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?

  • You could become a noble if the Queen gave you a title – like Sir Francis Drake, who earned his knighthood by exploring the world and bringing back spices and Spanish treasure. The Queen still gives titles to people today – but they don’t have the same effect on social class. Today you are just as likely to earn a knighthood for being a sporting hero, or working for charity or having been a Prime Minister.
  • Your clothes in Shakespeare’s time were dictated by which class you belonged to. A set of laws called the ‘Sumptuary Laws’ laid out what materials, colours and styles of clothing you could wear – under pain of arrest and imprisonment. Only nobles could wear ermine fur – which is what the robes of members of the House of Lords are trimmed with to this day. The only people who could dress as nobles if they weren’t were actors – and only on stage.