Shakespeare’s Motive in Populating his Plays with Lower and Upper-Class Characters
Shakespeare occupies a unique position among the many writers the world of literature has ever known. Even though other novelists, such as Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, and poets such as Dante and Homer, have transcended national barriers, no writer in history lives a reputation like Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays became published early in the 16th and 17th centuries, intended for small theaters. However, today, these essay writer same publications are still read and performed worldwide (Solomon 249). Such is making the prophecy of Ben Johnson that says, “Shakespeare was not an age, but for all time” come true (Mambrol Para 10). Many wonder why Shakespeare stands out among many of his peers, and the answer lies in the compositions of his plays, poems, and stories. As many know, Shakespeare’s imaginary world is composed of upper and lower-class characters. All these characters do not only play an important role but give such avenues for Shakespeare to pass his message to the audience. Following this finding, this paper explores what philosophies, beliefs and ideologies Shakespeare intends to convey through these characters, scenes, and the general themes he uses in many of his plays.
Responding to the question under study is complex, and this is because it involves many features, such as themes that the author is focusing on, the setting of a specific play, and other aspects. However, there are common issues that can be identified as the reasons behind Shakespeare’s use of characters from both the lower class and upper class, and they include the following:
Social Class Issues as the Main Aspiration
Behind Shakespeare’s use of both upper class and lower class characters in most of his plays are the issues of social class that required members from both classes to take sides and act on what was happening. Social classes matter to Shakespeare, given that his time of birth was when classifications had just become serious, such as dividing society into four groups: citizens, gentlemen, yeoman, and laborers. Also, the population of England by then had just increased from three million to four million; therefore, the majority of people belonged to ranks, which made social orders a complex matter (Gillings Para 1-2). Shakespeare witnessed people rise from low status to upper ranks from nowhere, evidenced by La Pucelle (aka Joan of Arc) in part one of Henry VI. La Pucelle transformed herself from a mere daughter of a Sheppard into a savior of France and champion of all. Some people could also fall from their positions, as evidenced by Timon of Athens, who turns from a rich nobleman to a misanthropic hermit. Other people live as poor, but while having a relationship with some rich families, they know not, and some boast as wealthy, while in reality, they are nobodies. These are all mysteries that Shakespeare was thinking of when mixing his characters in many of his plays.
The tragedies and romance in some of his plays are evidence of Shakespeare’s concern for social class issues that the society faced during his time. Social class is known to many people because many writers have always used it as a lens for the world to view their culture and others. While this is true, Shakespeare uses this aspect in many rigid hierarchical demarcations. Because most of his characters come from different social classes, Shakespeare takes advantage of this to feature what societies face in terms of social class differences (Gillings Para 1). He makes sure that his plays have nobles, kings, gentlemen, the rich, the poor, laborers, beggars, and yeomen to mix the low and upper classes.
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Many confused the noble with gentlemen during Shakespeare’s time because it defined the upper class. While bringing the concept of nobility into the picture by Shakespeare, his main goal was to compare the gap between people within and those outside the ruling class, which was hard to identify because of the words noble and gentlemen. Besides, during the time Shakespeare started writing his plays, England, known as Elizabeth’s city, was having a strict society. Therefore, studying the issue of society was a way for Shakespeare to determine various things ranging from how people from different classes spoke, behaved, and wore with more emphasis on the upper class. Much as his concern was to know how different classes led their lives, Shakespeare used many characters from the upper class because he loved giving his characters more depth to please his audience.
One important aspect of Shakespeare’s plays is how his upper-class characters dressed. These groups of people wore sophisticated, refined, and expensive clothes, which many were on display for comfort. The second facet is how upper-class characters spoke, using blank verse. Shakespeare was much interested in promoting the current trend, which was language and how people spoke (Solomon 250). Given that individuals from the upper class were always able to achieve higher education, reflecting their speech in his plays was essential for Shakespeare, thus justifying why Shakespeare’s imaginary world is composed of upper and lower class characters.
