600, claims to present the play 'As it hath been sundry times publicly acted, by the right honourable the Lord Chamberlain his servants'. Despite the legal fiction that public performances served to keep the privileged players of the Chamberlain's Men in readiness for performance at court, and despite whatever adaptations may have been made in repertory plays to suit them to the conditions of particular court performances, the dramaturgical and ideological matrix of Shakespearean drama was located not in the royal court but in the professional playhouse.

Although perhaps sometimes receiving their first and/or most lucrative performances at court or in aristocratic households, all of Shakespeare's plays seem to have been written with the possibility in mind of theatrical as well as courtly performance. Certainly, this practice provides evidence for the shared tastes of queen and commoner. And, needless to say, the advertisement that a play had been performed at court or before the queen was intended to enhance the interest of Elizabeth's theatre-going or play-reading subjects, who might thereby vicariously share the source of Her Majesty's entertainment. Nevertheless, despite the broad social appeal of Shakespearean and other plays, we should resist any impulse to homogenise Elizabethan culture and society into an organic unity. The courtly and popular audiences for Shakespeare's plays constituted frequently overlapping but nevertheless distinct and potentially divergent sources of socio-economic support and ideological constraint. The writing of plays that would be playable in both the commercial play-houses and in the royal court points towards the conditions of emergence of the professional theatre at a historically transitional moment. This theatre was sustained by a frequently advantageous but inherently unstable conjunction of two theoretically distinct modes of cultural production: one, based upon relations of patronage; the other, upon market relations.


In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the playwright's imagination 'bodies forth' the ruler and patron in the personage of Theseus. Shakespeare's antique Duke holds clear opinions as to the purpose of playing; and these opinions take two forms. One is that the drama should serve as a pleasant pastime for the sovereign, as an innocuous respite from princely care:

Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have, To wear away this long age of three hours Between our after-supper and bed-time? Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play To ease the anguish of a torturing hour? Call Philostrate. . . . Say, what abridgement have you for this evening, What masque, what music? How shall we beguile The lazy time, if not with some delight?


The Office of the Revels had been established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth's father, and its purpose had been 'to select, organise, and supervise all entertainment of the sovereign, wherever the court might be'.19 The expansion of the role of this court office to include the licensing of public dramatic performances as well as the provision of courtly ones indicates that the Elizabethan regime was attempting to subject the symbolic and interpretive activities of its subjects to increasing scrutiny and regulation—at the same time that it was inventing new sources of revenue for itself and its clients. In the personage of Philostrate, Shakespeare's play incorporates the courtly office of Master of the Revels, but limits it to its original charge, which was to provide entertainments for the monarch. Like the ambivalent term licence, Philostrate's alliterative title as Theseus's 'manager of mirth' suggests an official concern simultaneously to allow and to control the expression of potentially subversive festive, comic and erotic energies.

Of the four proffered entertainments, the first two—'The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp' and 'the riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, / Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage' (5.1.44-5; 48-9)—are dismissed by Theseus, ostensibly because their devices are overly familiar. (As I have suggested elsewhere, both allude to the play's classical mythological subtext of sexual and familial violence—a subtext over which the play's patriarchal comedy keeps a precarious control.)20 The third prospect is excluded because it smacks of social protest:

'The thrice three Muses mourning for the death Of learning, late deceased in beggary'? That is some satire, keen and critical, Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.


This conspicuous irrelevance has two operative points: the first, that its subject is the familiar complaint of Elizabethan cultural producers that they lack generous and enlightened patronage from the great; the second, that Duke Theseus does not want to hear about it. His taste is for something that

is nothing, nothing in the world; Unless you can find sport in their intents, Extremely stretched and conned with cruel pain To do you service.

This is the play that Theseus will hear, 'For never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it' (5.1.78-83). Thus, the other form taken by Theseus's opinions concerning the drama is that it should serve as a gratifying homage to princely power, simultaneously providing a politic opportunity for the exercise of royal magnanimity:

Our sport shall be to take what they mistake: And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect Takes it in might, not merit. Where I have come, great clerks have purposed To greet me with premeditated welcomes; Where I have seen them shiver and look pale, Make periods in the midst of sentences, Throttle their practised accent in their fears, And, in conclusion, dumbly have broke off, Not paying me a welcome. Trust me, sweet, Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome, And in the modesty of fearful duty I read as much as from the rattling tongue Of saucy and audacious eloquence. Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity In least speak most, to my capacity.


