367 Introduction: II

Hampton Court




Authority, obedience, and ideas

  "Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lordů"

(Richard II, 3.2)



Despite the enormous differences in wealth between the mass of the population and the elite, there was relatively little social agitation in early-modern England. There were rebellions in 1536, 1549 and 1569, but politics and religion were as important as social discontents in these uprisings. The English Civil War began as a struggle within England's political elite, though groups such as the Levellers and Diggers did later emerge and voice radical social demands.


The duty to obey the government and respect social rank was preached from the pulpit and taught in pamphlets and plays.


"How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself."

(Troilus & Cressida, 1.3)


bulletIt was a common theme of sixteenth and seventeenth century political theory that without hierarchy and order, anarchy would follow, God had ordered the universe in a Great Chain of Being, with each element subordinate to its superior - women to men, children to adults, beasts to humans.
bulletThe social and political hierarchy was also defended by appeals to the Bible, which taught Christians to obey the powers that be (Romans 13) for God had placed them in control: "By me [God] kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth." (Proverbs 8:15-16).


Social structure

Elizabeth I and the House of Lords


England's social structure was hierarchical. Movement within the hierarchy was accepted (provided it was not too rapid), but there were clear social distinctions that it was thought dangerous to undermine.


"Since every Jack became a gentleman
There's many a gentle person made a Jack."

(Richard III, 1.3)



Below the royal family, the nobility or peerage held the highest social rank. The titles of nobles were divided (in descending order) into duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. The title was inherited by the eldest son ("primogeniture"). Titles often died out for lack of male heirs. The younger sons of noblemen were gentlemen, but not noble. Noblemen possessed the privilege of sitting in the House of Lords - one of the two Houses of Parliament (the other was the House of Commons).
There were just over 60 hereditary peers or nobles at the time of Shakespeare's birth, and the number fell later in the 1500s, but in the early 1600s James VI and I greatly increased the number, which stood at more than 120 by 1628.


In 1611, James VI also instituted the title of baronet. This was an hereditary title, and entitled its holder to be called "Sir," but not to sit in the House of Lords.


Below the nobility were the gentry.
The highest non-noble rank was that of knight. There were about six hundred knights in England in the mid-sixteenth century. Knights were also called "Sir", whilst ordinary gentlemen were only called "Mister" or "Master."
Gentry status was of great importance and graduates, and members of the clergy and the professions (especially lawyers) were eager to insist that they were gentlemen.


The gentry were dominant in the second of the two Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons.


The vast majority of the population were neither nobles nor gentry.


"Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their bodies' force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments' cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men's pride I boast:
  Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
  All this away and me most wretched make."

(Sonnet 91)


Tudors and Stuarts

  Henry VIII
Edward VI
Mary I
Elizabeth I
    James VI & I



Shakespeare was born a subject of Queen Elizabeth I - the last Tudor Queen.
The Tudor dynasty seized power following the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkist and Lancastrian descendants of Edward III. In his play Richard III, Shakespeare portrayed the last Yorkist rival of the House of Tudor as an unscrupulous tyrant and usurper.

The Tudor rose - uniting the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster
The Tudor rose
Shakespeare prudently portrayed the Tudor dynasty extremely positively.

We will unite the white rose and the red:
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days

(Richard III, 5.5)



Shortly before Shakespeare was born, Henry VIII severed the ties of the English Church to Rome.

"Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him [God] that great supremacy,
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand:
So tell the pope, all reverence set apart
To him and his usurp'd authority."

(King John, 3.1)


A lengthy period of Reformation and Counter-Reformation followed. Only with the accession of Elizabeth was some sort of institutional and doctrinal stability restored - and this was contested by Papists and Puritans.


in 1588, around the time when Shakespeare's literary career was beginning, Philip II sent the Spanish Armada to restore Catholicism in England. English ships and bad weather destroyed the fleet and the feared invasion never occurred.


Elizabeth - the Virgin Queen - had no children, and was succeeded in 1603 by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of Great Britain.


Although James was moderate in his treatment of Catholics, an attempt was made to assassinate him and blow up Parliament. This Gunpowder Plot (1605) failed, and thereafter English Catholics increasingly either kept their heads down or were positively loyal to the throne.



James I's main problems were with his Parliaments over taxation and other policies. Parliament became still more discontented and obstreperous under his son, Charles I.


In 1642, Parliament took up arms against the King and his supporters. Parliament was triumphant, but itself lost power to a military coup, led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell executed Charles I (1649), and made himself Lord Protector (virtually king in all but name). The monarchy was restored in 1660, shortly after Cromwell's death. Charles II returned on a wave of royalist enthusiasm, but his inept brother, James II provoked the Glorious Revolution (1688). James II was deposed and Parliament established his daughter Mary and her husband William III as constitutional monarchs (1689).


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