The Enclosure Acts
When Shakespeare wrote King Lear between 1606 and 1607 he composed it against the backdrop of a great period of economic unrest in England, where among other things, bad harvests, grain shortages, high prices and large levels of unemployment were affecting the general populace. It was in this atmosphere that the enclosure riots of 1607 took place, and Warwickshire, Shakespeare’s native county was among one of the areas largely affected.
The Enclosure Acts were designed to fence and hedge in land in order to allow sheep to pasture. However, in many cases this involved removing people from land which could have been used for ploughing instead. Tensions became so strained that in 1607 the Midlands revolt took place, the biggest of the anti-enclosure riots in King James’s reign, involving over 1,000 people. The reason for such large-scale opposition was to draw attention to the extensive depopulation of the area, which threatened the livelihoods of the rioters.
There had been riots in 1596, but not to the extent of the 1607 revolt. The ‘revolt’ was not directed at people, goods or property however, as most of the protagonists sought only to level the enclosures or to dig them up. It was this type of action which led to them being called levellers or diggers. In June James the VI and I ordered these groups to disperse, yet the people felt they had just cause in protesting. They even stated that if James would take action to reform enclosures they would disperse within six days.  Violence did break out at Newton in Northamptonshire on June 8th 1607 when over 1,000 levellers engaged the army. The army quickly defeated the levellers and some of the prisoners who had been taken were ultimately executed under martial law. As James felt them to be treasonous, some were hung, drawn, and quartered, but he ultimately must have felt that they had a legitimate grievance, because he issued a royal proclamation on 28th June 1607 to look into the reform of depopulation. 
Women also seem to have played a prominent role in the enclosure riots, and there are a couple of important reasons why this was the case. Primarily it was an economic issue that affected them as much as it did men. Secondly, it was believed (wrongly) that women were exempt from some of the legal punishments that men were open to. This led to several cases where women disguised themselves as men, and vice-versa, when they engaged in these riots. 
Shakespeare himself became directly involved in the enclosure dispute in this period. He had purchased a half share in a lease of tithes at Welcombe near Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1614, a man called William Combe proposed to enclose the open fields in this area, so that sheep could pasture there. Despite the obvious depopulation that this would cause he made no objection to it. The reason for this was that he had been assured that his own share of the tithes would remain untouched.  Ultimately though, he had a change of heart, because he finally announced that he could not bear to endure the enclosing of Welcombe.  When looking at a play like King Lear, while Shakespeare invests Lear with an ability to perform social commentary on the oppressed people, his own economic position would have been closer to landed classes who were able to make a substantial profit from enclosures. 
The disputes over enclosures feature more prominently in Shakespeare’s plays that one might think. They are dealt with in detail in 2 Henry VI, and in the pastoral play As You Like It, which takes place in the forest of Arden.The character whom Edgar disguises himself as in King Lear, Poor Tom, would have been considered as one of the beggars or vagabonds wandering the land as a result of the depopulating effect of enclosures. Finally, in the following year, Shakespeare dealt with the grain shortages in Coriolanus, which was influenced greatly by the effects of the summer of 1607.
1. John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development
(London, 1983), p. 175 Return to text
2. Steve Hindle, ‘Crime and Popular Protest’, in, Coward, Barry, Ed., A Companion to Stuart Britain (Oxford, 2003), p. 130 Return to text
4. Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford, 1988), p. 92 Return to text
5. Op. Cit.,
p. 92. For more on Shakespeare’s personal involvement with the enclosure dispute see: Eccles, M., Shakespeare in Warwickshire
(Madison, 1961) pp. 104, 136-8, and, Chambers, E. K., William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems
(2Vols., Oxford, 1963), II, pp. 144-52. Return to text