The opinions of Shakespeare's Athenian duke bear a strong likeness to those of his own sovereign, as these were represented in her policies and in her own public performances. Thus, in the metatheatrical context of the play's long final scene, Duke Theseus is not so much Queen Elizabeth's masculine antithesis as he is her princely surrogate.

Theseus's attitude towards his subjects' offerings has analogues in the two printed texts that describe the queen's visit to the city of Norwich during her progress of 1578. In a curiously metadramatic speech directly addressed to Elizabeth, the figure of Mercury describes the process of creating and enacting entertainments for the queen—such as the one in which he is presently speaking:

And that so soon as out of door she goes (If time do serve, and weather waxeth fair) Some odd device shall meet Her Highness straight, To make her smile, and ease her burdened breast, And take away the cares and things of weight That princes feel, that findeth greatest rest.


On another occasion, as the queen returned toward her lodgings,

within Bishops Gate at the Hospital door, Master Stephen Limbert, master of the grammar school in Norwich, stood ready to render her an oration. Her Majesty drew near unto him, and thinking him fearful, said graciously unto him: 'Be not afraid.' He answered her again in English: 'I thank Your Majesty for your good encouragement'; and then with good courage entered into this oration.

After printing the oration in the original Latin and in English translation, the account continues by describing the queen as

very attentive, even until the end thereof. And the oration ended, after she had given great thanks thereof to Master Limbert, she said to him: 'It is the best that ever I heard.'22

The tone in which Theseus responds to the mechanicals' 'palpable gross play' catches the element of hyperbole in the queen's reported speech, and turns its gracious condescension towards mockery. For example, as Theseus says to Bottom: 'Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus, and hanged himself in Thisbe's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy—and so it is, truly, and very notably discharged' (5.1.343-7). I have suggested analogues from royal pageantry performed by children and amateurs because such performances most clearly equate to the mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe within Shakespeare's play. However, the queen's attitude towards the uses of the adult, professional and commercial theatre seems to have differed little from what it was towards the uses of other forms of royal entertainment. As early as 1574, a company of professional players under the patronage of the earl of Leicester were licensed by the queen to perform in public so that they would be in readiness to play at court, 'as well for the recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure when we shall think good to see them'.23

Despite the apparently indifferent attitude of the sovereign—or, perhaps, precisely because of it—in A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare calls attention to the artistic distance between the professional players and their putatively crude predecessors; and he does so by incorporating a comic representation of such players into his play. This professional self-consciousness is the very hallmark of the play's celebrated metatheatricality—its calling of attention to its own artifice, to its own artistry. Such metatheatricality prescribes the interpretive schema of much modern scholarship in literary and theatre history, which envisions Shakespearean drama as the culmination of a long process of artistic evolution. A Midsummer Night's Dream parodies antecedent dramatic forms and performance styles: the amateur acting traditions that had been largely suppressed along with the civic drama by the end of the 1570s, and the work of the professional companies active during the 1570s and earlier 1580s; and it juxtaposes to them the representational powers of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and their playwright.24 This contrast was made manifest by Shakespeare's company in the very process of performing A Midsummer Night's Dream. In particular, it was demonstrated in what we may presume was their consummately professional comic enactment of the mechanicals' vexed rehearsals and inept performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. The dramaturgical problems with which the mechanicals struggle show them to be incapable of comprehending the relationship between the actor and his part. They have no skill in the art of personation; they lack an adequate conception of playing. The contrast between amateur and professional modes of playing is incarnated in the performance of Bottom—by which I mean the Elizabethan player's performance of Bottom's performance of Pyramus. The amateur actor who wants to be cast in all the parts, the only character to be literally metamorphosed, is also the one who, despite his translations into an ass-headed monster and a fabled lover, remains immutably—fundamentally—Bottom. The fully professional collaboration between the imaginative playwright and the protean player of the Lord Chamberlain's Men creates the illusion of Bottom's character precisely by creating the illusion of his incapacity to translate himself into other parts.

