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 eople 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 itizens 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.  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 ommon 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 urderers can justify their crimes by listing the numerous perfidies of Clarence (Richard the Third, 1. ).
Shakespeare’s description of the common people is quite different from that of Machiavelli, who sometimes may underestimate the insight of the commonplace. In his famous The Prince, the book dedicated to Lorenzo, the governor of Florence, Machiavelli declares that “let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what omes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar”. 3]
While in Shakespeare’s plays, the common people may keep silent in order to prove personal safety; but they are seldom easily deceived. During the period of terror, the average common people may choose to keep their mouths shut, just like the scrivener states in Richard the Third: Here’s a good world the while! Who is so gross That cannot see this palpable device? Yet who so bold but says he sees it not? Bad is the world, and all will come to naught, When such ill dealing must be seen in thought. (3. 6. 10-14)
Considering the personal security, the common people would keep silent rather than jumping on the evil bandwagon and echoing the proposal of Duke of Buckingham (Richard the Third, 3. 7). On the other hand, when the sons of Titus are defamed and executed, while the elderly Titus’ pleading resounds, neither the common citizen nor the Tribunes dare to come out in favor of the glorious family.  Only after Lucius has accomplished his revenge and has killed their vicious Emperor, do the Roman citizens burst out in their long-suppressed shout “Lucius, all hail, Rome’s royal emperor! (5. 3).
As an experienced politician, Machiavelli thoroughly understood the weakness of the common people, and hence his description of the common people is not always positive. In The Prince, the definition he gives of the common people is “that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you” (Chapter 17, p89).
On the other hand, for a practical purpose, he does not nderestimate the power of common people. He claims that “one who becomes a prince through the favor of the people ought to keep them friendly, and this he can easily do seeing they only ask not to be oppressed by him. But one who, in opposition to the people, becomes a prince by the favor of the nobles, ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself, and this he may easily do if he takes them under his protection” (The Prince, Chapter 7, p54).
Similarly, Shakespeare also considers the common people’s function valuable, but the difference lies in that — well aware of the ulnerability of the common people, especially under the coercion, Shakespeare at the same time stresses their conscience and sense of justice. In Richard the Third, the citizens display a great concern for the future of the country not only for their own security and benefit but also for the prospect of their motherland.
In Richard the Second, the wise gardener has great sympathy for the innocent queen while condemning the faults of the King, her husband. Towards the end of the same play, the groom of the stable who has no political sensitivity at all manages to isit the dethroned Richard (5. 6), which best illustrates his estimable loyalty and unsophisticated human nature. Even the wicked murderers of humble origin in Richard the Third suffer from self-reproach after committing the bloody killing (1. 4 & 4. 3).
And in Titus Andronicus, the Roman citizens do not forget and sincerely miss the exiled Lucius, as Saturninus once confesses: ‘Tis he the common people love so much, Myself hath often heard them say, When I have walked like a private man, That Lucius’ banishment was wrongfully, And they have wished that Lucius were their emperor. … … Ay, but the citizens favour Lucius, And will revolt from me to succour him. (4. 4. 72-79) At this point, Shakespeare’s description of the common people is to a large extent different from Machiavelli’s.
Are the common people necessarily “vulgar”? Machiavelli tends to believe that they can be sometimes, while Shakespeare’s reply to this question is obviously negative. According to Shakespeare, the common people make the best observers of the political events, which is identical to an ancient Chinese saying which holds “the onlookers see most clearly”. Besides, the conscience and sense of justice hat the common people demonstrate serves as a foil to the impudence of the chameleonic aristocrat.
In Shakespeare’s plays, almost all the winners in the chase for power are those who care for the well-being of the common people, while all the losers ignore that. The common people and their opinions are commonly acknowledged as a major power to counterpoise that of the nobles. In the pursuit of gaining power, the support of the common people becomes the decisive factor that will determine the final result.
Therefore, it is usually unpleasant for one party to find that the other enjoys this dvantage. Naturally, the competitors who get into the inferior position in the power game always turn to the common people for support. In Titus Andronicus, for instance, when Saturninus emphasizes his birthright, Bassianus, the younger son of the late emperor, claims to be the defender of the right of the Romans, hoping to get support from Roman citizens(1. ).
