Please explain the humor in Act I, Scene i, in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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William Shakespeare wrote his plays for a 16th century audience.  The people who attended the plays were loud and coarse, and they thoroughly expected to be entertained. Consequently, Shakespeare tried to appeal to everyone’s taste by including a variety of events: love, sex, death, blood, gruesome murders, and humor. 

Like everything else, times have changed. What was funny in Shakespeare’s time is not necessarily funny to today’s audiences; however, in 1599, Act 1, Scene I, in Julius Caesar would have been accepted as riotously comical.

Shakespeare employs the pun to amuse his audience.  A pun is a rhetorical word play in which the writer uses a word or phrase to emphasize or suggest its different meanings.  It is also called a play on words.

In Act I, Scene I, the mob is composed of tradesmen who have taken the day off from their work to see Caesar.  Julius Caesar returns from battle where he defeated Pompey's sons.

Two Roman tribunes come upon a group of commoners in the street when they should be working. The commoners’ language is surprisingly impertinent when talking to an official of the government.  The cobbler represents the disdain the lower classes have for the soldiers and the present system.

One of the tribunes asks a man[a shoemaker or mender] what he does for a living. The man answers that he is a cobbler [a shoe maker or mender]. This word can also mean a clumsy bungler.

The tribune does not understand him because he thinks that he is using the second meaning of cobbler. Again, the soldier asks the type of work that the cobbler does. 

  • The cobbler then answers:

A trade, sir, that, I hope, I may use with a safe con-
science, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles.

The cobbler makes a pun using the word soles.  He seems to refer to the bottom of the shoe that might have a hole and need mending; however, he also implies that he would like to repair the souls of the men who oppose Caesar. 

  • The tribune does not get the joke because he thinks that the man is saying “souls.” Again, the tribune angrily asks about the man’s work.

The cobbler requests that the tribune not be angry with him. But if he is angry, he could mend him.  This was dangerous talk for a common man.  Sarcastically, the shoe maker is saying that if the tribune has a bad soul then he would fix it for him.

Finally, the tribune understands what the man’s trade is. He asks the cobbler:  “What do you mean mend me?”

The cobbler describes himself as a surgeon for shoes.  When the shoes are in danger, he re-covers them. Shakespeare is still punning here using re-cover or the other choice, recover.

The shoemaker adds that many good men have walked on his work. This is an ironic remark referring to the soldiers and government who have no respect for the common man and his hard work. 

The tribune asks why the tradesmen are not working today instead of walking in the streets.

Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into
more work. But indeed, sir, we make holiday, to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.

This time the cobbler jokes that he wants the men to walk on their shoes so that he will have more work from their worn out shoes.  In truth, the commoners are out to see Caesar and to celebrate his victories. 

This conversation would have thrilled the Elizabethan audience.   The humor enthralled the audience.


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