Background to Shakespeare by M. M. Badawi (auth.)

By M. M. Badawi (auth.)

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Below man, who combines existence, life, feeling and understanding, are the animals, which have all these qualities except understanding, and below the animals are the plants, which possess existence and life but no sensitivity. At the bottom of the scale is mere existence without life, like metals. Because man combines within himself all the qualities of earthly existence he is often called the little world or microcosm.

A contemporary foreigner was told that 'above three hundred were hanged annually' and that hanging (which in the cases of the more serious offences included disembowelling) was considered more ignoble than beheading. Beheading was the punishment reserved for noblemen who had been convicted of high treason. Hanging took place at Tyburn (where Marble Arch stands now), while the scene of beheading was the Tower. Offenders about to be hanged were taken from their prisons to Tyburn on an open cart with a rope round their necks.

Yet the structure of society which these plays portray is, in its basic features, medieval. Unless it is explained to him, the student is apt to be bewildered, for instance, by the presence of the Pope's Legate and the cardinals; he may not understand why bishops and archbishops keep appearing on the political scene and meddling in political issues, or how it is possible for the crown to be bandied about like a tennis ball from one party to another. These are matters that do not perplex a Western or an English student acquainted with the social and political history of his country, but they tend to be a source of confusion for others.

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