To a monarch, the secret to his reign is to maintain the support of the common group, at least not to turn them against himself. When a king or emperor has absolute control of his state – a situation hard to attain and enerally never lasting long – keeping the loyalty of his subject seems to be of minor importance, that is, with the support of the noble class, the monarch usually has enough power to suppress any potential rebel of the common people.
When a threat approaches, however, either from outside or inside, the support of the common people suddenly turns out to be vital, for the nobles are not always trustworthy. Actually, the latter group has provided enough aspirants as rivals of the monarch. When a king loses both the nobles and the commons, his doom is sealed doom. King Richard the Third is a precise example of such a situation, as he totally neglects the request of the common people.
To such a villain who gets the throne through conspiracy, Machiavelli’s advice should be always in his mind:” it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits” (The Prince, Chapter 8, p50). He understands that to be a rightful king involves the acceptance of the citizens.
But what he brings to his people is nothing but the chain of bloody killing that appears endless, hence depriving them of the sense of security and stability. When he needs the support of public opinion, he finds the only approach he can count on is ignominious (Richard the Third, 3. 7). After killing the Duke of Buckingham, his most helpful assistant, he loses the support of both the noble class and the common people. A single rival uprising from the noble class will find that almost everybody is ready to welcome him.
In Richard the Second, it is Bolingbroke’s courtesy to the common people that arouses the suspicion and repulsion of King Richard the Second. Ourself … … Observed his courtship to the common people, How he did seem to dive into their hearts With humble and familiar courtesy, What reverence he did throw away on slaves, Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles And patient underbearing of his fortune, As ’twere to banish their affects with him. Off goes his bonnet to an oysterwench. A brace of draymen bid God speed him well, And had the tribute of his supple knee With ‘Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends’
As were our England in reversion his, And he our subjects’ next degree in hope. (1. 4) The major mistake of Richard the Second is that he always sways back and forth. He manages to achieve a delicate balance between the nobles and the common people, but eventually loses both. Leading a luxurious life, he is in need of money all the time, which adds a great burden to his people. As the noblemen describe, The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes, And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts. And daily new exactions are devised,
As blanks, benevolences, and I wot not what. But what, a ‘God’s name, doth become of this? (2. 1. 247-52) Vaguely knowing that his people are already overburdened, he turned to John of Gaunt for the huge war fund, by which he plans to appease the commons and weaken the potential power of Bolingbroke. Inevitably, he gets no gratitude from his people but only enrages the banished Bolingbroke. Different from the previous two historical plays, Titus Andronicus is a play of horrible revenge with a Roman background. The common people do not function as a major factor of the horrible plot.
Perhaps Shakespeare did not want to distract his audience from the brutal scenes with such general political knowledge. But being an essential power in all political events, the common people do somewhat influence the plot. When Saturninus decides to seek his revenge on Titus in Act 1, Tamora, the former queen of the Goths, understands the power of the public. Hence her lines: Dissemble all your griefs and discontents. You are but newly planted in your throne; Lest then the people, and patricians too, Upon a just survey take Titus’ part, And so supplant you for ingratitude, (1. 1. 440-44)
Suppose the role of the common people had been excluded from Shakespeare’s consideration, the whole plot of revenge and re-revenges would have finished by the end of Act 1, and the audience would have got no opportunities to enjoy so many insanely cruel acts. Shakespeare’s age was a period of turbulence. The battles fought over the years for the power of the kingdom had not yet fallen into oblivion. The Tudor dynasty was faced with the threat from both outside and inside. The religious conflict, the discordance within the nobility and the struggle with the Pope and Catholic Spain was still going on.
Queen Elizabeth was up against the challenge of maintaining the kingdom united and safe. Shakespeare’s plays precisely demonstrate the principle Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince:” it is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly, otherwise he has no security in adversity” (Chapter 9, p54). But, unlike Machiavelli who considers politics independent of morality and ethnics, Shakespeare emphasizes not only the power but also the virtues and justice of the common people and hence invites the attention of the dominant group to the benefit of gaining the favor of the middle class.