Social Status in Shakespeare's Plays

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In Shakespeare's time, the English lived with a strong sense of social class -- of belonging to a particular group because of occupation, wealth, and ancestry. Elizabethan Society had a very strict social code at the time that Shakespeare was writing his plays. Social class could determine all sorts of things, from what a person could wear to where he could live to what jobs his children could get. Some families moved from one class to another, but most people were born into a particular class and stayed there. There was a chance of being granted a title by the crown. This was uncommon at the time and a relatively new thing for Europe where ancestry always defined nobility.

Shakespeare's plays show the different social statuses throughout England because of his audience. He had a variety of social classes that would attend his plays and go to the theater. Most of his plays have a way of identifying with whoever would be in the audience watching. Each different social class has a chance to relate to one of the characters in his plays. In Alls Well That Ends Well, it is the working class that would be able to relate to Helen's problem. She is the product of a working class family, and therefore thought to be below the nobility. She wasn't born from a great titled family that has had its name for centuries therefore she is not equal to Bertram.

The play, As You Like It, deals with the Elizabethan social status among the nobility. This play has a lot to do with the act of primogeniture. This play shows that even if people were born of the nobility there was still the chance that they weren't as good as the rest of the nobility. The second born sons and daughters of the nobility weren't as important as the first born sons. It was the first born sons that inherited the titles, or they would have to be given to the husband of the daughter. The general audience was that of gentler born younger sons, adults as well as the youths that were still apprentices or students in school. This play opens up with a fight between siblings because of social hierarchy causing them to be put at odds. Primogeniture was not a binding law but rather a flexible social custom in which the propertied sough to perpetuate themselves by preserving their estates intact through successive generations. His play shows that even if they are born within the nobility they are still beneath those that come before them.

Orlando is alienated from the life of being a landed gentleman. This then intensifies the conflicts between siblings, older and younger brother. This also shows the major division in society between the landed and the unlanded, also known as the gentry and the commoners. I also believe that primogeniture complicates not only sibling rivalry, but the relationships between father and sons. The eldest son is impatient to get his rightful inheritance, while the younger sons are resentful that they are receiving nothing from their fathers. Shakespeare's plays are loaded with subjects, sons and younger brothers who are undecided as to how they should feel about their role in life. They are bound to the people that are better than them on a socio-economic level, but resent the fact. This play gave people a chance to see someone that had sunk in social class get a chance to rise up, which never really happened during this time. Shakespeare used this ploy to really captivate his audience's attention, while also I believe making fun of society as it was.

The working class in, Alls Well That Ends Well, and the second born son of, As You Like It, isn't very different. The second born sons are sent off to schools to become apprentices, clergymen, or merchants in the working class. The second born sons aren't viewed with the same amount of disdain because they are still of noble birth, but they are left to do the same jobs as the people born into the working class. It is the plight of both of these characters, Helen and Orlando, which calls to the...
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