Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547
Roman tribunes Flavius and Marullus spot a group of commoners on the street and chide them for idling on a working day. When Marullus asks one of the men what he does for a living, the cobbler describes himself obliquely as a “mender of bad soles,” which enrages Marullus. The man finally explains that he is a cobbler, repairing the worn-out soles of slippers for a living. The cobbler tells Marullus that he and the other workmen “make holiday, to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.” Marullus is incredulous at their celebration of Caesar, since he has returned to Rome with no tributaries or conquest. Marullus also finds the commoners’ adoration of Caesar inexplicable, as they once loved Pompey, whom Caesar killed and displaced, with equal fervor. Marullus orders the crowd to go home and “pray to the gods to intermit the plague,” likely to befall them for their ingratitude toward Pompey. The commoners depart. Flavius asks Marullus to move toward the Capitol and “disrobe” statues of any decorations or banners in honor of Caesar. When Marullus questions the disrobing, saying that today is the fertility feast of Lupercal in honor of the god Pan, Flavius answers that the acts are necessary to quell both Cesar’s ego and his growing popularity.
On another Roman street, thronged by commoners and senators, Caesar asks his wife, Calpurnia, to stand directly in the way of Mark Antony, who is set to begin the traditional footrace to the Coliseum as part of Lupercal festivities. Since it is believed that a childless, or “barren,” woman will become fertile on being touched by the winner of the race, Caesar instructs Anthony to touch Calpurnia during the race, to which Antony responds:
When Caesar says “do this,” it is perform'd.
A soothsayer calls out to Caesar from the crowd and asks him to “beware the ides of March.” Cesar dismisses the soothsayer as a “dreamer.” As the procession, including Caesar and Antony, leave for the Coliseum, Cassius and Brutus linger behind. Cassius tells Brutus that he has lately noted a new coldness in his manner. Brutus responds that his melancholy is not directed at Cassius but toward himself, as he has been “vexed” recently by thoughts which he dares not share with others.
Cassius hints that he understands and shares Brutus’s “vexations.” Their conversation is interrupted with shouts and a sudden blaring of trumpets from the Coliseum. Brutus says he “fears” the people have chosen Caesar for their king. Cassius says if Brutus fears Caesar’s kingship, he must be opposed to it, to which Brutus replies that even though he loves his friend Caesar, he would not want him to be crowned emperor. Encouraged by Brutus’s ambivalence toward Caesar’s growing power, Cassius goes on to build a case for Caesar’s ordinariness. He recalls Caesar’s physical weakness and his proneness to “fits,” or epilepsy, and wonders aloud why such a feeble man should stride through Rome like “a Colossus.” Brutus tells Cassius that he can understand the subtext of his conversation but wants to discuss it further only at “a time / Both meet to hear and answer such high things.”
Cesar and his retinue pass the stage with Casca. Brutus notes the “angry spot” on Caesar’s brow and how subdued his train appears. Cassius plucks Casca’s sleeve, indicating that he should stay back. Noticing Cassius, Cesar tells Antony he is wary of Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” and sullen disposition and does not want the man around. Cesar exits with his retinue. Casca explains to Brutus and Cassius the reason behind Caesar’s apparent displeasure: he was offered the Crown of Rome thrice and refused it thrice, “every time gentler than the others.” Angered by the crowd’s cheering of his refusal, Caesar “swooned” and suffered an epileptic fit. Casca also informs them that Marullus and Flavius have been executed for dishonoring Caesar's statues. Casca exits, agreeing to dine with Cassius later that evening. Cassius and Brutus agree to meet the next day to discuss the new developments. After Brutus departs, Cassius reveals his plan of forging several letters from the public denouncing Caesar and leaving the letters on Brutus’s doorstep in order to influence Brutus against Caesar.
As thunder and lightning rage in the sky, a breathless Casca enters the scene with a drawn sword. He tells the elderly statesman Cicero that he has never before tonight witnessed a storm so violent that it seems to be “dropping fire,” as if the gods are warring in the heavens. Casca has also seen other strange and “wonderful sights” this night, such as a lion walking past the Capitol. Casca believes the storm and sights are omens foretelling troublesome times. Cicero agrees the signs are strange but says that men will interpret them subjectively, “after their fashion.” He exits.
