Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period > Depression of the Labouring Class
  Social conditions of the Trading and Yeoman Classes Servingmen  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period.

§ 30. Depression of the Labouring Class.


Neither traders nor yeomen were to be confounded with the labouring class proper, still a part of the population which Harrison, as well as Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, regarded as proper to be ruled, not to rule others. It has been seen that their condition during the Elizabethan age and the ensuing period cannot be described as one of advance, although the social misery which had resulted from the break-up of the old agrarian system and the widespread substitution of pasture for tillage abated with the practical recovery of arable farming. The labouring classes, generally, remained in a condition of depression, or not far removed from it. Yet they were not altogether ignored in the working of the machinery of church and state, labouring men being occasionally summoned on juries or even chosen to hold office as churchwardens. But, though it would not be impossible to cite exceptions in which human sympathy or humorous insight assert their rights, men and women of this class were usually counted only by heads, and, as individuals, they failed to interest the dramatists, who were content to use them as an obscure background or colourless substratum. It is not just to illustrate the contempt of the Elizabethan drama for the masses either by satirical pictures of mobs and popular rebellions, or by particular phrases “in character” with the personages employing them. 122  But the want of sympathy towards the inarticulate classes with which the dramatists, as a body, are chargeable, must indisputably be regarded as a limitation of the range of their art, which they only accepted to their own disadvantage. 123    39

Note 122. The queen, e.g., in Richard II, act II, sc. 3, addresses the gardener as “thou little better thing than earth” (Vatke, u.s. p. 221). [ back ]
Note 123. Harrison, p. 151, gives a kindly picture of the friendliness and geniality of the lower classes of his age, which is justly commended by Furnivall. Sympathetic touches of the same kind are not frequent in the plays of Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, though, in the phrase of the old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, they contain plenty of “homely foolery.” [ back ]

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  Social conditions of the Trading and Yeoman Classes Servingmen  
 
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