Crime and Punishment
English playwright William Shakespeare is considered to be among the most influential writers of all times for several reasons. One of these reasons is that Shakespeare was able to write about timeless subjects that have concerned mankind for centuries. Themes like ambition, justice, jealousy, love, family bonds, political intrigues, revenge, deception, and gender identity are frequent topics in Shakespeare's plays.
Moreover, his dramas are almost always underpinned by topics like transgression, punishment, and retribution. This fact has called the attention of many Shakespeare readers and students, but the playwright's concern with crime and punishment is not gratuitous. In this article we explore the significance of these topics in Shakespeare's work.
Crime and punishment in Shakespeare's work: understanding the historical context
When it comes to understanding the true significance of recurrent themes in some writings, it is often useful to examine the historical context in which writers produced their work. In the case of themes like crime and punishment in Shakespeare's plays, we need to take a detailed look at Elizabethan society.
Shakespeare lived through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This period is known as the Elizabethan era, one of the most prosperous times of English history. Under Tudor rule, the country experience an important economic resurgence. Increased prosperity led to a generalised interest in the arts, particularly in theatre, music, and literature. It was during this period of English history that the first theatres were built, as until that time theatre plays were performed at town squares or at taverns. Iconic playhouses, such as The Globe theatre in London, date back from Elizabethan times. In addition, military battles against the Spanish empire and the colonisation of the Americas caused a revival in national pride and increased interest in all things that were typically English. These factors played an important role in Shakespeare's career as a successful writer.
It is important to note that the judicial system that was in place during Shakespeare's lifetime was significantly different from the one we know today. For the most part, laws had not changed since the medieval era, and although prisons did exist, their use was mostly limited to being spaces were detainees awaited trial. Imprisonment as such was not considered a punishment during the Elizabethan era, and those who committed a crime were subject to hard and often cruel physical punishment. The common belief was that the country was a dangerous place, so stiff punishments were in place with the objective of deterring criminals from wrongdoing and limiting the lawless condition of Elizabethan roads and cities.
We must also understand the fact that Elizabethan society was divided into two classes: the nobility and the commoners. Class divisions were so pervasive that there were different criteria in place when it came to defining crime. Punishment types also varied according to the social class of the culprit, although nobles who committed an infraction were often able to escape punishment by buying their way out of it or by appealing to their ties with the clergy or the monarchy.
During Shakespeare's times, criminal action was divided into three main categories: treason, felonies, and misdemeanors. Treason was by far the most serious of all crimes, and the playwright reflected this fact in several of his plays. There were two types of treason: high treason was any act that could threaten the monarchy, as well as counterfeiting. The punishment was death by hanging, removing the culprit's internal organs, or dismemberment. This was a crime often associated with the upper classes, and possibly, the most famous real-life example of the severity of treason was the execution of Queen Mary, who was sentenced to death by her own sister Queen Elizabeth I on the grounds of treachery. Petty treason involved acts of rebellion in other contexts, such as between husband and wife or master and servant.
Felonies included robbery, theft, witchcraft, and violent acts. These were also punished with death (often by hanging or beheading), although in some cases punishment was less severe.
Misdemeanors were often attributed to the commoners. Some examples included begging, forgery, being in debt, petty theft, adultery, fraud, travelling without a license from the Guild Hall, and even taking bird's eggs. Punishment could include whipping, starvation, burning at the stake, dismemberment, hanging, the pillory, and branding.
Examples of Elizabethan crime and punishment in Shakespeare's writings
Macbeth opens with Thane of Cawdor being accused of treason and sentenced to death without trial. Later on, Lady Macduff affirms before his son that traitors "must be hanged".
In Winter's Tale and The Twelfth Night, the characters mention the practice of boiling a convict in oil or lead.
Drowning is mentioned in The Tempest, and the all-so-common practice of hanging appears in All is Well that Ends Well, Henry IV, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Restrainment at the pillory is mentioned in Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and Two Gentlement of Verona.
Other types of punishment documented in Shakespeare's work include the wheel, stocks, the press, whipping, branding, the wisp, and defacement.