Class struggle in Renaissance literature
in Literature and class
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Chapter 3 explores the issue of class relations in the Renaissance. Sir Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum (published in 1583) has an elaborate taxonomy of social ranks from those born to govern down to those who cannot rule ‘and yet they be not altogether neglected’. The classification of social strata was applied to literary texts by George Puttenham, indicating that class and literature were connected by contemporary literary theorists and that writers in Renaissance England certainly had the intellectual tools at their disposal to think about class. The chapter explores the economic prospects and social assumptions of a number of writers, most of whom came from the ‘middling sort’, many of whom felt themselves over-educated given their prospects – one reason why they gravitated towards writing. A number of plays are analysed, including Arden of Faversham, which explores the social changes inaugurated by the Reformation and the availability of cheap land; The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which examines fantasies about work and holiday; and Massinger’s A New Way To Pay Old Debts, which laments the destruction of stable social values and the rise of the unscrupulously wealthy under James I. Edmund Spenser demonstrates an acute sense of class status in the Amoretti; Richard Barnfield represents Lady Pecunia, an allegorical representation of wealth. The chapter concludes with an exploration of the career of John Taylor the water poet, a writer whose work expresses the anxieties of uncertain class status and who fashions himself as someone outside social systems, able to speak truth to power.

Literature and class

From the Peasants' Revolt to the French Revolution

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