Internet Shakespeare Editions


The nobility and gentry

"There never was a commonwealth, real or imaginary, where citizens were in truth equal in all rights and privileges" (French philosopher Jean Bodin, 1570).

The Nobility*

("gentlemen of the greater sort")

  • The King
  • Dukes
  • Marquesses
  • Earls
  • Viscounts
  • Barons

The Gentry*

("the second sort of gentlemen")

The Commonalty (The sources* for the quotations that follow.)


  1. Nobility in decline?

    The titles and estates held by the nobility were gained either by inheritance or by the gift of the monarch in reward for exceptional service. Also referred to as "lords" or "peers," the nobility had always been a very small and powerful group, but during the 16th-century their influence decreased. (The peerage numbered 49 in 1461 and, after a decline during the Wars of the Roses, still numbered only 55 by 1603.)

    The average income of peers was £5,000 per annum, but this was offset by the enormous expenses required to maintain their dignity (conspicuous consumption): Henry, ninth Earl of Northumberland wrote of his past unthrifty ways with regret:

    Then were my felicities, because I knew no better, hawks, hounds, horses, dice, cards, apparel, and all other riot of expense that follow them; [they] were so far afoot and in excess, as I know not where I was, or what I did, till, out of my means of £3,000 yearly, I had made shift in one year and an half to be £15,000 in debt.

    Some nobles tried to find a way out of such troubles by marrying the heiresses of wealthy merchants (the driving plot of many comedies in the period).

  2. The gentry

    The names of gentry are commonly given the prefix "Master."

    For whoever studieth the laws of the realm, who studieth in the universities, who professeth liberal sciences, and to be short, who can live idly and without manual labour, and will bear the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be called master.

  3. Baronets

    This title was created in 1611 by James I to compensate for the declining respectability of knighthoods, then available for £30 a head. Baronetcies initially fetched £1,000 each, but by 1622 they too had depreciated to bargain basement prices (£250).

  4. Knights

    A non-hereditary title of honour conferred only by the monarch or by his/her commanders in time of war.

  5. Esquires

    The title used by all younger sons of the nobility and anyone with sufficient landed wealth who purchased a coat of arms from the Herald's Office.

  6. Gentlemen

    Esquires and simple gentlemen made up the "lesser gentry," whose ranks were easiest to enter from the middle class. Acquiring a knighthood or entering the hereditary peerage was difficult and very rare, but not impossible where distinction was shown and royal favour gained.

    Shakespeare's father became a gentleman in his later years, complete with the necessary coat of arms.

  7. The sources for these quotations

    The chart is based mainly upon Sir Thomas Smith's De Republica Anglorum (1583).

    • Graves, M. R. and R. H. Silcock. Revolution, Reaction and the Triumph of Conservatism: English History, 1558-1700. Auckland, New Zealand: Longman Paul Ltd., 1984.
    • Joseph, B. L. Shakespeare's Eden, The Commonwealth of England 1558-1629. U.S.A.: Barnes & Noble, 1971.
    • Lerner, R. E., S. Meacham and E. M. Burns, ed. Western Civilizations: Their History and their Culture. New York: Norton, 1988.