Shakespeare’s audience included all levels of society, ranging from the educated aristocracy to the poor and illiterate “groundlings” who occupied the seats immediately in front of the stage. To appeal to such a heterogeneous group, the playwright created an equally wide roster of characters: royals and nobles, gentry and yeomen, thieves and bawds. Over the past centuries, most critical and audience attention understandably has focused on those characters from the upper class, who speak in sophisticated voices and seem to face issues of greater import. But Shakespeare’s attitude toward the great mass of people in the lower strata of society is also intriguing, for it is a curious amalgam of perspectives. He shows great sympathy for certain individuals of little social status, whom he presents as simple, honest folk standing in sharp relief to more cosmopolitan, powerful individuals who dictate the course of the day-to-day world. Yet when Shakespeare depicts hordes of untutored citizens or peasants trying to act in concert, he usually presents them as not only vulnerable to manipulation, but also potentially violent.
Among those admirable, unpretentious figures Shakespeare offers is the Gardener in Richard II, who appears after the King has been removed from the throne by Henry Bullingbrook, soon to become Henry IV. At first, one of the Gardener’s subordinates questions the meaning of his own work:
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing as in a model our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds …
(III, iv, 40–44)