Society in Shakespeare’s time was quite strictly divided by class. The very richest people were the lords and ladies – the nobility. The nobles were the ruling class, influencing what the monarch did, as well as owning large areas of land themselves. Just below them were the gentry, who were rich enough to live off their own land, but did not have titles. Most of Shakespeare’s plays deal with kings or the nobility, although what affects them affects the lower classes too, like the fighting servants at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet.
The middle classes included yeomen, merchants and craftsmen. They were relatively well off and their sons would have gone to school and learnt to read and write. Shakespeare comes from this class – his father was a glove-maker. The lower class worked as servants or as labourers on farms.
The poor were the responsibility of each parish. Parliament passed new Poor Laws which meant that anyone who was poor but able to work would be sent to a poor house to earn their keep. The poor were not allowed to leave their parish – if they did they were described as ‘vagabonds’ and punished. There is rarely a character from this class in a Shakespeare play.
Some plays cover all the classes: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream we see the rulers (the Duke and his bride), the nobility (the two couples lost in the woods) and the craftsmen (the
rude mechanicals who put on the play). The lower classes in the plays are often the butt of the jokes, or are shown as stupid or villains – think of the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing who always use exactly the wrong word.
Did you know?