Explanatory Notes for Act 1, Scene 1
From Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
The subject of the play, it must be understood from the beginning, is Marcus Brutus.
The idea of a conspiracy against Caesar's life is shown in the first act as originating in the mind of Cassius on grounds of personal enmity, and as finding acceptance in the mind of Brutus on grounds of concern for the public welfare. The deliberate, conscientious meditation of Brutus on the awful step he contemplates as the means of freeing Rome from tyranny, is contrasted with the ardor and the trickery with which Cassius and
Casca apply themselves to the furtherance of the plot, and chiefly to the securing of Brutus as its leader. The sum and substance of the act is expressed in the last eight lines of the last scene.
Casca. O, he (i.e. Brutus) sits high in all the people's hearts:
And that which would appear offence in us
His countenance, like richest alchemy.
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.
Cas. Him and his worth and our great need of him
You have right well conceited. Let us go,
For it is after midnight; and ere day
We will awake him and be sure of him.
(I, 3, 157-164.)
All the actors in this scene disappear from the play with the end of the scene itself. Tribunes and commoners, they are not personae of the drama at all, but speak their brief parts as types of the social divisions and the political animosities of the Rome of Caesar's time. What the historian would require pages to tell
and explain the poet in a few lines reveals to us as a picture. The commoners are nameless, as they are in the records of history, and have to be distinguished by being numbered; they are witty, good-natured, coarse of speech, incapable of high political principle. But they represent the physical strength of Rome because they are a multitude and will follow devotedly a leader who wins them to his side. Whoever aspires to control Rome must be popular with the commons, and the commons have been won by Caesar. The tribunes stand by the lost cause of Pompey. The
tribunes represent patrician conservatism; they are imperious and full of dignity; their speech is warmed with noble sentiment; they typify Roman patriotism.
Rome. A Street. The scene opens on the feast of the Lupercalia, February 15, in the year 44 B.C. The period of action extends to the battle of Philippi, in the autumn of 42 B.C.
Commoners: common people, tradesmen.
Line 3. being mechanical: being mechanics, workmen.
4, 5. the sign of your profession: the regular clothes and badges of your trades. Shakespeare transfers to Rome the customs of the English guilds, or bands of tradesmen, of his day.
5. what trade art thou? "Of" is omitted, as again in line 9, and as was "to" in line 3.
1-5. Flavius and Marullus would seem in this passage, lines 1-5, to be enforcing a Roman law; but the existence of such a law is an invention of the poet, who perhaps transfers to Rome a usage of his own country. It must be remembered that Shakespeare got his knowledge of history from very limited reading, and had no conception of nice scholarly scruples about mingling features of ancient and modern times. It may be said, generally, that the plays give evidence of wide observation, but not of exact learning.
9. in respect of: in comparison with.
10. a cobbler: a clumsy workman; a "botcher." The word
in Shakespeare's time did not necessarily refer to a mender of
shoes. Marullus therefore repeats his question.
11. directly: without evasion, in a straightforward manner.
13. a mender of bad soles. The Second Commoner is a witty fellow, who evidently delights in plaguing Marullus with his puns. Already he has played upon the double meaning of cobbler; here he does the same with soles (souls), and a moment later he is at it again. Punning was evidently considered a high form of wit in 1600; indeed from its frequent occurrence in Shakespeare's plays and those of his fellow dramatists, it seems to have been a genuine source of amusement to the Elizabethan audience.
14. knave: rascal, rogue.
16. be not out with me: be not at odds or angry with me. Playing upon the word, in the next line the cobbler uses "out" in the sense of "out at the toes."
23. awl. The small, slender tool used by cobblers for making
holes in leather. Here, and again in "recover" two lines below, the commoner is teasing Marullus with word quibbles.
26. proper: handsome, goodly. In The Merchant of Venice Portia says of Falconbridge, "He is a proper man's picture." neat's-leather: ox-hide, cow-hide.
32. in his triumph. This was Caesar's fifth and last triumph, given him in honor of his victory over the sons of Pompey at the battle of Munda in Spain. A Roman "triumph" was a celebration, with processions and religious ceremonies, given to a returning victor.
34. tributaries: persons who pay tribute, dependents. One of the features of a Roman general's "triumph" was the procession of captives, bound to his chariot and dragged through the streets of the capital.
38. Pompey. Three years earlier than this, Caesar had overthrown Pompey at the battle of Pharsalia.
43. pass the streets. Notice throughout the play the frequent omission of prepositions. (See lines 3 and 5 above.)
46. That: so that, — an ellipsis common in Shakespeare.
47. To hear the replication: at hearing the echo.
48. her concave shores: her hollowed, rounded banks. The Romans personified rivers as masculine: the Tiber to them was "Father Tiber"; but writers of Shakespeare's time more frequently thought of rivers as feminine. So in the next scene we find, "The troubled Tiber, chafing with her shores." The poet uses the neuter possessive "its" only ten times in all his works, and it does not occur once in the King James Bible, translated in 1611.
50. cull out: pick out. "Is this the time to choose for a
52. Pompey's blood: Pompey's sons, whom Caesar had defeated in the battle of Munda. One of them, Cnaeus, had been slain.
55. intermit the plague: avert or moderate the pestilence. The fearful plagues which swept over Europe in the Middle Ages, and which lasted well through the seventeenth century, were often regarded as a form, of divine punishment for human sins.
56. needs: of necessity. In "The Merchant" Lorenzo says, "I must needs tell thee all."
60. till the lowest stream, etc.: "till your tears swell the river from the extreme low-water mark to the extreme high-water mark" (Hudson). This sort of exaggeration, or hyperbole, is not uncommon in the plays.
62. metal: spirit, — a favorite word with Shakespeare in this sense.
65. the images. That is, Cassar's statues and busts, which were adorned with "ceremonies," or scarfs and decorations.
68. Lupercal. The Lupercalia was a festival celebrated in Rome on February 15, in honor of Lupercus, a god closely identified with the Greek Pan. From another name of Lupercus, Februus comes our word February.
71. the vulgar: the common people, — the original meaning of the word. (Lat. vulgus. common people.)
74. pitch: height. The figure in these lines is taken from the sport of hawking, or falconry. Removing the scarfs from Caesar's images is thus compared to plucking feathers from the wings of a falcon to prevent its flying too far and too high. (Compare our words high-flyer and high-flown.)
76. servile fearfulness: slavish terror. Exeunt: they go
out, — the plural of exit.
How to cite the explanatory notes and scene questions:
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/julius_1_1.html >.
Scene Questions for Review
1. What is the purpose, in your judgment, of the conflict between the tribunes and the mob at the opening of the play?
2. How does this opening foreshadow events that are to follow?
3. What is there humorous in this scene?
4. Are your sympathies with the tribunes or with the commoners? Why?
5. Why does the poet have the tribunes speak in verse, the commoners in prose?
6. What ideals of Roman citizenship are represented by the tribunes in their tirade against the mob ?
7. Why do you think Shakespeare does not attempt to distinguish the characters of Marullus and Flavius?
8. What is there eloquent and poetic in the speech of Marullus beginning, "Wherefore rejoice"? Which lines of this
speech do you like best?
9. If you were to stage this scene to-day how would you arrange the setting? What action and by-play would you have before Flavius first speaks? During the long speeches of the tribunes?
10. Why not omit this scene altogether? What would be lost? Do you think it is used in modern presentations of Julius Caesar?
Did You Know? ... Unlike many of Shakespeare's other plays, which were printed in quarto form during his lifetime, Julius Caesar seems to have been first published in 1623, in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's works. More on the First Folio...