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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 30. Depression of the Labouring Class

Neither traders nor yeomen were to be confounded with the labouring class proper, still a part of the population which Harrison, as well as Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, regarded as proper to be ruled, not to rule others. It has been seen that their condition during the Elizabethan age and the ensuing period cannot be described as one of advance, although the social misery which had resulted from the break-up of the old agrarian system and the widespread substitution of pasture for tillage abated with the practical recovery of arable farming. The labouring classes, generally, remained in a condition of depression, or not far removed from it. Yet they were not altogether ignored in the working of the machinery of church and state, labouring men being occasionally summoned on juries or even chosen to hold office as churchwardens. But, though it would not be impossible to cite exceptions in which human sympathy or humorous insight assert their rights, men and women of this class were usually counted only by heads, and, as individuals, they failed to interest the dramatists, who were content to use them as an obscure background or colourless substratum. It is not just to illustrate the contempt of the Elizabethan drama for the masses either by satirical pictures of mobs and popular rebellions, or by particular phrases “in character” with the personages employing them. But the want of sympathy towards the inarticulate classes with which the dramatists, as a body, are chargeable, must indisputably be regarded as a limitation of the range of their art, which they only accepted to their own disadvantage.