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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)


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Publication details for Professor Andy Wood

Wood, A. (2017). Brave minds and hard hands: work, drama and social relations in the hungry 1590s. In Shakespeare and the politics of commoners: digesting the new social history. Fitter, C. Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press. 84-103.

Author(s) from Durham


This chapter focuses upon a small but significant subgenre of dramatic work produced in the 1590s: a set of plays, including 2 Henry VI and Jack Straw, that represented plebeian rebellion and its causes. Sketching the period’s harrowing conditions for the poor, it brings to these plays the evidence of archives concerning contemporary politics and protest. With rich historical contextualization, it traces in these dramas the sustained protests of poorer commoners, against hunger, social contempt from the elite, and the fate of infinite physical drudgery. It demonstrates the period accuracy of both Shakespeare’s language of plebeian protest, and his presentation of contemporary artisans as a dangerous class, as it tracks the widespread animus against the gentry, the indictment of ruthless economic individualism, the egalitarian thematic, and the late-century nostalgia for life before the Reformation.