Sociological Humor: Shakespeare

Sociological Humor: Shakespeare

Since there has been language there have been relations among the ranks of humanity that mutate with the conception and eradication of culture. Social reformation is steeped in fields of blood and an eternity of opposition; however, social relations can be evaluated and if not bluntly rejected, at least overtly analyzed and discussed. Such is the case in William Shakespeare’s obvious critiques of Elizabethan culture in art; in particular, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare beautifully entwines the Elizabethan culture with his characters experiences. With hyperbolization he calls to light the questionable “justices” of the period, which could simply be only speculation from ones modern mind and culture. Still assuming Shakespeare was ahead of his time and in an artistic sense, a bit of a social revolutionist, the two plays have elements of social commentary that should be taken as serious critiques if the Elizabethan culture.

Before one can grasp the sociological concepts that Shakespeare addresses in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew” they should understand the basic premise upon which the evaluations are addressed- Elizabethan Culture. Elizabethan is the namesake of the time periods monarch Queen Elizabeth I. The era is typically said to span between the years of 1558 and 1603. This time period in English history was wrought with systematic means of determining social class. For instance, particular people were not allowed to wear particular clothing that may suggest they are of a higher class than they are. Even licensed actors that wore their costumes off stage were subject to punishment. The Elizabethan period is known for its harsh and inhuman, by today’s standards at least, punishments for crimes. “Life in Elizabethan England was chronicled by an Elizabethan called William Harrison - this included details of Elizabethan crime and punishment. The most dreadful punishment of being Hung, Drawn and Quartered was described by William Harrison as:

The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon a hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose.” (Elizabethan Crime)

The culture, mirroring most of cultures, has a hierarchal system of checks and balances when it comes to gender and such. So, basically the culture has a uniquely conservative feel and is known particularly for those themes. Based on this foundation of Elizabethan values and idea Williams Shakespeare shapes the character Titania in “A Midsummer Nights Dream” from Queen Elizabeth herself. Like the Queen of England, Titania is also a queen; however, she is the queen of the fairy realm. In the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the plot takes place in two parallel and intertwined worlds. The conflicts of each world seem to mirror the others in some ways and even have direct influences on the others.

In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Titania’s central issue is her fondness for a child, which the King of the Fairies, Oberon, also wants for his own reasons. “Do you amend it, then. It lies in you. Why should Titania cross her Oberon? I do but beg a little changeling boy to be my henchman.” (A Midsummer 29) Titania responds to Oberon’s statement with a touching story about the child’s mother and the convictions she possesses based on their relationship. Her closing statement being, “And for her[child’s mother] sake do I rear up her boy, and for her sake I will not part with him.”(A Midsummer 30) This opposition on the behalf of Titania is not of the normality when it comes to male and female relations in the Elizabethan society. Shakespeare could very well be using that fact to make personal statements about how women behave and should behave in his society.

Because Titania does not surrender the child to Oberon he seeks to punish her with magic. There is a flower in the plot of “A Midsummer Nights Dream” that has the ability to cause people to fall madly in love if rubbed on their eyes. When Titania rest, Oberon sprinkles the flower oil over her eyelids and utters, “What thou seest when thou dost wake, do it for thy true love take; love and languish for his sake. Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, Pard, or boar with bristled hair, in thy eye that shall appear when thou wak’st, it is thy dear. Wake when some vile thing is near.” (A Midsummer 36) This incantation that Oberon whispers to the slumbering Titania persuades her to fall madly in love with Bottom, who ironically became a donkey. Individuals who view Shakespeare’s writings as revolutionary and see him as this developed figure who stands above the social discrimination of the era may be shocked to think that this event with Titania and Oberon could be a play onto masculine power. Potentially, Titania not listening to Oberon and he punishing her is Shakespeare’s artistic way of telling women to stay straight and not to disobey their husbands, because he will retaliate with a great vengeance. He could basically be saying, “keep your mouth shut or end up being an ass,” or in this case, in love with one.

Retrospectively, Shakespeare can be making a statement about the monarch of his time, Queen Elizabeth I. Titania in the play is a representation of the queen. Among many people Queen Elizabeth was not popular because she was loveable, but because of how incredibly horrible she could be. Direct opposition of the crown was in no way legal, but Shakespeare had the wrote the lines for people to read between. Since Titania is a representation of Elizabeth, it could be quiet insulting from the particular event of her falling in love with an animal. This suggests the queen participated in bestiality. It’s the equivalent of calling President Obama a child molester. Since Shakespeare does this through entertainment, he is able to avoid certain penalties because some things can only be determined by individual interpretation.

Ultimately in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Shakespeare specifically contrast male and female roles in his society concerning power and place. From the beginning of the play Egeus leaves the power to Thesus to determine what his daughter Hermia’s future holds. Thesus commands that she either follows her fathers word, become a nun, or be put to death. Hermia is in love with Lysander, but because of the culture is only allowed to marry a man of her father’s choosing. This is an accurate representation of Elizabethan culture, and one of Shakespeare’s many critiques of them. In the play Hermia’s situation is portrayed as negative and Shakespeare makes the audience sympathize with her unruly and illegal decisions. In a way, one could say that Shakespeare is coaxing his audience with radical ideas to change the culture. He isolates what is wrong with their society and tries to change it. But because of the monarch, he hides behind his characters and symbolism.

