Social status in Elizabethan England did not conform to the simple hierarchical structure that some might imagine. At that time, England was still a society where legal and social status was fixed to the possession of land; however, an undeniably growing segment of the population was acquiring wealth and power through non-land-associated skills. Sir Thomas Smith wrote at the time that “we in England divide our men commonly into foure sortes, gentlemen, citizens and yeomen artificers, and laborers.” Obviously describing the vast groups of lower class Englishmen all as “laborers” is an extreme oversimplification, and this wording is indicative of a society that generally glossed over commoners who were not considered part of any relevant political class.
Some might assume that plays were not analyzed with an emphasis on class prior to Marx, or at very least, that there was a lack of emphasis on materialist analysis in the plays themselves. After all, tragedy in the strict classical sense always centers on the woes of the upper class. Such classical tragedies imply that the deadly actions of the powerful will create a ripple effect that hurts those with less power than them. But in the cases of those classical tragedies, they often evoke an abstract horror that the audience is meant to feel at future tragic consequences, and they typically invite the audience to view and grow sympathetic toward the plight of the wealthy. However, a reading of Shakespeare that ignores class as a factor in the text would be an insult to the complexity of the plays, and the inclusion of the servant characters in Romeo and Juliet in any real sense speaks against such a reading, too.
While the servant scene of Romeo and Juliet 1.2 may seem to exist purely for humor at expense of the illiterate underclass, later scenes– such as 4.5’s discussion between the musicians and 5.1’s exchange between the Apothecary and Romeo — certainly complicate this simplistic reading. In particular, the scene with the working-class musicians in 4.5 is often removed due to the way it jarringly cuts against the immediate somber aftermath of Juliet’s feigned suicide. Our production chose to keep the scene in part, as it exists as a counterpoint to the idea of wealthy tragedy as something that most of the lower classes will view with horror; most of the time, the deaths of the wealthy and powerful are not something the impoverished have the incentive or even have the energy to care about. Sharp viewers of this production’s final week will note the interactions and attitudes of the marginalized serving class as they are depicted throughout the play.
On a more macro level, the play can also be read as the struggle of the new type of human of the Renaissance against the feudal order. Here, this struggle takes the form of a demand for freedom in love and opposition to antiquated moral traditions. The type of hereditary family feud exemplified by the Montagues and Capulets can be read as dating from feudal blood feuds, and the deaths of Romeo and Juliet can be read as the tragic growing pains of that old order forming into the slightly-more-meritocratic Renaissance social structure. Here the play is read not as a work of total class enlightenment, but as more of step in the right direction. The struggle of the lovers against their social environment is the struggle of bourgeois humanism against feudalism, the Renaissance against the Middle Ages.
Enjoy the final weekend!