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Pandering, Contempt and the Masses

Many of Shakespeare’s plays deal with political intrigue at court between political leaders. However, in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, more than in other plays, the themes address the relationships between political leaders and the masses. Since both plays are set in historic Rome and not in Shakespeare’s England, they can deal with the themes of democracy and the wisdom of the populace to govern themselves through a republican form of representation. And since both plays portray the masses as not up to the job, neither Julius Caesar written during Elizabeth’s reign nor Coriolanus written during James’s, would have gotten Shakespeare into trouble with the Master of Revels.

The theme of the people’s fickleness is introduced in the opening scene of Julius Caesar and them exploited for effect in Act 3. Murellus’s line, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,” is echoed for manipulative purposes by Mark Antony in his eulogy in Act 3, “You are not wood, you are not stones, but men–O now you weep, and I perceive you feel The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.”

The contempt Coriolanus expresses to the citizens of Rome in the opening scene is similar to the angry speech of Murellus in the opening scene of Julius Caesar. While both plays portray the citizens as fickle, a key difference between them is that in Coriolanus the people cherish their democratic authority and want their leaders to pander to them but they fail to make wise decisions. In Julius Caesar, democracy is withering and the people seem to desire a dictator.

 

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate

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Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?

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What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues

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