In this article it is aimed to outline briefly Elizabethan Society and its effect on the work of Shakespeare. It is necessary to look into the social background in order to see how conditions gave rise to new ideas of society and how they were reflected by Shakespeare.
The feudal system was in a dying state towards the end of the 16th century. The first upheaval and the greatest was due to the change in the methods of production. The most important development was in the growth of the wool industry with its expanding export markets. This led to the enclosure system —the forcible seizure of the lands from the peasants by the rich landlords. Here we had the development of early capitalist industry, and the exploitation of the former peasants.
The feudal system was crumbling and power began to move from the feudal aristocrat to the new landed bourgeoisie.
Now for the political aspects of the time which followed from the change in economic conditions. The intensive reorganisation of sections of the landed nobility and their unification with the bourgeoisie (the new merchant class) which in its early period (almost to the end of the 16th century), brought about the desire for an absolute monarch to. combat rebellious feudal lords.
The victory of the House of York in the Wars of the Roses, brought Edward IV (1461-1483) to the throne. He was the friend of the merchants and during his reign the mercantile system and absolutism in the political arena first made their appearance. Edward IV ruled almost without Parliament. Absolutism reached its climax during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Everybody was affected by the revolutionary changes in the social conditions.
Shakespeare (born 1564, died 1616) was a champion of the new forces. He recognised the barriers of the old feudal order and was in favour of absolutism to crush feudal rebellion. The history plays show this very clearly. The essential theme is the affirmation of absolute power. His fore-runner, Marlowe (1564-1593), likewise reflected in his work the aspirations of the bourgeoisie.
His plays expressed all the passion of an exultant class, eager to rush into the fray for the conquest of the world. Marlowe develops the heroic tragedy. “To know everything” is the motto of Marlowe's heroes. Shakespeare has his roots in Marlowe, but picked up the pen of Marlowe and developed his style considerably.
Above all Shakespeare recognized the necessity of a strong central power, to put down rebellion. The English bourgeoisie favoured not only monarchism, but even absolutism for a time, which still served their ends. This is a problem that occupied Shakespeare.
This also explains the peculiar omissions in his works. In “King John”, for instance, there is no mention of the Magna Carta, one of the most important events of that epoch; this would have lowered the stature of the ruler, and defeated Shakespeare’s purpose.
The bourgeoisie, the squirearchy and the absolutists were united in their common struggle against the feudal nobles who stood for the old order. The history plays leave little doubt as to where Shakespeare’s sympathies lay. The powerful feudal nobles depicted by him—the Percies, Glendowers, Mortimers—are arrogant and refractory. To him they were the scourge of the land. He saw Henry IV’s reign as an uninterrupted series of tragic events due to the feudal uprisings which resulted from the King's usurpation.
A strong King, according to Shakespeare, is the greatest political blessing a nation can enjoy. Title alone does not make a King—he must justify his rank. Henry VI and Richard II perish because they are not such Kings. In the play Henry V we have the only sovereign who has completely crushed feudalism. He embodies all Shakespeare’s hopes which were to be realised by absolutism. In Richard III the King represents a strong ruler who firmly holds the reins of power and puts an end to the intrigues and quarrels of the Court cliques.
The history plays are permeated with the idea of the inevitability of the historical process: “evil inevitability”, Richard II calls it. There are many references to the “times” and the “spirit of the times”.
The Earl of Westmoreland (Henry IV, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 1) replies to the accusation of the rebellious feudal nobles with:
O, my good Lord Mowbray,Construe the times to their necessities,And you shall say indeed, it is the timeAnd not the King, that doth you injuries.
Then we have the speech by Warwick (Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, Scene I)—
There is a history in all men’s lives,Figuring the nature of the times deceased;The which observed, a man may prophesy,With a near aim, of the main chance of thingsAs yet not come to life.
Shakespeare not only states the casual conditioning of events but demonstrates it through all the means at his command. One of the chief means is to relate events to the social background. In Henry IV, the scenes in which Falstaff appears; in Henry V, the scenes in the camp; and in Richard III, the scenes of proclamation depict the life which is the foundation from which spring the major political events.
Shakespeare was a powerful poetical dramatist opposed to the feudal system and in the history plays he used the history of the previous times to help further the object of crushing feudalism. It was a tradition in those days, handed down from medieval times, that drama was to entertain and to teach.
