In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, what is the purpose of the interchange between Marullus and the commoners?

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The purpose of the interchange between Murellus and the commoners in the opening scene of Julius Caesar is primarily to establish a sense of civil unrest revolving around Julius Caesar. He is loved by the commoners but hated and feared by many of the upper-class Romans because they consider him...

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The purpose of the interchange between Murellus and the commoners in the opening scene of Julius Caesar is primarily to establish a sense of civil unrest revolving around Julius Caesar. He is loved by the commoners but hated and feared by many of the upper-class Romans because they consider him a power-hungry demagogue who aims to become absolute dictator or even king. Shakespeare has chosen to present the confrontation as partly comic by having the Cobbler make Murellus look foolish. The Cobbler equivocates with the tribune in the same way that the Sexton does with the Prince in Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet.

Besides establishing the disorderly and potentially volatile spirit of the times, the opening scene of Julius Caesar quickly captures the attention of the audience and utilizes some of the extras Shakespeare needed to employ for his big, pivotal scene in which Mark Antony's eloquence turns the lower-class Romans against the men who assassinated Caesar.

Shakespeare must have had at least two dozen extras on the premises who were being paid to do nothing more than shout and gesticulate. It is noteworthy that the Cobbler does most of the talking for the Commoners. Shakespeare apparently decided to write two additional scenes for the play in which he could employ these supernumeraries. One is the opening scene in which the tribunes confront the commoners, and the other is the scene in which the riotous mob tears the hapless Cinna the Poet to pieces just because he happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators (III.3).

Although Murellus and Flavius are successful in driving the commoners off the street, we learn later that both of them have been "put to silence." According to a footnote in my edition of the play, this means that they were deprived of their tribuneships and exiled--but they might have been murdered on Caesar's orders. They never appear again in the play and are never mentioned after Act I.2.

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The very opening scene of William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar presents two Roman tribunes, Flavius and Murellus, chastising commoners whom they consider unruly.  Both men are disturbed that the commoners are not dressed in the clothing associated with their jobs. Even more significantly, however, Murellus is offended that the commoners are in the streets to celebrate Caesar, when they once were in the same streets to celebrate Pompey, Caesar’s enemy, who is now dead thanks to Caesar. Murellus obviously admires Pompey and feels contempt for the celebrating commoners:

And do you now put on your best attire? 
And do you now cull out a holiday? 
And do you now strew flowers in his way 
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood? Be gone! 
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees, 
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague 
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

Murellus’s words to the commoners in this scene are significant for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • They are relevant to the theme of disorder, which is a major motif of this play.
  • They imply the different ways in which people in this play perceive Caesar.
  • They imply the ways in which opinions about Caesar can fluctuate even within the same person or persons.
  • They imply the hostility that some people already feel toward Caesar – a hostility that will only grow as the play proceeds.
  • They imply the divisions that already exist within Rome – divisions that will ultimately result in civil war.
  • They contrast with the flattery of the commoners later in the play by Antony.

 

 

 

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Marcellus is irritated at the sight of all these plebs, or commoners, sloping off work for the day to welcome their beloved Caesar home in triumph. Like many Roman aristocrats, he perceives Caesar as a threat to the very existence of the Roman Republic; he genuinely believes that he wants to get rid of the existing system and make himself king, thus turning the people into little more than slaves.

Marcellus's testy exchange with the commoners illustrates the class tensions that exist in Roman society. Caesar is loved and adored by the common people; in their eyes, he can do no wrong. But as we've already seen, the aristocracy are much less enthusiastic about him. Though not all of them are prepared to participate in the subsequent plot to assassinate Caesar, a significant number of them are, and in murdering Caesar they hope to keep the Roman plebs firmly in their place, as Marcellus and his friend Flavius try to do in the opening scene.

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Murellus and Flavius came across commoners having a huge party in the street on a day when they should be at work. They are celebrating because Caesar is returning to the city after having killed Pompey. Murellus especially is upset because the commoners are so wishy-washy--just recently, they had been cheering and supporting Pompey when he was in power. Now that Caesar is in power and coming back to Rome, the citizen are ready to please and celebrate him.

This conversation serves two purposes. First, it shows the fickle and impressionable nature of the commoners, or plebeians. They are willing to support whoever is in power and are easily swayed without much information (which Antony uses to his benefit later). It also shows that some of the higher ranking officials in Rome are not happy with Caesar's triumph over Pompey.

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