The Issue of Social Classes in Shakespeare’s Works
The term social class is familiar to most people because it is used more often as a lens through which we view other cultures and our own culture. Shakespeare, on the other hand, uses the concepts of social class in large numbers of rigid hierarchal demarcation. The reason for this is because the characters in Shakespeare’s play come from various social classes. In his plays, Shakespeare has kings, nobles, laborers, gentlemen, beggars, and yeomen. He combines classes of high and low because he is keen when it comes to social differentiation. This social differentiation shows the social position in which the characters in Shakespeare’s play live. In this paper, the social constructions and dynamics of class in the Shakespearean drama will be considered based on his works.
Historians believe that the verbal communication of social class connections applied to the social formations of early modern England. In fact, ‘class’ in a nineteenth-century analytic category was theoretically unavailable to the citizens of England, Stuart, and Tudor. But their own communal vocabularies which consisted of degree or estate based on social status while insisting on income, occupation does indicate a system involving social inequality which the idea of the class would be eloquent. In their economic classification, classes can be assumed to have existed because of social states of bourgeois, but their conceptual social intellect can be traced back to social organization based on unequal distribution of power, property, and privilege.
Shakespeare’s concern society’s structure is evident through various tragedies and even romances. An important topic connected with social class has emphasized on aristocrats and underclass, the frequency of inversing class hierarchies by Shakespeare for dramatic effects. Some other areas of interest on the subject of social class involve origins of social divisions, middle classes, and social rank and language in Shakespeare’s work. While most scholars have studied the origins and relations of class, other literary scholars provide insights into the subjects as perceived by Shakespeare.
Honour is always redefined in whatever context it appears. The ideas about honor often arise from a universal need among social beings to regulate the connections between the individual and the group. Such regulations are equally appropriate, in that not only does it ensure group cohesion but also protects the individual from being ostracized or victimized. While most often animals deal with this issues through relatively straightforward impulses, our closest primate relatives even seem to have elementary social rules, or expectations about the behavior of other people, the violation of which basically leads to in-group hostility.
Particularly, John Alvis’ Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor provides a profound analysis of the idea of honor in the plays. He particularly discusses the characters in Shakespeare’s text by making them the driving force of the plays. In his text, Alvis considers characters such as Hal, Hamlet, Hal, Macbeth, and Prospero as a reflection of a larger experience of humans and as a repository and dramatic exponent of basic ethical conflicts. Alvis says that his intention is to arouse American youth to ‘ recover the sense of their founder of the choice of the worthiness of honor (Alvis 37).’
When analyzing the Roman plays, alongside Hamlet, Lucrece, and histories, he proposes that Shakespeare made a negotiation between a Roman republican honor and the Christain celebration of passive virtue. Evidently, Alvis’s personal emotional investment is much more in Roman republican honour than in celebrating Christian virtue, but he does make attempts of charting the manner in which Shakespeare in his Roman sequences follows the rise and fall of the republican ideal, and offers a more ambiguous reading of Henry V which one might have expected. It is symptomatic of the book’s politics that even though Lucrece is the most unambiguously praised figure in the text, yet the disparity between male and female honor is barely taken into consideration.
David Berkeley’s Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare’s Plays is specific connections to Alvis’s text because it provides a theoretical split between these characters, where he categorizes the noble and the low-birth based on ideas of hereditary. According to Berkeley’s interpretation, the characters in Shakespeare’s play focus on a theory that various blood rations, phlegm, and other natural body substances determine people’s disposition (Berkeley 12). To Berkeley, Shakespeare uses this scheme on his characters based on aristocratic birth.
Titus Andronicus is without question one of the plays in Shakespeare’s canon that raises much curiosity. The play reveals murder, rape, mutilation, and even cannibalism. The violence is so extreme that most people have made attempts to make sense of its intentions. Of importance in this play, however, is George Peele’s use of language in the first scene. In its first 482 lines, he uses the different root of the word “honor”—honor, honors, honorable, honored, dishonor, dishonor, explicitly referred to in almost thirteen lines. In addition, there is not any one character in the same scene that does not refer to honor at least once, and not one of them expresses doubts about the significance of its validity.
The way honor is represented therefore echoes Elizabethan perception of Rome as a culture where honor was one of the most important determinants in human life. Accordingly, honor was evidently integral to life in early modern England. Honor did not only denote strictly interpersonal or social attributes such as social rank, status, fame, esteem, good name, among others but it also personality attributes such as mind elevation or virtue. It was used not only in acknowledging a person’s status in society but also in characterizing his personality in a positive manner, particularly among the noble classes which Shakespeare often portrays in his plays.
In Shakespeare’s time, noble and gentle were almost interchangeable words and they defined a ruling upper class of almost four or five percent of the people in what social historian Peter Laslett has described as a one-class society. Laslett in The World We Have Lost, offers an important chapter on social class in analyzing the England that Shakespeare knew. What he considered, however, is a culture in which social status or ‘place’ was firmly set and where ones place governed everyone’s interaction with other people.
In consideration of the concept of nobility, Laslett, notes that in Shakespeare’s “, it seems to have been true that the gap between those who were within and those who were outside the ruling group was great compared o any orders in the ruling group (Laslett 45).” Also, in this time, there were almost fifty-five noble families in England. Wealth was often found among the gentry, but lack noble titles.
Even so, they were educated and respect, most of them never had actual jobs except knights and squires. The wake of seventeenth-century also witnessed a rise of a new social class known as the middle class. During this period the merchants and traders were mostly the members of the society. These members of the community were considered not only rich but also educated and they were also powerful.
