If you’re sick of the state of politics, you’re in good company—a lot of Shakespeare’s characters were, too. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with terrible kings and queens, princesses and dukes, but we don’t usually talk about the ways that the average citizen is affected by the actions of those characters.
Honestly, a lot of the kingdoms in Shakespeare are totally messed up on an everyday level. I mean, uncontrollable fights in the streets in Romeo and Juliet? Starving people just ‘cause in Coriolanus? What would life have been like for Joe Schmoe in Macbeth’s Scotland? To answer that, here’s a list of the top five worst Shakespearean kingdoms to live in. Imagine what 2020 would have been like in some of these places!
1. Scotland, Macbeth
“The tyrant’s people on both sides do fight” — Siward, Act 5, Scene 7
If you thought the royal family was messed up in Macbeth, you’d be right—but they’re not the only ones suffering! Can you imagine having somebody as controlling and murderous as Macbeth as your king, or Lady Macbeth as the king’s wife? Who knows what kind of decrees they’d try to pass!
Macbeth certainly doesn’t start out as an evil ruler, but by the end, well, let’s just say that no good king would have murdered Macduff’s wife and children. Plus, you never know…could you be considered his next threat? But it’s not just the individual murders—Macbeth’s rule is bloody for everyone in Scotland. He takes the country from civil war at the beginning of the play straight through to war against Malcolm by the end of the play. Seriously, Mack, can’t you let these people get a rest? I guess that wouldn’t be his style. For Macbeth, the more death, the better!
2. Rome, Coriolanus
“Would the nobility lay aside their ruth,
And let me use my sword, I’ll make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves” — Marcius, Act 1, Scene 1
Okay, picture this: there’s a famine, and you and everyone you know are starving. But the whole time, the city actually has the food you need; they’re just making it so expensive that nobody can afford it. Really, Roman Senate? You’d rather all your citizens die of starvation than cheapen the price of grain a little bit? Cool, cool, cool.
So, anyway, you and your friends organize to demand that citizens have some say in the price of grain. Seems fair, right? So, you’re granted five tribunes (basically representatives) to express your interests. But then one of your leaders (Coriolanus) rolls up and just slams you for protesting your own starvation, claiming that you don’t know what goes on in government and you don’t deserve a voice. So now not only are you starving, but you’re also hearing that one of Rome’s “heroes” actively hates you. In fact, he hates having to engage with the public so much that he flips sides and fights a war against Rome. Though the citizens do fight admirably for their rights in this play, it sure couldn’t have been a fun reality to live.
3. Prospero’s Island, The Tempest
“If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly
What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps,
Fill all thy bones with aches” — Prospero Act 1, Scene 2
Usually Shakespeare’s plays are set in real-world locations, like Venice or Rome. But while Prospero and Miranda hail from Milan, it is the unnamed island they live on throughout the play that makes for the worse kingdom.
When they get to the island, Prospero falsely befriends its inhabitants (like Caliban) to learn how to survive there. Then, once he’s gotten enough info, he promptly declares himself the leader (oh, boy, who would have guessed) and uses his magic powers to terrify everyone into obeying him. Then, even though he enslaves people, he actually has the nerve to claim to be benevolent! Those two things do not go together, dude!
It’s not even like he gives anyone the illusion of freedom, either: Prospero continuously threatens them with the terrible pain he can cause with his magic if they don’t do what he wants. I dunno about you, but I’m not really down to have a completely unchecked ruler who takes personal slaves and has magical torturing and weather-changing powers. Next kingdom, please!
4. Verona, Romeo and Juliet
“Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
And made Verona’s ancient citizens
(…) part your canker’d hate” — Prince Escalus Act 1, Scene 1
“A plague on both your houses,” says Mercutio, and you can bet that the rest of Verona agreed! Seriously, can you imagine walking down the street, constantly looking over your shoulder for the next Montague-Capulet brawl? Law enforcement clearly didn’t do a good job of keeping things at bay, either.
Even when Prince Escalus (belatedly) threatens both the Capulets and the Montagues with capital punishment if they don’t chill out, nothing really changes; Mercutio and Tybalt both die within hours of that decree. Not exactly reassuring to the rest of the city. Even though the play is a tragedy, Lord Montague and Lord Capulet’s reconciliation at the end had to be a relief to everyone else.
5. Vienna, Measure for Measure
“I have deliver’d to Lord Angelo,
A man of stricture and firm abstinence,
My absolute power and place here in Vienna” — Duke Vincentio
At the beginning of the play, Vienna is a pretty cool city: the Duke is laid back and people are able to do whatever they want. But then he completely flips his whole vibe and decides that he needs to clean the city up. So, he makes the uptight Angelo the temporary Duke to enforce the laws in his stead. (I guess because he’s too chicken to lead?)
When Angelo gets control, things start to get all bad for the people of Vienna. Not only are people like Claudio condemned to death for sleeping with their fiancées, but previously thriving businesses like Mistress Overdone’s brothel are shut down in accordance with the city’s new morality kick. So, the new government leaves people jobless and interferes with happy relationships. In a matter of hours, Angelo not only uproots the community’s entire way of life, but makes living their old lives criminal. Time to move, Viennans!
This guest post comes courtesy of Emily Jackoway, a Shakespeare fanatic and contributor to NoSweatShakespeare.com – a website dedicated to making Shakespeare easy and accessible to all.