Cassius enters, claiming the stormy night is “a very pleasing night to honest men.” What Casca interprets as bad omens, Cassius thinks of as signs that mirror the strangeness of a particular man’s ill-deserved power. Casca asks Cassius if he is referring to Caesar. Deflecting the question, Cassius says that in bowing down before one man, Romans have lost their valor. Casca informs Cassius that the Senate plans to crown Caesar king the next day. Cassius says that if such an event were to transpire, he plans to deliver “Cassius from bondage” by using his own dagger to commit suicide. He believes that because Romans are submissive sheep, Caesar may turn into a tyrannical wolf. Thus, it is up to Romans to stop being the kindling, “the trash” that is burnt to “illuminate / So vile a thing as Caesar.” Casca agrees, saying he will support Cassius in all his endeavors to rid Rome of Caesar’s tyranny.
Cinna, a supporter of Cassius, enters the stage. He tells Cassius that their “party” would gain moral validity if it had Brutus’s support. To that end, Cassius gives Cinna three forged letters, purportedly by commoners opposing Caesar, which Cinna is to place in and around Brutus’s house. Cinna exits.
Cassius tells Casca that the letters will surely win Brutus to their cause, since “three parts of him” is theirs already. Casca agrees that Brutus’s support is critical because the public view him as noble, and what would seem “offense” in others is interpreted as “virtue” in Brutus. They leave for Brutus’s house.
The three scenes comprising act 1 of Julius Caesar are particularly significant because of the swift, precise way in which they use rich, figurative language to introduce the plays’ themes, characters, and motifs. In scene 1, the cobbler’s wordplay with Marullus foreshadows the play’s plot. The cobbler describes himself as a “mender of soles,” making a pun involving soles and souls. In this he foreshadows the idea of men attempting to repair or fix the spirit of Rome. The word “cobbler” itself has two meanings: a person who repairs shoes, and a person who “cobbles” things, or puts them together in a haphazard, ramshackle way. Again, the cobbler’s pun sets up a tension between a man’s image (competent, professional) and reality (a bungler), foreshadowing the different ways characters view Caesar. Further, scene 1 reveals the difference in the way Romans and Elizabethans viewed tradespeople. Flavius and Marullus are peremptory with the tradesmen, typifying the supposed attitude of the Roman aristocracy toward plebeians. However, the witty, self-possessed plebeians are very much Elizabethan characters.
Flavius asks Marullus to disrobe Caesar’s statues of banners in order to limit his ego, just as in falconry, a falcon’s feathers are plucked to control how high it flies. The metaphor of Caesar as a soaring falcon whose feathers and wings must be clipped predicts a dark fate for Caesar. However, this is also an example of an anachronism in the play because falconry—the sport of racing falcons—is medieval in origin, and the play is set around 44 BCE. Another example of an anachronism is Cassius’s assertion in scene 3 that he is walking through the storm with his shirt “unbraced,” or unbuttoned. Shirts had not been invented in Caesar’s time.
The play’s recurring motif of warnings and omens makes its first appearance in scene 2, with the soothsayer’s warning to Caesar about the ides of March. In scene 3, the day is dotted with fantastic auguries, some unusual—such as a “bird of the night,” an owl seen howling and shrieking at midday—and others outright supernatural, such as a “slave” whose hand flames like a torch but remains unharmed. These portents foreshadow the importance the supernatural itself will come to play in the plot of Julius Caesar. Cicero’s cryptic assertion that men read signs in “their own fashion” highlights another of the play’s themes: subjectivity and perception.
The first scenes also establish the play’s preoccupation with power and ethics. Corrupted by power, even popular leaders—not just tyrants—can come dangerously close to dictatorship. The centralization of power was a common fear in Elizabethan England, with the powers of Queen Elizabeth I growing at the expense of the House of Commons and the aristocracy. Europe’s move towards absolutist monarchy compounded these fears.