The Relationship between Masters and Servants
Such a relationship is what Shakespeare was after and what he was trying to think about through these characters and the scenes as well as the themes he uses in many of his plays. All societies have masters and servants, and these two strive to do each other credit (Nagle Para 1). This paper highlights this feature because master-servant relationships in Elizabethan England were complex, and Shakespeare thought it was wise to explore how these relationships were. For example, Shakespeare wrote one of his plays titled “The Taming of the Shrew,” filled with many lower and upper-class members during the end of the 16th century (Nagle Para 7). During this time, social attitudes toward the relationships between masters and servants peaked.
Based on the above, Shakespeare, in this play, wanted to explore the relationships and roles that masters and servants played. As shown in various research articles, the history of the master and servant relationship led to the Renaissance. All that is known is that masters are in control, and servants follow the command and have no freedom or time. While thinking about this issue, Shakespeare uses characters from the lower class status as servants and those from the upper class as masters to raise questions of social relationships. In reality, servants are, sometimes, treated well and other times badly, which Shakespeare portrays in his play. What Shakespeare focuses on is the clause that the legislators created, which seems to be in favor of masters and ignores servants. In the beginning lines of “The Taming of the Shrew,” adrunken beggar is taken home by a servant under the instructions of his master (Nagle Para 7). With this happening, in the beginning, Shakespeare can turn the master into a teacher and the servant into a master, given that the servant gets a chance to act on his will as an agent to the plans of his master.
The Path to Kingship
While this aspect sounds uncalled for, kingship as a theme makes most of Shakespeare’s plays. There is no way Shakespeare would focus on one class of people, given that a kingdom is composed of gentle people, dukes, kings, and princes, as well as the lower class of individuals such as the laborers, the beggars, those believed to be cursed, and the poor. The three common plays of Shakespeare where he deals with English Kings include Henry VIII, Edward III, and King John. In King Edward, Shakespeare writes the education of a prince who at first neglects his duties and decides to put personal pleasures above the needs of his people (Mambrol Para 14). The story then focuses on how the subjects of whom the majority falls under the lower class are subjected to neglect concerning their needs.
However, in the end, Edward turns out to be what Shakespeare calls Henry V, who also happens to be the mirror of all Christian kings. With the help of characters from all classes, England, as a place governed by kingship, plays as a central ground where people seek to fulfill their desires at the expense of the kingdom by betraying others and abandoning their responsibilities (Mambrol Para 15). By using the upper class in his plays, Shakespeare also aims to reveal atrocities that take place among kings who call themselves the nobles. Because of the quest for power, the upper-class people have even more challenges than those of the lower class. These people resort to ruthless killing to have power and murder anyone who gets into their way regardless of whether they share any relation or not. This situation is evidenced in the play where Macbeth and his wife plan to kill the real king and take over the kingship. Their ambitions do not end not until their guilty conscious destroys their lives. The other example is where Richard, the Duke of York, and his ambitious son plan to seize power, and York kills his father. In response, Clifford also kills the youngest son of York, thus introducing the theme of familial destruction among the upper-class group that many do not know.
Shakespeare’s Curiosity and Writing Skills
In most of his plays where people from lower and upper classes are combined, Shakespeare seeks to portray the true nature of people from upper and lower classes. This curiosity and his facility with language compelled Shakespeare to write his plays and create characters of the lower and upper class. The main reason for this was to entertain his audience to their satisfaction. The kings and people of lower status found Shakespeare’s works interesting, and this is what he wanted. Therefore, it is no doubt that his deep insight into human nature and the universality of his theme is the aspect that makes his plays popular. This composition of upper and lower-class characters generates the magnetic power that attracts many people into theaters to watch his plays.
Besides, the common four themes in Shakespeare’s plays such as order and disorder, change, reality, and appearance are his use of both upper class and lower class characters. For one to explore these themes, the rich and poor must exist. One important facet to note is that these four themes affected Shakespeare the most while he explored his society and watched the world around him. As he grew old, he was more interested in the refreshment the countryside offers as a solution to the corruption and evils done by people living in cities. In his play titled “King Lear,” Shakespeare explores the issue of identity and possession, which is believed to be something connected with social classes in society. For these issues to convey well, people from all classes must participate in the act. There is also a great deal of cruelty, healing, and tenderness in the same play. One group of people cannot be cruel and at the same time tender.
