The illustration of that image here is taken from Spenser's pastoral poem, The Shepheard's Calendar.

The Porter in Macbeth lets into Hell a paradoxical figure: "a farmer that hanged himself on th'expectation of plenty*." The price of wheat was unpredictable; in a good season it would fall, and thus those who had saved from the previous season would lose.

Macbeth, 2.3.4-5. Such hoarding of grain was one of the causes of unrest which culminated in the Midlands Revolt of 1607, about the time Shakespeare was writing Macbeth.

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It was increasingly profitable to raise sheep, for wool rather than for mutton. Farms were taken over by landlords, and fenced in so that sheep could graze where wheat had grown*.

A further reason for an increasing number of unemployed ("masterless men") was that farming techniques were becoming more sophisticated, and new technologies were making it less labour-intensive.

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Thousands were thus thrown out of work; the pastoral image* of the shepherd tending his flock concealed a less attractive truth of poverty and unemployment.

Footnotes

  1. Hoarding food

    Macbeth, 2.3.4-5. Such hoarding of grain was one of the causes of unrest which culminated in the Midlands Revolt of 1607, about the time Shakespeare was writing Macbeth.

  2. Obselete labour

    A further reason for an increasing number of unemployed ("masterless men") was that farming techniques were becoming more sophisticated, and new technologies were making it less labour-intensive.