Internet Shakespeare Editions


Social order: a chain of status

Membership in the governing class depended upon eligibility to hold office rather than the actual position held; thus, out of from 15 to 20 thousand eligible persons, only about 2500 held offices from the Crown. The ruling elite (nobility and gentry) comprised a mere 2.5% to 5% of the total population of England and Wales.

Society was divided between those who governed (the "gentle") and those who served (the "base" or "knaves"). A mutually interdependent hierarchy was the accepted teaching of the time--though the governors did not always respect those under them.

The next two pages examine hierarchies within these two categories:

The hierarchy within government is illustrated in the section on history.