The Common People in Shakespeare’s Plays

M.A. student

Early Modern Theatre, essay 1 (Revised)

5 November 2003-11-3

In almost all of Shakespeare’s plays concerning political events, common people seem to play a very important role, no matter whether there have any specific roles actually on the stage, or how many such figures appear in the background in the play. Although the stage may be brimful of emperors, kings, Royal members, and noblemen with various shining titles, there is always some occasion and time for the common people to express their own opinions. Even if they are mute or completely absent, the audience may easily recognize their existence. At least in the monarch’s mind, common people constitute a major power that may influence the political situation greatly, as is displayed in the plays Titus Andronicus, King Richard the Second as well as King Richard the Third.

In King Richard the Second and King Richard the Third, several individual scenes are reserved specially for the common civilian to participate in the epic events as the truth-teller. The play King Richard the Second provides a gardener as a messenger, sending the Queen as well as the audience the news of Richard’s failure in the battlefield, rather than depicting a particular scene of the actual battle. However, the introduction of the gardener is by no means solely on account of the structure of the drama. Moreover, he also serves as a wise spectator and the representative of the public opinion. His criticism on the King’s misconduct and the clever analogy between gardening and kingcraft seems quite beyond the knowledge of an average gardener.

……O, what pity is it

That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land

As we this garden! We at time of year

Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,

Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,

With too much riches it confound itself.

Had he done so to great and growing men,

They might have lived to bear, and he to taste,

Their fruits of duty. Superfluous branches

We lop away, that bearing boughs may live.

Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,

Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.[1]

It is quite clear that the gardener serves here as a prolocutor to convey the morale of the play. In view of this special function, the role of the gardener is endowed with a profound insight not necessarily accord with his identity.

Similar instances can also be found in King Richard the Third. The three citizens taking the roles similar to the gardener’s make an analysis of the political situation of the time which is also fairly precise.

For emulation who shall now be near’st

Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not.

O full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester,

And the Queen’s sons and brothers haughty and proud.

And were they to be ruled, and not to rule,

This sickly land might solace as before.[2]

Comparing the citizens in Richard the Third with the gardener in Richard the Second, one difference should be noted, however: the citizens’ position is not as detached as the gardener’s. They are not merely spectators and observers, but describe the political status quo with much concern, thus giving the audience a great sense of involvement.

Truly the hearts of men are full of fear.

You cannot reason almost with a man

That looks not heavily and full of dread. (Richard the Third,2.3.38-40)

In Shakespeare’s time, it was quite reasonable that “the Tudor Myth” prevailed on the English stage, and the emphasis on the notoriety of Richard Gloucester may naturally help prove the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. But through their anxious conversation, another function of the common people can be found as equally significant as the role of spectator and critic, if not more significant. They represent the public voice of the day. This consensus may not be as intelligent or penetrating as the comment of the playwright, but it plays a far more important role in the cruel power game.

It is interesting to find here that Shakespeare attaches much importance to the public opinion, In Shakespeare’s plays, the common people are always well-informed of the latest political trends (much of a miracle without any mass media available), on which their personal opinion is based. Even the murderers can justify their crimes by listing