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Free Study Guide-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare-Free Booknotes
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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

ACT I, SCENE 1

Summary The scene opens in February of 44 B.C. with the triumphant return of Julius Caesar after his victory over Pompey the Great. The streets of Rome are decorated and full of ordinary citizens wishing to join in the triumphant celebration. Flavius and Marullus, two tribunes, confront some of the citizens, called plebeians, and want to know why they are not at work. Flavius reproaches them as "idle creatures" and tells them to go home. He scornfully reminds them that manual laborers are not supposed to walk around on a working day without their professional apparel and equipment. An exchange follows in which the commoners joke and respond with considerable wit. Marullus is in no mood for their banter; both he and Flavius are jealous of Caesar's popularity and sympathetic to Pompey's causes. Marullus reminds the commoners that not too long ago they gathered in the streets to celebrate Pompey as their leader. He now orders them to return to their homes and repent of their disloyalty. Flavius adds dramatically that they should gather on the banks of the Tiber and shed tears of repentance into the river until its lowest stream rises up to the level of its highest bank. The commoners depart somewhat sheepishly.

Flavius tells Marullus to disrobe all the statues of Caesar that have been adorned with scarves to honor his victory. Marullus thinks this is a bad idea, since the day is also a celebration of the Feast of Lupercal. Flavius is insistent about his orders; he explains that he is certain that Caesar will prove to be a dominating ruler who will "keep us all in servile fearfulness." Flavius adds that he and Marullus must do their duty to prevent such tyranny.

Notes

The brief opening scene is expository, but dramatic. Although Caesar, the protagonist, is not seen in person, he is definitely presented. The common working citizens have gathered to celebrate Caesar's great victory over Pompey; it is obvious that they favor this brave soldier as their leader. Marullus and Flavius, two tribunes, are opposed to Caesar and fear he will become tyrannical in his rule of Rome. Their allegiance still lies with the supporters of Pompey, whom Caesar has just defeated. They, like other of the nobles, have republican sympathies and wish to retain the shared power and responsibility of Senate rule as opposed to the crowning of Caesar as king and dictator of the Roman Empire. The vast celebration of the plebeians over Caesar's military victory frightens Marullus and Flavius and adds to their paranoia. These two men, although not key characters in the play, set in motion the conflict that will dominate the rest of the play.


This opening scene highlights the distance between Roman tribunes and commoners. Even though the tribunes are the representatives of the plebeians and are supposed to safeguard the political interests of the working man, the two groups are not supportive of one another. Through their actions, the tribunes show that they have little or no regard for the commoners, deriding them as "idle creatures," "knaves," "blocks," and "stones." In turn, the commoners show no respect for the tribunes, baiting their leaders with humorous puns and clever word tricks. The scene also reveals the naivete and susceptibility of the commoners, who lack the ability to perceive Caesar's ambition as a threat to their liberties.

The tribunes loudly accuse the commoners of being a fickle multitude and there seems to be truth in their accusations. In the recent past these plebeians have revered Pompey; now they enthusiastically welcome the man who has defeated Pompey and his sons. Marullus tells the commoners to go home and repent of their disloyalty. Afraid of the power of the tribunes, the commoners, who have gathered for a celebration in honor of Caesar, now sheepishly return to their houses. In the very near future of the play, they will show their fickleness again when they cheer Brutus and the conspirators for killing Caesar and then turn their allegiance to Antony. Shakespeare makes it clearly obvious that the commoners are ruled by emotion, rather than by reason. As a result, they are easily stirred up and manipulated, as seen when Antony incites them with his speech at Caesar's funeral.

The vast gap between the tribunes and the commoners is also reflected in the language that they use. The formal blank verse of the patricians (here represented by the tribunes) is a sharp contrast to the colloquial speech of the plebeians (here represented by the common working class). The difference in language is symbolic of the much deeper differences that exist between the two classes and pervade the play.

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