The play-within-the-play device calls attention to the theatrical transaction between the players and their audience. In the process of foregrounding the imaginative and dramaturgical dynamics of this transaction, A Midsummer Night's Dream also calls attention to its socio-political dynamics. Shakespeare's Duke Theseus formulates policy when he proclaims that 'The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact'; that 'Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends' (5.1.7-8, 4-6). The social order of Theseus's Athens depends upon his authority to name the forms of mental disorder and his power to control its subjects. Theseus's analogising of the hyperactive imaginations of lunatics, lovers and poets accords with the orthodox perspective of Elizabethan medical and moral discourses. The latter insisted that the unregulated passions and disordered fantasies of the ruler's subjects—from Bedlam beggars to melancholy courtiers—were an inherent danger to themselves, to their fellows, and to the state.25 For Theseus, no less than for the Elizabethan Privy Council, the ruler's task is to comprehend—to understand and to contain—the energies and motives, the diverse, unstable and potentially seditious apprehensions of the ruled. But the Duke—so self-assured and benignly condescending in his comprehension—might also have some cause for apprehension, for he himself and the fictional society over which he rules have been shaped by the fantasy of a poet.

Theseus's deprecation of lunatics, lovers and poets is his unwitting exposition of the scope and limits of his own wisdom. The wonderful musings of the newly awakened Bottom provide a serio-comic prelude to the Duke's set piece. Fitfully remembering his nocturnal adventure, Bottom apprehends something strange and admirable in his metamorphosis and his liaison with Titania:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. . . . The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called 'Bottom's Dream', because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke. (4.1.203-16)

Bottom's (non-)exposition of his dream is a garbled allusion to a passage in St Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians:

And we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: not the wisdom of this world, neither of the princes of this world, which come to nought.

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hid wisdom, which God had determined before the world, unto our glory.

Which none of the princes of this world hath known; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

But as it is written, The things which eye hath not seen, neither ear hath heard, neither came into man's heart, are, which God hath prepared for them that love him.

But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit; for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.

(1 Corinthians 2: 6-10; Geneva Bible, 1560 ed.)

This allusion has often been remarked. Insufficiently remarked, however, is the political resonance that the passage may have had for Elizabethan playgoers and readers; and the possibility that, in selecting it for parody, the playwright may have had a point to make, however oblique its expression.26 The New Testament passage is built upon an opposition between the misconceived and misdirected profane knowledge possessed by 'the princes of this world' and the spiritual wisdom accessible only to those who humble themselves before a transcendent source of power and love. The biblical text does more than construct a generalised opposition between the profane and the sacred: it gives that abstract moral opposition a political edge by proposing an inverse relationship between the temporal hierarchy of wealth and power and the spiritual hierarchy of wisdom and virtue.

The attitude displayed by the professional playwright towards Bottom, and towards the artisanal culture that he personifies, is a complex mixture of affection, indulgence, condescension and ridicule; and the complexity of that mixture is nowhere more conspicuous than in the speech about Bottom's dream. The comical garbling of the allusion and its farcical dramatic context function to mediate the sacred text, allowing Shakespeare to appropriate it for his own dramatic ends. An opposition between sacred and profane knowledge is displaced into an opposition between Bottom's capacity to apprehend the story of the night and Theseus's incapacity to comprehend it. Shakespeare's professional theatre implicitly repudiates Theseus's attitude towards the entertainer's art precisely by incorporating and ironically circumscribing it. I am suggesting, then, that Shakespeare evokes the scriptural context in order to provide a numinous resonance for the play's temporal, metatheatrical concerns; and that these concerns are rooted in the distinction and relationship between the instrumental authority of the state, as personified in Queen Elizabeth, and the imaginative authority of the public and professional theatre, as personified in the common player-playwright. At the same time, Bottom's dream mediates the relationship of the socio-economically ascendant artist-entrepreneur to his modest roots. It is fitting that the play's chosen instrument for its scriptural message of socio-spiritual inversion is a common artisan and amateur player named Bottom—one who, earlier in the play, has alluded to the raging tyrant of the Nativity pageants in the mystery cycles (1.2.19, 36). By casting Bottom to play in 'an interlude before the Duke and the Duchess, on his wedding-day at night' (1.2.5-7), Shakespeare's play firmly records the redirection of the popular dramatic impulse toward the celebration of 'the princes of this world'. Nevertheless, Bottom's rehearsal of his wondrous strange dream is an oblique marker, an incongruous evocation, of an ethos that A Midsummer Night's Dream and its playwright have ostensibly left behind—a trace of social, spiritual and (perhaps) autobiographical filiation.