During the first period of Shakespeare’s work until around 1601, there occurred the coalescence of all the foremost forces of the country: upper middle-class, the monarchy, the gentry, and even part of the old landed nobility. This process is reflected by the joyous optimism of Shakespeare’s early work which was filled with a bold and happy affirmation of life, with obviously aristocratic elements. He has two main themes:
- The assertion of the absolutist national state; and
- The joy of living now available to society, at last emancipated from feudal bondage.
To the first theme he dedicated the history plays: to the second the series of enchanting, gay comedies like “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and “The Taming of the Shrew”. But the effects of the disintegration of the class alignment are already apparent in the plays written towards the end of the 16th century, plays like “Much Ado About Nothing” (1598) and ‘Twelfth Night” (1599) with their bitter sweet atmosphere which is never very far from tragedy. The decomposition of the Court had set in, the Puritans were becoming more and more aggressive, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the nobility had already begun. Hence the tragic treatment of power in “Julius Caesar” (1599) with its confused conclusions and its pessimism.
Shakespeare lived in the period which saw the rise of the bourgeoisie, later to become the capitalist class. Here is an extract from the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels which sums up the situation:—
“The bourgeoisie . . . has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors' and has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest and callous ‘cash payment'. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. . . . The bourgeoisie has stripped off its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. . . . The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a money relation.”
During the second period to 1609—years which marked the decline of Elizabeth's reign and the advent, under James I, of feudal reaction—the process of disintegration was completed. Corruption was rife and the nobility, with the support of the monarchy, was preparing to defend its position against the bourgeoisie and the gentry. The literature of the time was teeming with pessimism.
These events, plus the execution of the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton, who was a friend of Shakespeare, had a profound influence on the poet. He did not write any more gay comedies but created the powerful tragedies “Hamlet” and “Troilus and Cressida”. In both these plays Shakespeare gives us a picture of the social background as being ripe unto rottenness.
In “Measure for Measure” (1604) there can be seen the internal problems of absolute monarchy. The characters comment on the ruler and on current political events. We have portrayed the dregs of humanity; young profligates of the Court; procurers; corrupt constables and swindlers.
Then came the later tragedies like “Macbeth” and “King Lear", again dealing with the question of Kingship and the troubles of society. “Macbeth” may be seen to be another “Richard III”, but the play is much more profound. It is the portrayal of the mental troubles of Macbeth after he has usurped the throne. “King Lear” can be seen as a powerful representation of Shakespeare's familiar theme showing spurious feudal ideas as opposed to ideas of genuine powerful love. The play also contains doubts about the money grabbing bourgeoisie. Edmund is like the bourgeoisie, a ruthless machiavellian, crafty and ambitious for personal gain.
In “Coriolanus" (1607) we have one of the gloomiest tragedies. It reflects disillusionment in the rulers. There can be seen a criticism and condemnation of the feudal aristocrat trying to rule under the new conditions but wishing to retain his feudal privileges. An interesting feature, also in this play, is the language of the lowly plebians. There is no indication of hypocrisy, greed or baseness and they are presented in a sympathetic manner.
Shakespeare was a powerful poetical dramatist and the language and dramatic intensity of the plays develops beautifully. In the early plays blank verse intrudes on the drama, but later he developed his art and reached a fusion in the heights of poetic drama. His achievement, however, is not only in the form of poetry and drama, but also in his presentation of the social background, and it is only by recognising this that we can fully appreciate his work.
In “A Companion to Shakespearian Studies", G. B. Harrison makes the following remarks:—
A serious student of Shakespeare's plays cannot neglect the national background, for in an age that was in many ways cribbed and confined, the problems of the individual were inseparable from the problems of the state. The picture of a Shakespeare magnificently aloof from life may be pleasing to romantic critics, but it does not square either with the facts, or with Shakespeare’s own comment upon his art. “Players”, said Hamlet to Polonius, “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time”. Besides the purpose and end of playing “both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”; “to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.
Shakespeare was at first a supporter of the bourgeoisie, the exponent of the program advanced by them when, in the name of humanity, they first challenged the feudal order, but which later they disavowed.
Towards the end of Shakespeare's life the bourgeoisie were already strong enough to throw off their cloak of being in the interests of humanity, to reveal their money grabbing and narrow-minded puritanism. Then he subjected the bourgeoisie to a keen and profound criticism. The rapacity, greed, cruelty, egoism and philistinism so typical of the growing bourgeoisie are scathingly portrayed and attacked. He placed on stage the social types of his day and through them reflected more clearly and profoundly than anyone else, the predominant social ideas of the times.
[Reprinted from the Socialist Standard, June 1951.]