By Peter Hyland
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Additional info for An Introduction to Shakespeare: The Dramatist in His Context
The word 'plague' took on something of the ugliness that 'cancer' has for us today, and sometimes hid the facts of other diseases: death from malnutrition, for example, was common and was often ascribed to the plague. Smallpox too was frequently epidemic; in 1562 the queen herself almost died of it. The crowding that encouraged the spread of disease was also the source of much of the dangerous excitement of Shakespeare's London. The noble, or the fashionable 'gallant', or the respectable citizen who ventured out into the streets joined a vital throng of tradesmen and pedlars, street-boys and apprentices, prostitutes and unemployed soldiers.
In heaven, he hath appointed distinct orders and states of archangels and angels. In earth, he has assigned kings, princes, with other governors under them, all in good and necessary order. The water above is kept and raineth down in due time and season. The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightning, clouds and all birds of the air do keep their order. The earth, trees, seeds, plants, herbs, corn, grass and all manner of beasts keep them in their order. . Every degree of people, in their vocation, calling and office, hath appointed to them their duty and order.
Applied to Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, it makes impossible any dissent from a rigidly-established doctrine and forces us to see the dramatist as the spokesman for a conservative vision of the world, simple-mindedly defending aristocratic, hierarchical values, incapable of any sceptical questioning. Thus Life and Times 43 Ulysses, presenting Tudor doctrine to the Greek leaders, is really Shakespeare reminding his audience of what they are all supposed to believe. We might, however, wish to ask why the Tudor authorities thought it necessary to have such things frequently read out to a captive audience if the audience already took these concepts of order for granted?