For example, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, there are two leaders namely the Fords and the Pages of a middle-class family. Shakespeare connects the Windsor city, which he chooses as the setting and the presence of monarchy and middle class. Because Fenton and Falstaff are present in the play, the people in the middle class in this city have to confront a social class challenge. Not only does this aristocracy assist the middle class in the city in defining and establishing themselves, but also the foreigners.
It is not clear whether Shakespeare’s drama is set in Venice, Rome or elsewhere but the way these characters are set does reflect Elizabethan and Jacobean England based on the way social classes are ranked. In his linguistic interpretation, Ralph Berry looks into the social order of characters in Shakespeare’s play. His focus is on analogies between social structures of Rome and Shakespeare’s England, primarily focusing on the panoramic view of society as evident in English histories and the connection of sex and class in Shakespeare’s drama. Evidently, there is a rich source of information in Shakespeare’s drama of social relation which tends to disrupt or invert social order.
In terms of social constructions, Shakespeare’s plays raised questions of the pattern of male and female representation, based on the characteristics of each gender, and the way that each gender posses feminine and masculine qualities and behavior of nature and power of hegemonic patriarchy. For Shakespeare and the Renaissance society, women’s role represented virtues that had a relationship with men. Important is the fact that gender attributes had social constructions. Women roles are certainly written in Shakespeare’s play, but male actors were used instead in playing female roles.
Women are prescribed but were not presented on stage; instead, they were represented in the acting tradition of the popular Elizabethan theatre. Speaking of women in Shakespeare’s play then means speaking of women as historical subject matter but only for representation of women which was offered by commercial theatres. In other words, there are no women in but rather men playing women’s part. Even though kings and clowns came together on the English Renaissance stage, kings and clowns were themselves not there, only actors who acted their part. For this reason, the class position appears on Shakespeare’s stage as women do. The cross-dressing of the Renaissance stage generally crossed the class and gender lines.
Just as Renaissance defined female roles, so did it delegate in a clear way male behaviors (Watson 206). The society consisted of patriarchy. This patriarchal society is shown at a glimpse in the play such as that of Romeo and Juliet as Lord Capulet exercises his power. Evidently, the male was given a position to play, just like the female was given a lesser role. The woman is shown to be residing in either his father’s house as Juliet does or in the husband’s house like Lady Macbeth. Evidently, in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is seen only inside the fortress at Inverness, and she is responsible for preparing the King’s arrival.
This female responsibility is underscored by Lord Capulet when he makes an announcement while anticipating Paris and Juliet’s marriage, that men’s duty was to engage in affairs of the public such as leadership or politics to make decisions and to take and ensure that events move forward. Their lives, based on Capulet’s interpretation were bound to perform duties, become aggressive and self-satisfy.
Women, on the other hand, were to assume passive duties. For instance, when the play begins in Romeo and Juliet, boys mile around the Verona street and makes unnecessary comments about girls while Sampson, a servant of Capulet remarks that because women are weaker, he will thrust the maids to the wall. The passage is typical of the stereotype of Renaissance thinking that women are of the weaker entity.
Specific features had connections with male and others with a female. Shakespeare reflects the difference of this Renaissance period and the connection of femininity and masculinity, a combination that is evident in the female monarchy of Shakespeare’s time. Women have particularly been subjects to such limiting roles.
Obviously, a much open dialogue of the gender roles ought to be considered. The study of gender classification in Shakespeare’s play acts as driving vehicle towards such debate. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, personality is a function of social status and the emptiness of the aristocratic personality is a function of the lack of opposition which the aristocracy undergo as a class, the absence of difficulty in the delineation of social boundaries.
The triumph over deception which marks the harmonic conclusions of Shakespear’s comedies is simultaneously a trump over a challenge to the social order. Similarly, epistemology turns out to be thematically important in Shakespeare’s tragedies since the knowledge of the protagonist is about his circumstance within society which is constantly challenged by social constructions.
In Shakespear’s Much Ado the challenges of social order are excluded in deliberate as buffoonery and cardboard villainy, when considering the dramatic action, for no social superiors accept the ‘honor’ of Don John in place of the deposed family honor of Leonato, nor do they allow the perception of Dogberry as competent in place of their failures at worry. Don John and Dogberry drive the play, but their actions do not have any effect on the qualities of the protagonists’ character.
The oppositions through which the character is created is neither the social order and its anthesis, nor mere appearance and reality, but instead, involve the distinct socially accepted aristocratic standards against which appearances are considered and whose recognition in marriage is the final assertion of the play based on aristocratic hegemony.
In this idealized version of what involves a dramatic conflict, Shakespeare presents a clear dramatic statement of the challenges of a ruling class in attempting to isolate itself from traditions constructed to scale of values and qualitative loss. Arguably, this sense of loss is the ‘nothing’ of the title of this play. Overall, the difference in class affects every single relationship in Shakespear’s plays. Even apparent equal would never stay so because every Englishman knew his rights of precedence before or after every other person with whom they made contact.
Apparently, individuals look to those above them in status and admire, fear, mock and challenge in equal measures. They look below them and respect, distrust, cherish, and discount. Above all, they tend to depend on one another, assume a shared set of values one with the other, and do not ignore the sentiments or activities of those above and below, despite the fact that they place members of other classes in distinct and separate social classes, almost as if they were of different species.
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