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Classism in the Shakespearean Era

Updated on July 5, 2016

The differential treatment based on social class, is a pertinent theme in Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Classism is characterized by the power and control an individual of a higher class has over another. The comedy begins with the introduction of two major conflicts. The first conflict deals with inter-class relations and a cruel trick being played on a homeless tinker named Christopher Sly, by a wealthy lord. The second conflict deals with the perceived roles of women in the Elizabethan era, with Baptista as a monocratic father who holds the key to the fate of his two daughters, Katherina and Bianca. Shakespeare uses the literary technique of nested stories to highlight the power imbalances and injustices brought upon lay people due to the profoundly patriarchal and classist society of the time. Through the degradation of women, the mistreatment of the lower classes and their portrayal in a negative manner, it can be seen that not only was the theme of classism deeply rooted in the play, Shakespeare was highly critical of it.

The degradation of women in the Shakespearean era show that classism did not only divide the rich and the poor, it also dehumanized women and lowered them to a lower social standing than that of even animals. Throughout the play on multiple occasions, women are considered by many as mere property and tools of entertainment. Moments after the wedding between Kate and Petruchio, when leaving, Petruchio equates Kate, his newly wed bride, to his property and possessions. He says, “She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything…” (3.2.223-225).By using metaphors Petruchio implies that Kate is just another property he owns, other than that, she she is not worth anything to him. Being the property of another person meant that one did not have any free will or rights; this extended to both women and the lower class. This is important because the highly patriarchal classist society of the time stripped women of their fundamental freedoms and liberties. How does one justify taking away the rights and liberties of a person based on something they had no control over such as their gender or parents. By depriving women of their rights, considering them as mere property and not humans, and forcing them to obey the will of their husbands is a form of slavery. By having Petruchio say this, Shakespeare is trying to tell the masses that this is a grave injustice to women of all classes. Due to the facts that classism tramples the civil liberties of women, this makes it not only a social issue but also a human rights issue that needs to be dealt with seriously and swiftly. Being a woman or a part of the lower class meant one had no rights. This paved the way for them to become the targets of the abuses, practical jokes, and mistreatment from the upper class.

Within the frame of the class system, the wealthy upper class imposed complete control and authority over the lives of the poorer lower class. The affluent lords and merchants on many occasions abused and mistreated their servants; sometimes for entertainment and at other times for no apparent reason. Grumio alludes early on that Petruchio abuses him by saying, “...he’ll rail in his rope tricks...throw a figure in her face...You know him not sir.” (1.2.107-111). What this means is that in the past Petruchio has used abusive language and has physically abused him. What Grumio is trying to say to Hortensio through this is that knowing Petruchio already does this to him, he will likely use any of these measures to tame the Shrew, Kate. It can be seen through Act 4 Scene 1 that Petruchio regularly beats, abuses and mistreats his servants. This suggests that the upper class thought the poor to be expendable and as a result, regularly abused them, exploited them, and, used them as a source of entertainment. By physically breaking them down by various forms of assault and by mentally breaking them down by dehumanizing them, the wealthy were able to make sure that they always had control over the lower classes. Not only does this demonstrate the power and control the upper class had over the lives of the poor, it also brings into view how the wealthy mocked and used the lower classes during the Shakespearean era. This mockery and mistreatment widened the gap between the rich and the poor, the upper class and the lower class, and worked to strengthen the hold of classism upon that society.

The distinctions among the classes are highlighted by Shakespeare through his contrasting portrayal of the classes. Using common stereotypes such as characterizing the poor as foolish, less than human and almost always drunk, Shakespeare paints the lower classes in a negative manner. When the Lord first comes upon Christopher Sly when he is in a drunken stupor, his first remark is to equate him to a “monstrous beast” (Ind.i. 30), he further insults Sly by comparing him to a “swine” (Ind.i. 30). A mere 30 lines into the play, Shakespeare has already dehumanized Sly and brought to life the common stereotype that the lower classes are less than human, and are almost always drunk. Shakespeare continues to do this throughout the play. From very early on in the play it is seen that the poor being dehumanized and insulted at the whim of the upper class. While Sly may be of a lower social status, he is in no way deserving of being insulted and dehumanized in such a way. Shakespeare reveals the way in which the upper class looked down upon the lower class and considered them as inferior to them by stereotyping the character of Christopher Sly. Collectively, this emphasises the differences among the classes. By portraying the upper class as powerful and authoritative as discussed above, and by dehumanizing the poor and portraying them as drunk and less than human, Shakespeare is able to create juxtaposes that accentuate the deeply rooted classism within the society of the time.

Shakespeare proves repeatedly that he is critical of classism throughout the play. By using various literary devices to portray the lower classes in a negative manner, degrade women, and show the mistreatment of the poor, he is able to highlight the issue of classism in the Elizabethan era. The highly patriarchal and classist society portrayed in The Taming of the Shrew, deprived the lower classes and women of their basic human rights. This in turn led to the abuse, mistreatment and dehumanisation of the lower classes by the wealthy. Although classism like that of the Shakespearean era does not exist in society today, people are still divided into classes and given differential treatment based on one’s socio-economic class. According to Stephen Hwang (“Your Doctor Could Be Biased”, 2014) when applying to a job, applicants with english sounding names are approximately 40% more likely to be called in for an interview than a person with an ethnic sounding name who is equally qualified. He also states, that within the healthcare industry, it is noted that if the caller mentioned that they had a high paying job they were 58% more likely to be offered an appointment than if the caller had mentioned they were receiving welfare. Subconsciously, people are divided into various classes based on ethnicity, race, and wealth. Classism has been a part of society for over 500 years. This raises the question, “Is eradication of classism possible, if so, how?”


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