“Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People” by Stephen Unwin

“Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People” by Stephen Unwin, published by Reaktion Books

As Stephen Unwin acknowledges early in his introduction, “Shakespeare grants more space to the rich and powerful than to those who work for them”. Various reasons for this are listed: there existed, after all, conventions and practical imperatives that a commercial playwright could not ignore. But people from what we may term the “lower echelons of society” (though Unwin himself is careful not to use such terms) – that is, those who aren’t among the rich and powerful – also populate his plays; and while they are not Prince Hamlet, neither are they present merely to make up the numbers: Shakespeare’s insatiable curiosity into the natures of various kinds of humanity is always apparent, no matter what social rank he is depicting. It is these characters of the “lower echelons” on whom Unwin focuses: what part do they play in these dramas? What was Shakespeare’s view of the commonality, those non-royals and non-aristocrats, from whose ranks Shakespeare himself had emerged?

Unwin is, quite rightly, quick to dismiss the view that Shakespeare shared Hamlet’s contempt for the groundlings (“…who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb show and noise”), or that he sympathised with Coriolanus’ hatred of “the many-headed multitude”. It is, after all, foolish to take the words spoken by certain dramatic characters in certain dramatic situations as reflecting the author’s own position, though it is surprising how many have done just that. Unwin dismisses also the patronising view expressed even by a critic as perceptive as Bradley, who described the “poor and humble” in these plays as “almost without exception, sound and sweet at heart, faithful and pitiful”. Looking clearly at what the texts say, both the contempt and the sentimentality seem out of place: Shakespeare’s view of those on the lower ranks was considerably more penetrating, as, indeed, we should expect from a writer so endlessly fascinated by all aspects of humanity. These characters may not occupy central positions in these dramas, but nothing human was alien to Shakespeare’s ever-probing mind.

There follow after the introduction ten fascinating chapters in which Unwin considers, one by one, the various categories of such characters. Firstly, there are the servants, slaves, and messengers. (The distinction between servant and slave is not always clear in the plays: are the two Dromios, say, slaves or servants?) Then follow the tradesmen and craftsmen, labourers and rebels, grouped together, as the boundaries separating them are often porous. We move to the pastoral setting in the next chapter, as Unwin considers shepherds, peasants, and gardeners; and then, into the world of women, which examines Shakespeare’s depiction of maids, nurses, and, yes, of witches. Workers in inns, taverns and brothels follow – the boundaries between these categories, once again, being often far from clear; and the next chapter looks at Shakespeare’s depiction of those from his own profession – “the poor players”. This leads naturally on to a chapter on fools, clowns, and jesters, and then, on to the most literate of the working people – clerks and clergy. Despite the title of the book, not all the types examined are strictly “working people”: Unwin next considers murderers and thieves, outlaws and conmen. And finally, Unwin moves on soldiers, sailors, and men at arms.

In each of these ten chapters, Unwin, with a trademark clarity familiar to anyone who has seen his theatrical productions, trawls through the plays, considering the depiction of working people, both in terms of their presentation on stage, and also in relation to the very harsh social and economic conditions of the time. What emerges is a plurality, a multiplicity: no general rule can be formulated to cover all cases, because each of these characters is depicted as an individual. Some are indeed, as Bradley puts it, “sound and sweet at heart”: a few, like those tenants in King Lear who tend to the Earl of Gloucester, despite what they must have known would have been terrible consequences should their kindness be discovered, may even be described as heroic in their soundness and their sweetness. But Shakespeare, like Tolstoy after him, was fascinated by the sheer variety of human types: no two poor people are alike because no two people are alike, regardless of social status.

There are, inevitably, darker elements too. At the furthest extreme from the soundness and sweetness are those “murderers”, as they are referred to in the stage directions of Richard III and Macbeth. In the latter play, we are actually forced to witness the murder of a child on stage: there is no sweetening of the pill. And yet, even these murderers are not an undifferentiated mass: each is an individual. The two murderers sent to kill Clarence in Richard III, for distance, are very different people.

And even though they commit the most heinous of crimes, they are morally no worse than the rich and powerful who have commissioned them. Jack Cade and his followers commit the most terrible atrocities, but they are morally no worse than the nobles who, in pursuit of their own ambitions, plunge the entire nation into civil war; and Shakespeare highlights this parallel by juxtaposing Cade’s rebellion with the civil wars that follow. Or consider James Tyrrell, commissioned to carry out the murder of the Princes in the Tower: he can feel a compassion for his innocent victims that Richard III, who had commissioned him, cannot. But there is no sentimentality here either on Shakespeare’s part: for all Tyrrell’s compassion, he does what he had been ordered.