When Puck addresses the audience in the epilogue to A Midsummer Night's Dream, his reference to 'we shadows' (5.1.409) implies not only the personified spirits in the play but also the players of Shakespeare's company who have performed the play. Theseus registers this meaning when he says of the mechanicals' acting in Pyramus and Thisbe, that 'The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them' (5.1.208-9). The statement itself, however, is belied on two counts: on the one hand, the rehearsal and performance of the play-within-the-play invite the audience to make qualitative distinctions between the best and the worst of shadows; and, on the other hand, the onstage audience at the Athenian court refuses to amend imaginatively the theatrical limitations of the mechanicals. When Puck addresses his master as 'King of shadows' (3.2.347), the appellation recognises Oberon as the principal player in the action, whose powers of awareness and manipulation also mark him as the play's internal dramatist.27 Although Titania has a limited power to manipulate Bottom, an artisan and an amateur actor, she herself is manipulated by this 'King of shadows', who is also her husband and her lord. Thus, in the triangulated relationship of Titania, Oberon and Bottom, a fantasy of masculine dependency upon woman is expressed and contained within a fantasy of masculine control over woman. And, more specifically, the social reality of the Elizabethan players' dependency upon Queen Elizabeth is inscribed within the imaginative reality of a player-dramatist's control over the Faery Queen.

The relationship of Shakespeare's play and its production to traditions of amateur and occasional dramatic entertainments is at once internalised and distanced in the mechanicals' ridiculous rehearsal and performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. And by the way in which it frames the attitudes of Theseus and the play-within-the-play's courtly audience, A Midsummer Night's Dream internalises and distances the relationship of the public and professional theatre to the pressures and constraints of noble and royal patronage. Its resonances of popular pastimes and amateur civic drama on the one hand, and of royal pageantry and courtly entertainments on the other, serve to locate A Midsummer Night's Dream in relationship to its cultural antecedents and its socio-economic context. Through the play of affinity and difference, these resonances serve to distinguish Shakespeare's comedy from both amateur and courtly modes, and to define it as a production of the professional and commercial theatre. The much noted metatheatricality of A Midsummer Night's Dream is nowhere more apparent and striking than in this process by which the play assimilates its own cultural determinants and produces them anew as its own dramatic effects. When I suggest that the play simultaneously subsumes and projects the conditions of its own possibility, I am not making a claim for its timelessness and universality. On the contrary, I am attempting to locate it more precisely in the ideological matrix of its original production. The foregrounding of theatricality as a mode of human cognition and human agency is a striking feature of Shakespearean drama.

Such theatricality becomes possible at a particular historical moment. By this means, the professional practitioners of an immensely popular and bitterly contested emergent cultural practice articulate their collective consciousness of their place in the social and cultural order—the paradoxical location of the theatre and of theatricality at once on the margins and at the centre of the Elizabethan world.


Quotations follow The

1Arden Shakespeare edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (1979), abbreviated to MND and cited by act, scene and line.

2 On the connection between weavers and social protest, see Theodore B. Leinwand, ' "I believe we must leave the killing out": Deference and Accommodation in A Midsummer Night's Dream', Renaissance Papers (1986), 11-30, esp. pp. 14-21; also Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1989), pp. 56-7. On Elizabethan food riots, see John Walter and Keith Wrightson, 'Dearth and the Social Order in Early Modern England', Past & Present, 71 (1976), 22-42; Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660 (Berkeley, 1980); John Walter, 'A "Rising of the People"? The Oxford Rising of 1596', Past & Present, 107 (1985), 90-143.