Much of what Shakespeare does in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” he does in “The Taming of the Shrew.” In this play Shakespeare explores the roles of women in society, but at the same time, in my opinion, shows how they can be powerful when “untamed” “The Taming of the Shrew’s” main plot centers on the character Kate. Kate is a willful, woman who because of her coldness is seen as bitter and called a shrew. “There are many possible sources of Katherine’s unhappiness: she expresses jealousy about her father’s treatment of her sister, but her anxiety may also stem from feelings about her own undesirability, the fear that she may never win a husband, her loathing of the way men treat her, and so on. In short, Katherine feels out of place in her society. Due to her intelligence and independence, she is unwilling to play the role of the maiden daughter.” (Spark notes)

Petruchio, who is Kate’s husband, marries her and takes her home, and begins the “taming.” He is uniquely the only person Kate could truly be happy with. Because he and both Kate have such dominating personalities, they are, if you will, made for one another. “Petruchio is actually capable of loving Kate and conceives of taming her merely as a means to realize a happy marriage. Petruchio goes to alarming lengths to impose his mastery on Kate, keeping her tired and hungry for some time after their marriage, but he also insists on framing this treatment in a language of love, indicating his eagerness for Kate to adapt to her rightful, socially appointed place and his willingness to make their marriage a happy one.” (Spark Notes)

Shakespeare explores the relations of power and gender in Elizabethan society with “The Taming of the Shrew” and critiques with his pen. In the plot we see the female almost manipulate the male to get what she wants. Kate feeds Petruchio what he longs for so that she may have her freedom. Kate realizes near the end of the play that in order to have her way, she must align herself with the dominating male power. She does. It is not very clear that Kate is manipulating Petruchio, and all the characters of “The Taming of the Shrew” for that matter but she does. In the end she is happy with what happens. She is the most powerful female, with the most powerful male, so she wins.

In comparison, Shakespeare addresses many of the same elements of Elizabethan society in both “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” The role of women is discussed and the power struggles that come along with such relations are also critiqued in the plays. The main points that Shakespeare seems to address are how women are treated by the men that have power over them. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” we see the struggle between Hermia and Egeus, while in “The Taming of the Shrew” we have the struggle of Kate and Petruchio. The similarity of both of these struggles is that the men have what seems to be no compassion or understanding of a way that is not their own. It seems as if they have no way of bending to a different wind than the one that has always blown.

This critique of relations in the “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew” does something very special for the Elizabethan audience. It shows them the dark side of their society that they are much too familiar with. It is to the extent that we question what is humanly moral when it comes to such issues. Shakespeare may be letting the Humanist in him show through his writing at moments like these, where he hyperbolizes the ridiculous rules and regulations of the time. This is the only way certain things could be addressed, especially by the lower classes. “Shakespearean drama is a treasury of the disputes that frustrated and delighted humanism, including (among many others) action versus contemplation, theory versus practice, art versus nature, res versus verbum, monarchy versus republic, human dignity versus human depravity, and individualism versus communality. In treating of these polarities, he generally proceeds in the manner of Castiglione and Montaigne, presenting structures of balanced contraries rather than syllogistic endorsements of one side or another. In so doing, he achieves a higher realism, transcending the mere imitation of experience and creating, in all its conflict and fertility, a mirror of mind itself.” (McClinton)

This finally brings us up to the reasons these comedies must be taken seriously as searching social commentary. One reason is because the same reason we study history. We must take them seriously because we do not want to repeat the injustices of previous generations. In actuality, the plays that Shakespeare writes are creative vessels of history. Shakespeare critiques his society in his art and gives us history through the fiction. Literature is always reflective of the historical times. Especially during time of great distress; it is almost certain that there was much unrest in Elizabethan society. Which is probably the main reason Shakespeare weaves such dark ideas into his art. He does not try to relieve his audience with light plots that take them away from the pain of the day. He takes it upon himself to remind them of what happens.

Shakespeare does not relieve his audience because he does not care about them but because he does. Shakespeare wants his audience to realize what is wrong with their society and to act against it. He could very well be starting revolutions. Many social revolutions are hidden in the text of such plays as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” These plays must be taken seriously because they were very serious for the time period. The ultimate goals of these plays of Shakespeare were much larger than entertainment for sure. Shakespeare focused far too much on the emphasis of particular things corrupt in Elizabethan society to simply ignore it as entertainment.

In fact, it is a bit of a shock that Shakespeare was not persecuted for speaking such blasphemy through his plays. But because these plays were very entertaining and he could hide his motives behind the art is what saves him.

The second reason these play should be taken seriously is the fact that literature should be taken seriously. As said before literature always reflects the times in the art. History must not repeat itself. Beyond Shakespeare literature provides us with insight on to issues that are pressing from an artistic point of view.

Music is a prime example of how Shakespeare’s plays have an effect on the audience relative to the time period. In music we have, especially during hard times like political upheaval, songs that reflect that and shape popular opinion on particular issues. Like when there is a war, there is always a song this is released that is anti war and calls everyone together as a whole.

What happens with theses songs is what Shakespeare was doing with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare wants to rally popular thought in Elizabethan society with the isolation of dark themes of the society. He does this so beautifully that even the monarch of the time loves the hidden critique of the society she is leading.

This is what makes Shakespeare great, it makes him stand apart from the times as a humanist, revolutionary individual. But what is depressing is, what if all the things we attribute Shakespeare for doing is wrong and we are just reading too deeply into his writings and seeing what we want to see. I doubt it.

Works Cited

BOOKRAGS STAFF. "Elizabethan Era". 2006. September 28 2009. <>.

"Elizabethan Crime and Punishment." Web.

Heather, Tho,as. "Elizabeth R." Web

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Bedford, New York. 1996 Print

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bedford, New York. 1996 Print


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Linda Cassini profile image

Linda Cassini 4 years ago from Las Vegas NV

You were "featured" under one of my writs..and being a sucker for Mr. Shakespear I had to read..nice prospective writing. :)

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