cover image Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People

Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People

Stephen Unwin. Reaktion, $27.50 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-789-1466-15

Working-class characters are just as crucial to The Bard’s work as “the rich and powerful” according to this sharp study from theater director Unwin (The Well Read Play). Aiming to upend the notion that Shakespeare was a snobbish playwright with contempt for the poor, Unwin makes a case that his depictions of the lower classes are “bursting with life and independence of mind... [and] make a vital contribution to the drama and its underlying purposes.” Unwin divides his survey into sections based on classes—“Servants, Messengers and Slaves” is a consideration of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which servants are depicted as “much more than the bumpkins of reactionary criticism or bad acting.” “Tradesmen and Craftsmen, Labourers and Rebels” makes a convincing case that the depiction of a rebellion in Henry VI, Part 2 wasn’t, as some critics think, a show of Shakespeare’s conservatism. “Soldiers, Sailors and Men at Arms” lays out how Henry VI depicts “the brutal realities of war, where the poor are bullied and exploited by a corrupt and desperately cynical ruling class.” Unwin’s arguments are enlivened by vivid historical context: “With its overcrowded streets, ramshackle housing and deepening class divisions, Jacobean London was a tinder-box for social unrest,” he writes. This original spin on Shakespearean studies delivers. (Sept.)