3 On the playwright's social origins and his father's position in Stratford, see S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford, 1977), pp. 14-44.

4 See Clifford Davidson, ' "What hempen home-spuns have we swagg'ring here?" Amateur Actors in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Coventry Civic Plays and Pageants', Shakespeare Studies, 19 (1987), 87-99.

5 'Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval English Town' (1983), rpt. in Mervyn James, Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 16-47; quotation from pp. 38, 44. James emphasises the centrality of the feast of Corpus Christi to late medieval urban culture in England, and the dialectical relationship between procession and play.

6 Charles Phythian-Adams, 'Ceremony and the Citizen: The Communal Year at Coventry 1450-1550', in Crisis and Order in English Towns, 1500-1700: Essays in Urban History, ed. Peter Clark and Paul Slack (1972), pp. 57-85; quotations from pp. 57, 80. Also see his monograph, Desolation of a City: Coventry and the Urban Crisis of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1979).

7 Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1991), p. 266.

8 On the process by which cultural practices were appropriated and invented in order to aggrandise the Tudor state, see Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth (1977); Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime (Oxford, 1979), pp. 293-310, 351-405; Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Oxford, 1985), pp. 43-71; David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Berkeley, 1989), pp. 1-129.

9 See Mervyn James, Society, Politics and Culture, p. 41; Harold C. Gardiner, S. J., Mysteries' End (New Haven, 1946); R. W. Ingram, 'Fifteen-seventy-nine and the Decline of Civic Religious Drama in Coventry', in The Elizabethan Theatre VIII, ed. G. R. Hibbard (Port Credit, Ontario), pp. 114-28.

10 Rubin points out that 'in those towns where political power and wealth were exercised through craft gilds, like York, Coventry, Beverley, Norwich, dramatic cycles were supported and presented by the crafts, expressing both the processional-communal and the sectional elements in town life.' (Corpus Christi, p. 275).

In some significant respects, the dramatic traditions of late medieval London differed from those of such towns. Mervyn James maintains that in London, even in the late middle ages, 'the celebration of Corpus Christi never acquired a public and civic status, and play cycles of the Corpus Christi type never developed. London had its great cycle plays; but the London cycle was performed by professional actors, and had no connection either with Corpus Christi or the city gilds.' (Society, Politics and Culture, pp. 41-2). Rubin appears to dispute this assertion, and presents a more complex picture of processional and dramatic elements in the capital's Corpus Christi festivities. She starts from the position that 'once we discard a view which imputes a necessary development of the Corpus Christi drama into full-cycle form we are better able to appreciate the variety of dramatic forms which evolved for Corpus Christi, and the ubiquity of dramatic creation.' (Corpus Christi, p. 275). She maintains that, although 'London never developed a town-wide celebration for the feast, a project which is almost unthinkable in so large and varied a city', it nevertheless sustained 'a series of processions related to parish churches, fraternities, crafts'. The most comprehensive of these was the 'great play' organised by the Skinners' Company, presented over several days 'in the form of tableaux vivants' (pp. 275-6).

11 See the documents printed in Records of Early English Drama: Coventry, ed. R. W. Ingram (Toronto, 1981), pp. 233-4. Also see Ingram, 'Fifteen-seventy-nine'.

12 See Robert Langham, A Letter, with Introduction, Notes and Commentary by R. J. P. Kuin (Leiden, 1983), pp. 52-5. The performance of the Hocktide show was preceded by a rustic brideale, complete with such village pastimes as morris dancing and running at quintain (pp. 49-52). Significantly, neither of these common and amateur entertainments is mentioned in George Gascoigne's self-promoting courtly account, The Princely Pleasures at the Court at Kenilworth (1576).

