City and country

Although much of The Winter's Tale is set at the court of a king, there is also a significant part set among shepherds, at a sheep-shearing feast.

The importance of wool

The importance of wool in the national economy would be well known to Shakespeare's audience, for the development of sheep-farming had been a growing influence on the English way of life since medieval times. Towns with a licence to export wool and charge taxes (called ‘staples') became extremely prosperous, and the government coffers also benefitted.Sheep farming, photo by Stephen Craven, available through Creative Commons

However, as wool became an increasingly profitable commodity, farmers turned more and more agricultural land over to pasture, hired fewer labourers, and fenced off common land, leading to homelessness and unemployment. By the time of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More had commented that ‘Sheep eat and swallow down the very men themselves.'

The Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale may well have some of his wealth from the gold found with the baby Perdita, but the idea of a prosperous sheep-farmer would still be a familiar one to Shakespeare's audience, even though corn production was beginning to overtake wool as the most profitable venture by the time of James I.

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