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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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THE STORY

ACT I, SCENE I

The opening scene (1) sets up the central conflict of the play, (2) introduces Caesar, and (3) introduces the citizens of Rome.

(1) THE CENTRAL CONFLICT

Something is amiss. The common people, who should be working, are in their holiday clothes and honoring the man who slaughtered the sons of Pompey. Two Roman officers, Flavius and Marullus, are rebelling against their ruler. Their reasons may or may not be just, but one thing is certain: the natural laws that bind a leader to his people have broken down. The order of the Roman state has been shattered.

The problem is not just political. In Shakespeare's world, life moves according to a divine plan; everyone has a set role to play, and a set relationship to each other. When someone or something disrupts this order it brings the whole structure down. Friend turns against friend. The very heavens are offended, and show their displeasure.

Marullus tells the Commoners to pray to the gods not to send a plague on them:

Pray to the gods to intermit the plague That needs must light on this ingratitude.

Act I, Scene i, lines 57-58

Behind Marullus' words is the belief that supernatural forces watch over us and pass judgment on our behavior. Throughout the play we'll see these forces at work, and learn what happens to people who deny their power.

(2) CAESAR

Caesar must be judged not only by what he says and does but by what others think of him. To the common people, he is a hero; to the two officers, he is a traitor to Rome.

Can we trust the judgment of the people? They seem neither to know nor to care about the man, and will accept anyone as their ruler, so long as he wins battles and gives them a day off from work.

Marullus and Flavius accuse Caesar of seeking unlimited power, but it is the power itself that seems to offend them rather than anything specific Caesar has done with it. No mention is made of Caesar depriving citizens of their civil liberties.



(3) THE CITIZENS OF ROME

Is Rome better off with a representative form of government or with a king? Is the assassination just or unjust? These are questions that cannot be answered without studying the needs and wishes of the common people of Rome. Collectively they are as important a "character" as Cassius, Brutus or Caesar.

If we can judge from the Cobbler (shoemaker), the Commoners like to pun and play. They are happy to have a holiday-whether to celebrate Caesar's return or Pompey's doesn't seem to matter much to them. They seem wrapped up in their own lives, less concerned with political issues than with having a day off from work. What interests the Cobbler, for instance, is the fact that people will be wearing out their shoes and bringing him business.

The people are easily manipulated. One moment they are gaily anticipating the festivities; the next, they are slinking away with shame. Says Marullus:

See, whe'r their basest mettle be not moved; They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness.

Act I, Scene i, lines 64-65

This is the first of many times during the play when people are manipulated by the power of language-the power of words.

Do these people want or deserve a representative form of government? It doesn't seem so, for they lack the intelligence or interest to select rulers to represent them. What concerns them are the trappings of greatness-the pageantry and the glory. They will have their Caesar-whoever he may be. Julius Caesar will be murdered to give these people freedom; but from what we see of them in Scene i, it's questionable whether freedom is what they want or need.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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