There are reasons why these people have become what they are, and Shakespeare is interested in what these reasons are. Nothing human, after all, is alien to him. And nothing is alien to humanity either. “If it be man’s work, I’ll do it,” says the captain in King Lear before he goes on to commit an act that no man should do. This implicitly raises the question “What is man’s work?” The extremes of good and bad, each seemingly unbelievable were it not that we know both to exist, are present in the poor and powerless as well as in the rich and powerful. There is no contempt on Shakespeare’s part of those on the lower rungs of the ladder, but no sentimentality either. He gave the poor and powerless the same perceptive gaze he gave the rich and powerful.

In between these two extremes, there is what seems like an infinite variety. The working people can be dim, like Francis the apprentice drawer in Henry IV, Part One; or they can be intelligent and quick-witted, like the first gravedigger in Hamlet. Francis has always struck me as an interesting case. He is not at all intelligent or articulate, and, through no fault of his own, is certainly not educated; and Prince Hal and his boozing crony Poins poke fun at Francis quite mercilessly. How exactly are we to take this? Are we to share in the joke? Unwin reminds us that there would have been many apprentices among the groundlings, and it is unlikely they would have enjoyed seeing one of their own number made fun of in so heartless a manner. He adds that there are many different ways of playing this scene, which makes me wish that he could have described at least some of them. However, this is not a book about interpretations in stage productions (although I do hope such a book will follow). Whenever I read this scene, or see it in production (although, I’m sorry to say, I missed Unwin’s own productions of the Henry IV plays), I must admit it leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth: I cannot join Hal and Poins in their laughing at someone so very far below them by any measure of social privilege. Perhaps that sour taste in the mouth is precisely what Shakespeare had intended.

But Shakespeare depicts also among working people a wit and quick intelligence. “The age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe,” says Hamlet of the gravedigger, but Hamlet is not being quite as generous as may at first sight appear: Hamlet’s pride may prevent him from acknowledging it, but, whether he admits to it or not, in their exchange, we had actually witnessed the gravedigger not just matching Hamlet, but getting the better of him. The peasant’s toe has done far more than merely come near the courtier’s heel. We’re a long way here from Hal casually mocking Francis’ inarticulacy and lack of education.

Throughout this book, there is a keen awareness of the tremendous social and economic pressures that have forced these people into the situations they’re in, and have made them what they are. Not that Unwin subscribes to social determinism, as such: a man so desperately poor as to agree to committing murder for money can nonetheless turn his back on the act, and refuse to do it. But the pressures are there all the same, and Shakespeare is aware of how great they are. In Henry VI Part Two, there is a scene that may at first sight seem extraneous, but, given that it is a part of a series of plays that sets out to depict the state of an entire nation, increasingly seems to me important. In this scene, a poor man claims to have been miraculously cured of blindness. The young king is impressed, but the more worldly-wise Duke of Gloucester isn’t: in questioning this man and his wife, he uncovers their deception, and then orders what seems, to modern audiences at least, the most disproportionate punishment. At this point, the man’s wife has a single line: “Alas! Sir, we did it for pure need.” And this single line casts an entirely new light upon what we have just seen: what had seemed, till now, mainly comic, turns suddenly into something far more poignant. Far from being an extraneous scene, it seems to me absolutely essential in what is, after all, a wider drama depicting the state of the nation.

This book focuses on an element often considered of secondary importance in dramas depicting the rich and the powerful, the kings and the queens, bishops and cardinals, senators and patricians. It focuses on the ordinary populace, the working people, the “poor naked wretches”, and these people are seen here, quite rightly, as more than mere background: as Unwin shows here, Shakespeare depicts them not with contempt or with sentimentality, but as individuals, with the same range of thought and of intelligence and of morality as their supposed betters. It is all presented with a clarity and a level-headedness that I have come to expect of him as a stage director, and I can only hope further books from Unwin will follow. (In particular, a book on interpretations in performance would be particularly fascinating.) While, naturally, I welcome studies by academics, there are, it seems to me, unique insights to be gained from those like Stephen Unwin who have experience of presenting these endlessly absorbing works in performance.

3 responses to this post.

  1. LOL, in the Age of Celebrity, we understand only too well why Shakespeare “grants more space to the rich and powerful”. It never ceases to amaze me how much media space is granted to people who are famous only for being famous, or royal, or rich. It is, presumably, what people are interested in…
    This sounds like a wonderful book. I am long past reading LitCrit about Shakespeare, but this one sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.


  2. Posted by Michael Harvey on November 14, 2022 at 9:01 am

    Very interesting. I must read it.


  3. Hello, old friend! I hope all is well in your world. As always, your blog, which I link to for friends all the time, continues to amaze and inform on the subject of Literature.

    I was thinking about you just now because of another conversation on Diaspora Social Network regarding Dickens. I confessed to those on that thread that my late blooming love for “Boz” was all your doing. 😉

    Stay healthy, happy, and safe!



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