Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare begins with an encounter between some Roman workers and government officials. The time is February 15, 44 B.C. It is the celebration of the Lupercal. In addition, Caesar has returned in triumph over the sons of Pompey.
In Act I, Scene I, the tribunes Marullus and Flavius are watching the streets for civil disorder. The tribunes were responsible for the civil rights of the common people. The two tribunes are not supporters of Caesar.
They resent his victories over another great Roman Pompey, who Caesar chased into Egypt and defeated. Later, the Pompey’s sons challenged Caesar; he defeated them in Spain. Pompey at one time had been a comrade and participant in government with Caesar. Because of disagreements over the government, the two men became enemies. These tribunes were admirers of Pompey.
When the tribunes see the workers out in the streets, they ask the men what their occupations are. One of the men is a cobbler. He appears to have no fear of the officials and challenges Marullus with several puns. The tribune does not find humor in the play on words concerning the cobbler’s occupation.
Marullus repeats his question about why the men are in the streets. The cobbler tells them that they wish to see Caesar and be part of his celebratory parade through the streets of Rome.
This inflames the tribunes. Marullus reminds the men that it has not been that long since Pompey was celebrated for his great victories.
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and window, yea, to chimney tops,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
The tribune further rebukes the commoners for putting on their best clothes, making a holiday, and throwing flowers for Caesar who comes in victory because of Pompey’s defeat and death. He tells them all to go home. They should pray to the gods that a plague does not come down on Rome for all of this terrible ingratitude for Pompey and celebration of his murderer.
After the workers leave, the tribunes discuss what they should do next. They decide to go through the streets and tell people to go home and away from the celebration.
To make Caesar and his supporters think that little has been done to note his victories, the tribunes will take down the flowers and other decorations from the statues of Caesar that line the main roads.
One of the primary purposes of the scene is to indicate that all is not well in Rome. There are secret factions at work to bring down Caesar and prevent him from becoming the Emperor for life of Rome. The Elizabethan audiences would have enjoyed the common man facing off against the government officials and standing his ground with him. This was a good way to begin a serious play.