Julius Caesar | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Julius Caesar | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Roman general Julius Caesar is returning home in triumph. He has defeated the general Pompey in war. It's the Feast of Lupercal, a celebratory time. Commoners fill the streets of Rome. Flavius and Marullus, two tribunes (public officials), chide the commoners for being outside doing nothing on a workday. Flavius questions a cobbler, who tells the tribunes everyone is celebrating Caesar.

Marullus becomes angry, calling the people who now admire Caesar ungrateful and senseless. He says that when Pompey was in power and rode by in his chariot, the commoners cheered. Now they're praising Pompey's death.

Flavius sends the commoners home. He tells Marullus to strip the ceremonial decorations and trophies from any public images of Caesar. Marullus asks if they are permitted to do so; Flavius doesn't care. He hopes removing the decorations—and chasing the people from the streets—will help lofty Caesar realize he's only an ordinary man.

Analysis

In the opening scene, Shakespeare doesn't introduce the drama's major players; instead he introduces the everyday working men of Rome. He shows the scope of Caesar's influence at once. Everyone's talking about this heroic (and, judging by Flavius and Marullus's reaction, controversial) leader. But why? What's he really like? Is he a threat? Even before the audience meets Caesar, they're curious. Others' opinions and images of Caesar—as a dictator, as a hero, as a regular man—will become a constant theme. The town, for instance, is filled with icons of Caesar's physical image.

The power of a great leader to bend a crowd to his will, and the strong influence of that crowd, also recur as themes. Flavius's and Marullus's public anger masks a private fear that the people will thoughtlessly worship whoever is in charge. They aren't concerned with morals, honor, or loyalty—which means they'll easily follow a corrupt ruler. And though tribunes and senators can restore order and enforce rules, the working people outnumber them, and the dictatorial leader outranks them all. A leader fresh from a battle victory is especially likely to become a tyrant. His rise to power will be easier if the public worships him.

Flavius speaks directly to this fear at the end of the scene. He voices his worry that if no one reminds Caesar of the limits of his power, Caesar will "keep us all in servile fearfulness." Flavius is willing to defy custom and put himself at risk to stand up to Caesar. He foreshadows the other characters who will take more drastic actions at greater cost.

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