The important part to consider is the roles of these groups of people in making Shakespeare achieve his goals in specific plays. Class differences affect every relationship in each of Shakespeare’s plays, and if this is the case, having one class would be more boring, and the audience may not have a motive to watch them. The people with lower status look to the other class as their superiors with fear, admiration, and despair, while those above look at the people in the lower class with distrust, disrespect, and pity. The other reason is that most of Shakespeare’s characters are near reality (Solomon 262). His writing is a way of tackling real-world problems such as church problems that consisted of the monks and their sheep, misgovernment that involved government officials as the people of the upper class and the public represented by the lower class members, achievements and downfalls of kings and the effect their ruling had on their subjects. To shape, compress, and alter such happenings, it was important for Shakespeare to incorporate the art of dramatic design by using suitable characters for each of his roles, thus developing his remarkable insight into various characters.
While much has been exhausted, it is also important to note that society does not function without social classes. Similar to Shakespeare, other writers have followed the same approach while writing most of their plays. Plays are made of what happens in reality. All Shakespeare’s characters, regardless of class or status, are concerned with issues related to law and authority in society and how these issues affect individual citizens (Audley-Charles 13). Because these matters never end and will continue even when the author is long gone, this is what Shakespeare had in mind. His essence of using all characters of all classes is one way of helping the generations to come to understand the role everyone plaid in the past. Much of all he wrote was accompanied by suitable characters so that most of his lines remain in people’s memory, and they can also be replayed in their subconscious minds.
To conclude, Shakespeare, the man whose fruits of imagination won many minds and hearts, uses characters of both upper and lower classes as a way to achieve goals many did not know. In this paper, many factors reveal that Shakespeare was indeed a brave writer fascinated by his topics and what interests the audience as well as what brings the reality people face into the light. As mentioned in this paper, social class issues are the main aspiration of his writings, and thus, the reason he uses both the classes. Unlike other writers of his era, Shakespeare took issues concerning social classes with much consideration. As explained above, his time of birth was when classifications had just become serious. Besides, he was also thinking of the relationships masters share with their servants, and he decided to explore using characters of all groups.
Given that England was a place known for kingship, his goal was also to explore what goes down in kingdoms, and given that the nobles, kings, laborers, and beggars make up a kingdom, using the two classes was inevitable. In addition, Shakespeare’s curiosity and writing skills are yet another aspect that leads him to the path that he follows. Shakespeare decides to use characters from the two classes as a way to entertain his audience to their satisfaction. The kings, the noble, the wealthy, the peasants, beggars, and laborers have a great role in each of the teams that Shakespeare emphasizes in his plays. For instance, the corruption team requires the wealthy characters and the peasants whose resources are stolen and are much affected by the acts of the wealthy characters. While there may be other reasons, this paper finds the above examples relevant in answering the question and guiding all the people that may seem confused when following the works of William Shakespeare.
Audley-Charles, Micheal. G. Shakespeare’s Voice as Spoken by his Characters. 2013.
Gillings, Mathew. “Shakespeare and Social Status.” Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language, 5 June 2017, wp.Lancs.ac.UK/Shakespeare long/2017/06/05/Shakespeare-and-social-status/.
Mambrol, Nasrullah. “Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Plays.” Literary Theory and Criticism – English Literature, Literary Theory and Criticism, Linguistics, Film Theory, Ebooks, UGC NET JRF Preparation, Novel Analysis, Scholarly Articles Nasrullah Mambrol, 25 July 2020, literariness.org/2019/05/19/analysis-of-William-Shakespeares-plays/.
Nagle, Lizz. “Masters and Servants: An Inversion of Roles in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.” www2.cedarcrest.edu/academic/eng/lfletcher/shrew/lnagle.htm.
Solomon, Natnael. Analysis on Shakespeare’s Enduring Impact in the Development of English Literature Based on Readers’ Retort to His Writing Style. Addis Ababa University, Ph.D. dissertation.