Understanding a Midsummer Night's Dream: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

By Faith Nostbakken | Go to book overview

3
Social Distinctions:
Royalty, Gentry, and the
Common People

In A Midsummer Nights Dream, groups of characters in Athens are distinguished by their speech, their dress, their habits and occupations, and their social position. Clear differences divide the nobles at court from the craftsmen who seek to entertain the guests at the Athenian wedding. Even in the fairy world where societal norms do not impose the same rigid standards, the king and queen of this enchanted kingdom exercise a measure of power and authority that sets them above and apart from Puck and the other serving fairies. The degrees of separation in the play deliberately remind audiences that there are those who rule and those who are ruled, those who command and those who serve, those with significant privilege and those with much less who aspire, at times, to more than what they have. The “rude mechanicals” indicate, for example, that they hope to make their fortune by enacting their play before the duke's household. And yet although “Pyramus and Thisby” is received in good humor, the vast social and educational gap between the on-stage audience and the artisan performers indicates just how optimistic and even unrealistic are the craftsmen's hopes and aspirations. Shakespeare's nobles and his common people inhabit separate worlds even as the play draws to a close.

The social distinctions in the play raise questions about the structure of the society in which Shakespeare lived and wrote. What was the relationship between the ruler and the ruled? What set the nobility and gentry apart from the common people? How did the different classes or groups interact with one another? What were their hopes and expectations, their fears and frustrations? Answering these questions can illuminate the social interaction in A Midsummer

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