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Shakespeare, Politics and the People

The eve of the 2016 presidential elections is a good occasion to consult William Shakespeare about politics. Shakespeare often wrote about politics but he usually 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 observations about these fraught relationships, which are as true today as they were both in Elizabethan and Roman times.

Like many of Shakespeare's plays, both of these plays open with scenes of minor characters discussing the themes that follow. In the opening scene of Julius Caesar, Flavius and Marullus berate the ignorant crowds, “…you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,” for cheering Caesar for his conquest over Pompey only a short time after they had been supporting Pompey. 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 killing him. 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 them. This theme of the patricians' distain of plebeians is introduced in Act 1 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.

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.