Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Allen Carroll


This study focuses on representations of commoners as significant characters in a group of English plays from the years 1588-1600. Of primary interest is the ways that these representations convey cultural values. This study looks at seven plays in detail, and takes into consideration the context within which they were written. The composition of the public theater audiences, socioeconomic turbulence, the marginal status of the theater in Elizabethan London, the backgrounds of the playwrights and the origin of many source materials in popular culture are examples of contextual concerns considered herein. The plays discussed are William Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI. the anonymous The Life and Death of Jack Straw. Robert Wilson's The Coblers Prophesie. Robert Greene's A Knack to Know a Knave and George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield. Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, and Anthony Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntinaton.

Perhaps the most striking broad conclusion drawn in this study is that, despite abundant evidence that the theater was one locus of the struggle for control of Elizabethan culture, these plays express conservative values, values that confirm and support the dominant moral, political, social, and economic hierarchies. The plays often appear to have been written to appeal to the prosperous commoners in the audience, those commoners who benefited most from the socioeconomic system. The commoner characters in the plays help convey conservative values, but in two instances, a commoner represents the antithesis of those values, and the idealized representation of them is a gentleman, a figure whose social status was coveted by many prosperous commoners. Whether commoner or gentleman, the commoner-hero represents both intangible, moral virtues and tangible, socioeconomic rewards. This mix creates possibilities for ideological disruption as public theater audiences watched the plays, but none of these plays is subversive. The plays are remarkable, in part, for their support of the reigning forms of social order.

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