Two tribunes, Flavius and Murellus, enter a Roman street, along with various commoners. Flavius and Murellus derisively order the commoners to return home and get back to work: “What, know you not, / Being mechanical, you ought not walk / Upon a labouring day without the sign / Of your profession?” (I.i.2–5). Murellus engages a cobbler in a lengthy inquiry about his profession; misinterpreting the cobbler’s punning replies, Murellus quickly grows angry with him. Flavius interjects to ask why the cobbler is not in his shop working. The cobbler explains that he is taking a holiday from work in order to observe the triumph (a lavish parade celebrating military victory)—he wants to watch Caesar’s procession through the city, which will include the captives won in a recent battle against his archrival Pompey.
Murellus scolds the cobbler and attempts to diminish the significance of Caesar’s victory over Pompey and his consequent triumph. “What conquest brings he home? / What tributaries follow him [Caesar] to Rome / To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?” Murellus asks, suggesting that Caesar’s victory does not merit a triumph since it involves no conquering of a foreign foe to the greater glory of Rome (I.i.31–33). Murellus reminds the commoners of the days when they used to gather to watch and cheer for Pompey’s triumphant returns from battle. Now, however, due to a mere twist of fate, they rush out to celebrate his downfall. Murellus scolds them further for their disloyalty, ordering them to “pray to the gods to intermit the plague / That needs must light on this ingratitude” (I.i.53–54).
The commoners leave, and Flavius instructs Murellus to go to the Capitol, a hill on which rests a temple on whose altars victorious generals offer sacrifice, and remove any crowns placed on statues of Caesar. Flavius adds that he will thin the crowds of commoners observing the triumph and directs Murellus to do likewise, for if they can regulate Caesar’s popular support, they will be able to regulate his power (“These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing / Will make him fly an ordinary pitch” [I.i.71–72]).
Although the play opens with Flavius and Murellus noting the fickle nature of the public’s devotion—the crowd now celebrates Caesar’s defeat of Pompey when once it celebrated Pompey’s victories—loyalty to Caesar nonetheless appears to be growing with exceptional force. Caesar’s power and influence are likewise strong: Flavius and Murellus are later punished for removing the decorations from Caesar’s statues.
It is interesting to note the difference between the manner in which Flavius and Murellus conceive of the cobbler and that in which Shakespeare has created him. The cobbler is a typically Shakespearean character—a host of puns and bawdy references reveal his dexterity with language (“all that I live by is with the awl. I meddle / with no tradesman’s matters, nor women’s matters” [I.i.21–22]). The tribunes, however, preoccupied with class distinctions, view the cobbler as nothing more than a plebeian ruffian. Flavius’s reproach of the cobbler for not having his tools about him on a workday reveals his belief that a laborer can be good for one thing and one thing only: laboring. Murellus similarly assumes the cobbler is stupid, although, ironically, it is Murellus himself who misunderstands the cobbler’s answers to his questions. Murellus is unwilling to interpret the cobbler’s shift in allegiance from Pompey to Caesar as anything but a manifestation of dim-witted forgetfulness.
Flavius and Murellus’s concern about Caesar’s meteoric rise to power reflects English sentiment during the Elizabethan age about the consolidation of power in other parts of Europe. The strengthening of the absolutist monarchies in such sovereignties as France and Spain during the sixteenth century threatened the stability of the somewhat more balanced English political system, which, though it was hardly democratic in the modern sense of the word, at least provided nobles and elected representatives with some means of checking royal authority. Caesar’s ascendance helped to effect Rome’s transition from republic to empire, and Shakespeare’s depiction of the prospect of Caesar’s assumption of dictatorial power can be seen as a comment upon the gradual shift toward centralization of power that was taking place in Europe.
In addition, Shakespeare’s illustration of the fickleness of the Roman public proves particularly relevant to the English political scene of the time. Queen Elizabeth I was nearing the end of her life but had neither produced nor named an heir. Anxiety mounted concerning who her successor would be. People feared that without resort to the established, accepted means of transferring power—passing it down the family line—England might plunge into the sort of chaotic power struggle that had plagued it in the fifteenth century, during the Wars of the Roses. Flavius and Murellus’s interest in controlling the populace lays the groundwork for Brutus’s and Antony’s manipulations of public opinion after Caesar’s death. Shakespeare thus makes it clear that the struggle for power will involve a battle among the leaders to win public favor with displays of bravery and convincing rhetoric. Considering political history in the centuries after Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, especially in the twentieth century, when Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler consolidated their respective regimes by whipping up in the masses the overzealous nationalism that had pervaded nineteenth-century Italy and Germany, the play is remarkably prescient.
An idea about Shakespeare's Julius Caesar...
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I just read Julius Caesar. I liked the play, and I loved Marc Antony's funeral speech. If you're interested, check out my blog on the play:
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