William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar was written for the early seventeenth century English audiences. These audiences usually contained a good percentage of the commoners who appreciated humor even in the tragic plays.
Since this play is based primarily on real events, Shakespeare chose to use the first act of the play to show a contentiousness between the officials of the government and the saucy attitude of the workmen. Shakespeare chose to use the pun as his primary means of humor. The pun is a humorous use of a word or phrase to emphasize or suggest different meanings or words that are alike or sound nearly alike.
The English audience would have especially enjoyed this confrontation because commoners always liked to see the common man stand up to the elected officials and get the best of them. To add injury to insult, Marullus, the more educated high born man, does not understand the wit or play on words of the cobbler.
Act I, Scene I, begins with the tribunes Flavius and Marullus finding several workmen who were taking the day off to attend the ceremonies. The two specific workers that the tribunes engage are a carpenter but mainly a cobbler or a shoe mender.
What are the puns of the cobbler concerning shoes?
A trade, sir, that, I hope, I may use with a safe conscience, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles
The first pun is a play on the words sole/soul. The workman indicating that his job entails fixing the soles of the shoes. He also jabs the tribune by pointing to Marullus’ poor humor and that the cobbler might need to fix the tribune’s bad soul.
Nay, I beseech you, sir, be not out with me; yet, if you
be out, sir, I can mend you.
The cobbler tells the tribune that if he is unhappy with him than he can fix him. This would be an insulting comment implying that the commoner could possibly do anything to help the tribune in any way.
Truly, Sir, all that I live by is with the awl; I meddle
with no tradesman's matters, nor women's matters, but with awl. I am indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them.
The first pun refers to the word awl/all. The awl is a sharp pointed tool used in fixing shoes. He also states that he does not enter into women’s matters but only works with his cobbler’s tool mending broken shoes.
He humorously states that he is a surgeon to old shoes. He sews them up when they need repair. When the shoes are torn or have lost their stitching, the cobbler re-covers them.
Flavius asks the Cobbler why he is not in his workshop.
The workman answers with a pun
Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into
He is making work for himself by having his fellow workmen walk more today to make holes in their shoes. This would give him more shoes to fix.
The tribunes speak angrily to the workmen about their fickleness toward Pompey. At one time, Pompey had been a part of the government. He worked with Caesar. After a falling out between the two, Pompey and Caesar started a civil war. Pompey was killed in Egypt.
The tribunes remind the men that they had once watched Pompey being honored. Now, they are willing to celebrate the man [Caesar] who was responsible for the death of Pompey and his sons.