Politics and the People
Shakespeare often wrote about politics but most often he dealt with political infighting at court. Two of his Roman plays, however, deal specifically with politicians' relationship with the people, the fickle masses. Julius Caesar and Coriolanus offer interesting observations about these fraught relationships, which are as true today as they were both in Elizabethan and Roman times. In both plays, the masses are similar but the politicians are starkly different.
Like many of Shakespeare's plays, both plays open with scenes of minor characters in dialogues that foreshadow the themes that follow. For example, in the opening scene of Julius Caesar, the minor characters Flavius and Murullus, who shortly thereafter die, berate the ignorant crowds as, “…you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,” for cheering Caesar in his conquest over Pompey who, only a short time before, was their hero. This foreshadows the climactic speeches in Act 3, by Brutus and Mark Antony. First, Brutus persuades the citizens who are angry about the assassination of Caesar that the ambitious Caesar deserved to die and that Brutus and his co-conspirators were worthy of being honored for saving Rome from a dictator. Then, within moments, Mark Antony, in a masterpiece of rhetorical persuasion, reverses the crowd's convictions and convinces them that Caesar loved the people and that Brutus and his co-conspirators deserved to die. Both Brutus and Mark Antony understood how malleable and fickle the masses could be. They understood the need to ingratiate themselves to the people. Both politicians possessed the rhetorical skills to move the masses.
Coriolanus, on the other hand, abhorred the masses and would not stoop to please or persuade them. This theme of the patricians' distain of plebeians is introduced in first scene of Coriolanus by minor characters. The citizens are in near revolt against the wealthy classes of Rome for surfeiting in food while the poor starve. Their complaint is an early Shakespeare version of today's argument against the top one percent. The patrician's response, in the voice of Menenius Agrippa, is the metaphorical equivalent of today's trickle-down theory of economics. This opening foreshadows Coriolanus's later speech in which he is persuaded by his mother and supporters to stoop to the people to win their support. His sense of entitlement and superiority combined with his contempt for the “common cry of curs, whose breath I hate,” ultimately led to his downfall.
For another take on the subject of Shakespeare and politics read Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election in the New York Times (October 8, 2016), which views of this election through one of Shakespeare's English history plays, Richard III.