There was something that I read in Much Ado About Nothing that bothered me a little, but I did not think about it very much until I read almost the same exact remark in Henry V.
Leonato: How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?
Messenger: But few of any sort, and none of name. (Much Ado About Nothing 1.1.5-6)
King Harry: Where is the number of our English dead?
[He is given another paper]
Edward the Duke of York,the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir. Richard Keighley, Davy Gam Esquire;
None else of name, and all other men
But five-and-twenty (Henry V 4.8.96-100)
So… the death of soldiers is not really important unless the men held titles and were recognized members of the aristocracy? Did Shakespeare include such remarks in his plays simply because that's probably what was said in such a situation, or was he making a subtle observation about the supposed value of aristocrats compared to the working class men who fought just as bravely in these battles? I imagine that some members of Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience thought to themselves upon hearing these lines "that sounds like something a damn aristocrat would say." I believe that Shakespeare did indeed include these remarks to illuminate the obvious disregard for the common man that was prevalent in his time.
Human society has always divided its individual members into groups. There are many ways that this can be done. People are sub-divided according to such factors as race, gender, or religion.
Another way people are divided is by social class. Although we may like to think that social class is not as relevant today, we nonetheless know that the practice of division by social class is still alive and well. I believe that in the past 50 years or so, while there has been considerable improvement in race and gender relationships, social division has become even more evident. The division of society into the "haves and the have-nots" continues with increased vigor, and now crosses other lines such as race, gender and religion. For example, an African-American that is educated, and has money and material possessions, is likely to develop a superior attitude and "look down" on poorer members of his or her own race.
In the late 20th century, the lines of social class are not as clearly drawn as they were in Shakespeare's era. A poor person can rise from the bottom, get an education, then a good job, then a big house and a fancy car. Upon success in these endeavors, that person is said to "have arrived," and is free to become a snob and look down upon the lower classes with disdain.
In Middle Age England, class divisions were rigid. The structure of society was hierarchic. At the top were the ruling classes, dukes, earls and barons. Next were the bannerets, knights, esquires and vassassors—then the burgesses, and journeymen and finally the lower class, which consisted of tenant farmers, peasant proprietors, tradesmen and shopkeepers (Ashley 66-70).
In Elizabethan England, one was still born into a particular social class, and there was virtually nothing that could be done to advance to a higher one. However, the class division problem had already begun to change by this time. The upper classes were losing control and were having serious financial problems. The Spanish were bringing shiploads of gold and other treasures from the Western Hemisphere, which devalued the precious metals upon which the European economies were based. Even the monarchy had to adjust their standard of living (Briggs 123-124). The wealthy landowners, including the monarchy, had to sell part of their land just to survive. Land sold by the monarchy during this period accounted for a quarter of all the land in England (Greenblatt 7).
The lower classes, ironically, were doing a little better as prices for goods such as wool rose. Industries such as textiles were expanding and new markets for goods were becoming available. England was experiencing a growth boom. There were new buildings being built, along with other urban improvements such as paving of streets and better lighting. The term suburbs was used to describe areas outside of the cities where middle-class and wealthy people were moving who wanted fresh air and less noise. The city of London tripled in size from the time of Henry VIII to that of James I (Briggs 124-127).
Despite these rapid changes, there was apparently still quite a bit of animosity between the social classes. Even though the lower classes were doing better, they still were not treated with respect. Shakespeare often reflected the attitudes of the common man regarding the aristocracy in his plays, usually with subtlety.
One of the ways that I believe Shakespeare used subtlety regarding class differences in his plays was by setting them in foreign locales. It would be way too obvious to make statements about class differences if the play was set in England. However, if the play was set in Italy, France, or Denmark—places that his English audience may or may not know very much about, he could make social statements about the foreign societies that were really veiled remarks about England. After all, many of his characters in these foreign-set plays often acted very English-like, such as in A Midsummer's Night Dream. Shakespeare also used this setting maneuver to make statements about gender, race, and religion as well.
The practice of usury, or lending money at high rates of interest was legalized by Parliament in 1571, and was not well liked by the working classes. Although it was a practice thought to be originated by the Jews, it was practiced freely by English Christians in Shakespeare's time (Briggs 125). The Merchant of Venice may not have a statement about those dirty, rotten Jews at all, but a statement about those dirty, rotten moneylenders. The Venetian setting and the Shylock character may have been nothing but a smokescreen through which Shakespeare condemned the English moneylenders, who may have watched the play and not known it was about them!
In Romeo and Juliet, also set in Italy, the conflict is between two families that are both part of the aristocracy. I believe that Shakespeare is denouncing the aristocracy in general, and saying that their whole value system is absurd and dehumanizing, and leads to nothing but trouble—even when it is only feeding on itself.
In The Taming of the Shrew, also set in Italy, Shakespeare has a little fun with the classes. Petruccio shows us that you can't buy respect, but you can sure marry it. When Lucentio and Tranio trade places, we are shown how ridiculous it is to think that one could function outside of their proper station in life. When they reclaim their own identities, both of them are relieved.
Shakespeare had a keen sense of human nature. He was aware of the inequities caused by discriminating against human beings because of their differences. He was a thinker that was years ahead of his time. Were that not so, his work would not have stood the test of time as it has.
Ashley, Maurice. The People of England: A Short Social and Economic History.
Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Briggs, Asa. A Social History of England. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.