Who bears the responsibility for the mob's actions in Julius Caesar?

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gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The mob in Julius Caesar, like any mob anywhere, is ultimately responsible for its own actions. But the play trenchantly explores how skilled orators can manoeuvre a crowd in any way they please. This applies both to Antony and Brutus. Each man delivers an emotionally-charged speech which succeeds in drawing the people to him. It is only Brutus’s misfortune that Antony addresses the crowd after he does, undoing his handiwork – or rather it is the price he has to pay for underestimating Antony.

In a few moments the crowd swing from cheering Brutus to baying for his and the other conspirators’ blood. In their passion they kill an entirely innocent man who simply happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators. This is a frightening example of a crazed mob mentality. Antony can be said to share some of the blame as he incites them, but really their actions are their own.

Shakespeare also gives a telling picture of the crowd – if not quite the mob – in the very first scene of the play. We see the masses gathered to welcome home Caesar after his victory over Pompey. Two Tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, lambast them for their fickleness – first they hailed Pompey, now they hail Pompey’s conqueror. 

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!

O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,

Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft

Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,

To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,

Your infants in your arms, and there have sat

The livelong day, with patient expectation,

To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:

And when you saw his chariot but appear,

Have you not made an universal shout,

That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,

To hear the replication of your sounds

Made in her concave shores?

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! (I.i.32-51)

It seems the crowds just cheer the winning side. Once again, we see how quickly they can change allegiance, without a second thought.

Generally, then, the masses are presented as lacking all reason in this play. Individually, they may show intelligence and wit, like the cobbler who parries the tribunes’ brusque questioning with a series of nimble puns, but as a crowd they are shown to be all too easily led, following the herd instinct, and mere fodder for a skilled manipulator like Antony. As a mob, if not individually, they appear not a little deserving of the scathing contempt that the tribunes heap upon them.