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The opening scene highlights the great distance between Roman tribunes and the country's common citizens. Though a tribune's job is to safeguard the interests of the working class, the two groups have lost respect for one another. The tribunes label the commoners as "idle creatures," "knaves", "blocks," and "stones" while the commoners make fun of their leaders with puns and other word tricks. The scene is also of significance because it shows how naive and susceptibile the commoners can be to Caesar and propaganda.
The time is February 15, 44 B.C. It is the Feast of the Lupercal celebrating fertility. Roman citizens line the streets for the footrace which is a part of the festivities. In addition, Julius Caesar’s victories return from the battle defeating the sons of Pompey excites the crowd. In Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, the drama duplicates the actual events leading to the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Recent events include the murder of Pompey by Caesar’s soldiers and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Pompey was a part of the triumvirate that ruled Rome along with Caesar. Pompey and Caesar became enemies which led to Pompey’s downfall. Caesar chased Pompey’s sons into Spain, defeating them as well. Followers of Pompey resent Caesar’s elevation to supreme status based on the blood of Pompey.
The first scenes of many Shakespearean plays serve two purposes. One is to provide the exposition introducing main characters, the setting, and the purpose of the play. The second is to provide humor for the audience. This would engage the audience through laughter and offer a contrast to the seriousness of the play. One of the popular humor tactics was the pun, which is a play on words popular to the Elizabethan audiences.
In Act I, Scene I, several craftsmen are in a street ready to take part in the celebration. Two tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, encounter the citizens. [The tribunes are to protect the rights of the commoners.] Harshly, Flavius asks one of the workmen why they are out in the street instead of working. A cobbler, a maker and mender of shoes, banters with the Marullus.
The tribune asks the cobbler what was his occupation. The workman uses several puns to answer and irritate the tribune. Marullus misunderstands the cobbler. The cobbler tells him that he is a mender of bad soles [a pun on the word souls] indicating that Marullus is not a pleasant guy.
The cobbler further insults the tribune by telling him that he works with a tool called the awl [all]. He does not meddle in the affairs of workers or women. He is a surgeon to old shoes. When they are in danger, I recover [re-cover] them. The cobbler also says that he has the other men out walking around so that they will wear out their shoes so that he will have more work.
Flavius: But wherefore art not in thy shop today?
Why dost thou lead these men about the streets?
Cobbler: 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.
The last statement states the real purpose of the crowd. Both of the tribunes become furious when they hear that the workmen hail Caesar. Flavius and Marullus were strong supporters of Pompey and hate Caesar. Marullus angrily responds.
- First he points out that not too long ago these same men who praise Caesar also applauded Pompey in the streets when he returned to Rome.
- Now they praise the man Caesar who returns in triumph after defeating Pompey and his sons.
- He tells the commoner to return home and pray that no plague comes to Rome because of their ingratitude toward Pompey.
After the commoners go off toward their homes, Flavius and Marullus decide to go through the streets and send other commoners home as well. In addition, they make a fateful decision to go along the streets and take the decorations off of the statues of Caesar that were placed there to honor him.
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