13 On allusions to the rites of May in MND, see 1.1.167, 4.1.132; on St Valentine's Day, 4.1.138. On the inseparability of St John's Day and Midsummer Night 'in the religious and folk consciousness of the sixteenth century', see Anca Vlasopolos, 'The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night's Dream', Renaissance Quarterly, 31 (1978), 21-9; esp. pp. 23-6. On rites and games of May Day and Midsummer Eve and Day, also see C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form in Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959), pp. 119-24; Francois Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge, 1991), passim. On Corpus Christi as a summer festival, see Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 208-9, 213, 243, 271, 273.

14 In his Introduction to the Arden edition of MND, Brooks comments that 'Oberon's description of the mermaid and the shooting stars . . . reflects Shakespeare's acquaintance with the kind of elaborate courtly entertainment which combined a mythological water-pageant with fireworks, rather like those presented to Elizabeth by Leicester at Kenilworth [1575] and the earl of Hertford at Elvetham [1591]' (p. xxxix).

15 See Louis A. Montrose, 'Gifts and Reasons: The Contexts of Peele's Araygnement of Paris', ELH, A Journal of English Literary History, 47 (1980), 433-61.

16 See Helen M. Ostovich, ' "So Sudden and Strange a Cure": A Rudimentary Masque in Every Man Out of His Humour', English Literary Renaissance, 22 (1992), 315-32; Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City, 1991), pp. 136-7.

17 Compare G. K. Hunter, John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier (London, 1962), pp. 329-30.

18 The leading contenders for the aristocratic wedding at which the play was supposedly first performed are that of William Stanley, earl of Derby, with Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter of the earl of Oxford and grand-daughter of Lord Burghley (26 January 1594/5), and that of Thomas, son of Lord Berkeley, with Elizabeth, daughter of Sir George Carey and granddaughter of Lord Hunsdon, the lord chamberlain and patron of Shakespeare's company (19 February 1595/6). For a summary of the arguments, see MND, liii-lvii.

19 Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642 (1971; rpt. Princeton, 1986), p. 147. On the Revels Office, also see E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (4 vols., Oxford, 1923), I, 71-105; Janet Clare, 'Art made tongue-tied by authority ': Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester, 1990); and Dutton, Mastering the Revels.

20 See Louis Adrian Montrose, '"Shaping Fantasies": Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture', Representations, 2 (1983), 61-94; rpt. in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 31-64. I have incorporated some passages from this earlier study into the present one; in revised form, both will be incorporated into a more comprehensive study of MND, the Elizabethan theatre, and the Elizabethan state.

21 Thomas Churchyard, A Discourse of The Queen's Majesty's Entertainment in Suffolk and Norfolk (1578), rpt. in Records of Early English Drama: Norwich, 1540-1642, ed. David Galloway (Toronto, 1984), p. 302.

22 B[ernard] G[arter], The Joyful Receiving of the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty into Her Highness' City of Norwich (1578), rpt. in Records of Early English Drama: Norwich, pp. 266-7, 271.

23 Patent of 10 May 1574, rpt. in Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, II, 87-8.

24 Davidson convincingly suggests that the mechanicals' rehearsal and performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is designed to burlesque 'the older dramatic styles (including . . . the theatrical styles of the public theatre fashionable before c. 1585) with their tendency toward bombastic language and clumsy use of mythological subjects'; and to conjoin this burlesque with one directed toward the acting capacities of the amateurs who performed in the civic religious drama, which had been largely suppressed by the early 1580s (' "What hempen home-spuns have we swagg'ring here?'", p. 88).

25 Among modern critical and historical studies, see Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady: A Study of Melancholia in English Literature from 1580 to 1642 (East Lansing, Mich., 1951); Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 1981); Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia (Princeton, 1986); Karin Coddon, '"Suche Strange Desygns": Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture', Renaissance Drama, n. s., 20 (1989), 51-75.

26 The 'context of profound spiritual levelling' implied by Shakespeare's biblical parody is noted in Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, p. 68. Patterson pursues the 'genial thesis' that MND imagines 'an idea of social play that could cross class boundaries without obscuring them, and by those crossings imagine the social body whole again' (p. 69); accordingly, she focuses upon the integrative 'Christian communitas' suggested in 1 Corinthians 12: 14-15, rather than upon the obvious and immediate oppositional context of 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10. For another recent study of the relationship between late Elizabethan social conflict and the tensions of rank within MND, see Leinwand, '"I believe we must leave the killing out'". Less sanguine than Patterson, Leinwand concludes that 'Shakespeare criticises the relations of power in his culture, but does so with remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of threat and accommodation which animate these relations' (p. 30).

27 For 'shadow' as 'applied rhetorically . . . to an actor or a play in contrast to the reality represented', see OED, s.v. 'Shadow', sense 1.6.b. The earliest usages cited by OED are in Lyly, Euphues, and Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Further Reading

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Barnaby, Andrew. "The Political Consciousness of Shakespeare's As You Like It." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 373-95.

Examines "the related issues of social standing and displacement, aristocratic conduct, and the moral bounds connecting high and low" in As You Like It.

Burckhardt, Sigurd. "The King's Language: Shakespeare's Drama as Social Discovery." The Antioch Review XXI, No. 3 (Fall 1961): 369-87.

Studies several of Shakespeare's plays as they dramatize the interaction of poetic and social order.

Carroll, William C. '"The Base Shall Top Th'Legitimate': The Bedlam Beggar and the Role of Edgar in King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 4 (Winter 1987): 426-41.

Notes the implications of Edgar's suffering as a noble son and heir who becomes an outcast beggar in King Lear.

Cook, Ann Jennalie. "Shakespeare's Gentlemen." Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West Jahrbuch (1985): 9-27.

Explores Shakespeare's presentation of "the privileged man" in his dramas.

Erickson, Peter. "The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor." In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, pp. 116-40. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Argues that in The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare both "reinforces class hierarchy" and "reverses traditional gender hierarchy by affirming female authority."

Howard, Skiles. "Hands, Feet, and Bottoms: Decentering the Cosmic Dance in A Midsummer Night's Dream." Shakespeare Quarterly 44, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 325-42.

Views the juxtaposition of popular and courtly dancing in A Midsummer Night's Dream as a reflection of the provisional—rather than harmonious—nature of the social order.

Howard-Hill, T. H. "U and Non-U: Class and Discourse Level in Othello." In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions: Essays in Honour of W. R. Elton, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 175-86. Brookfield, VT.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1996.

Observes the hostility of class antagonism in the verbal exchanges of Iago and Cassio in Othello.

Hunt, Maurice. Shakespeare's Labored Art: Stir, Work, and the Late Plays. New York: Peter Lang, 1995, 311 p.

Probes varying portrayals of work in Shakespeare's later dramas.

Hunter, George K. "Bourgeois Comedy: Shakespeare and Dekker." In Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Essays in Comparison, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann, pp. 1-15. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Focuses on the pattern of a nobleman who falls in love with a woman of lower social status in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday.

Kegl, Rosemary. '"The Adoption of Abominable Terms': The Insults That Shape Windsor's Middle Class," in ELH 61, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 253-78.

Interprets the position of the middle class in Shakespearean drama, focusing on the language of insults as a form of social disorder in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Lane, Robert. '"When Blood is Their Argument': Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V." ELH 61, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 27-52.

Examines the rhetoric of solidarity and the realities of class distinction with regard to Henry and his soldiers in Henry V. Lane continues his analysis by studying the ways in which Shakespeare's dialogic effects on this subject are obscured in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of the play.

Parker, Patricia. "Preposterous Reversals: Love's Labor's Lost." Modern Language Quarterly 54, No. 4 (December 1993): 435-82.

Discusses a multitude of verbal and social inversions, including those between high and low classes, in Love's Labor's Lost.

——. "Rude Mechanicals." In Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, edited by Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass, pp. 43-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Considers the nature of the artisans—Bottom, Snug, and the other craftsmen—in A Midsummer Night's Dream and their relation to the play's theme of "joining."

Suzuki, Mihoko. "Gender, Class, and the Social Order in Late Elizabethan Drama." Theatre Journal 44, No. 1 (March 1992): 31-45.

Includes a discussion of Twelfth Night's deconstruction of "the coherence of the aristocracy."


Sir John Oldcastle and the Construction of Shakespeare's Authorship