The language of the commoners in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


1. Introduction

William Shakespeare is the most important playwright of the English Renaissance period. His career bridged the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I. When the play Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599 at the Globe theatre[1], Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for nearly 40 years. She was 66 years old at that time and she, like Caesar, did not have any children. People feared what would happen after her death. Shakespeare commented on this political situation by writing Julius Caesar. Censorship did not allow direct comments on contemporary political affairs.[2]

Julius Caesar is the shortest play by William Shakespeare full of fast action and rhetoric. It takes place in ancient Rome in 44 B.C. It was a time when the empire suffered greatly from a clear division between citizens represented by the senate and the plebeian masses. The people feared that Caesar's power would lead to Roman citizens being slaves. That is why Caesar was assassinated.

This paper will deal with the commoners and their treatment by the tribunes in the opening scene of the play. It will also give an insight into the speeches of Brutus and Antony and their effects on the plebeians in the second scene of the third act.

It is necessary to clarify who the common people are. In the first scene of the play, the commoners are represented by a carpenter and a cobbler. The carpenter only has one line, but his function is of interest. A carpenter is a heavy woodworker who makes the frames for houses and ships. In the medieval period, the guild of carpenters led the Corpus Christi processions and plays. His appearance may suggest that the following play is a dramatic story. The cobbler is a shoemaker who has the most lines of the commoners in the opening scene. In the opening scene the Roman tribunes,Flavius and Murellus, represent the Roman nobility. They detest tyranny and have no respect for the common people. Murellus' denunciation of the commoners as an unthinking and unreliable mob is proven in the third act in the second scene. At first the crowd is in favour of Brutus, however, they are easily persuadable and are later in favour of Antony.

In the third act we encounter other commoners, the plebeians, who are not individualised. Shakespeare did not name them, but gave them numbers ranging from plebeian number one to plebeian number five. These are the ones who actually say something, the others only speak as a group. This underlines the crowd and its mass mentality. The plebeians do not speak much in the play, yet their role is indispensable. They behave collectively, are less concerned with politics , can easily be manipulated and seem to lack wisdom. Furthermore, they are mainly interested in their own personal pleasure which can already be seen in the opening scene of the play. The lack of capability of ruling themselves shows the need for an authority figure. Shakespeare's portrayal of the common people is not flattering at all as they are portrayed as an “unsophisticated mob.”[3] Generally, the commoners are greedy, fun-loving and thoughtless. They are the ones who are influenced by their leaders. And their attitudes and positions clearly change all the time.

After a brief summary of the play, the opening scene will be looked into. In Julius Caesar language is used to disguise feelings and thoughts. It is also used to humiliate people,but also to flatter. In the first scene, language is used to humiliate and to mock the person spoken to. The form of address is one interesting and important aspect that will be discussed. Especially the use of 'you' and 'thou' between the tribunes and the common people is of high interest. Another striking aspect are the philosophical puns which the cobbler uses to mock the tribunes. Puns were very much in fashion in the Elizabethan period and very much enjoyed by the audience. These puns will be discussed consulting the Oxford English Dictionary as well as other more specific dictionaries listed in the bibliography. Later the eulogies of Antony and Brutus will be analysed. The main questions that this paper will try to answer, if at all possible, is how does Antony manage to win the crowd for his cause and opinion? Why does Brutus fail to do so? And how do the plebeians react to each speech?

1.1 The tragedy of Julius Caesar

The play opens with a class conflict scene. Flavius and Murellus meet commoners walking the streets who are not working as they intend to watch Julius Caesar's parade. Caesar defeated the sons of his arch-rival Pompey and this is the reason for the celebration. Flavius and Murellus scold the commoners for neglecting their work and duties. Caesar enters with his entourage as well as Antony, Brutus and Cassius. Caesar was warned by a soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March” but Caesar celebrates his victory and pays no attention to the warning. Caesar's long-time friends, Brutus and Cassius, converse with each other. Brutus' mind has been unsettled as he is concerned and worried that the people of Rome want Caesar to become king as this would be the end of the republic. Cassius mentions Caesar's weak body. Caesar tells Antony about his distrust towards Cassius. When Caesar departs, Casca speaks to Brutus and Cassius and tells them that Caesar was offered the crown three times yet he refused it. Caesar had suffered a sudden feeling of faintness, which shows his weakness. Cassius plots to get Brutus to join his conspiracy against Caesar. Rome then experienced a change in weather as well as bad omens. Brutus finds a forged letter written by Cassius who hopes that it would persuade Brutus to support his plot as Brutus loves the people of Rome and its republic .Yet he fears that a dictator empire would not let the people voice anything. In this letter a fictitious Roman citizen is concerned that Caesar 's gain in power is dangerous. Cassius and his conspirators approach Brutus's house who is already won over by the forged letter. These conspirators then agree to kill Caesar. Cassius also plans to kill Antony, but Brutus disagrees and so he is spared. His death would have brought dishonour to them. Caesar prepares to go to the meeting at the senate, but his wife Calpurnia begs him not to attend the meeting. Nevertheless, he does not listen to her concerns, her nightmares and the bad omens. Calpurnia does succeed in convincing him to stay, but one of the conspirators appears and manages to persuade him to go. While they are on their way, the soothsayer again tries to talk to Caesar, but the attempt fails. A citizen hands Caesar a letter in which he warns him about the conspiracy, but Caesar does not read it. When he arrives at the senate, he is stabbed to death by each man present. As his close friend Brutus also stabbed Caesar he stops to struggle and dies. The conspirators bathe in his blood. Antony appears and weeps over his dead body, but pledges allegiance to Brutus. He shakes hands with the murderers and marks them as guilty. Being Caesar's true friend, he swears to take revenge. Brutus speaks to the crowd to explain Caesar's death. He states that he loved Caesar dearly, but his love for Rome was greater. The power of Caesar posed a threat to Rome and the liberty of its people. Antony enters with the dead body. His speech is sarcastic and questions Brutus' claims. He mentions that Caesar brought glory and wealth to Rome and was so humble to turn down the crown three times. Then he mentions the will, but refuses to read it out at first. After describing Caesar's cruel and malevolent death, he shows the wounds to the crowd and reads the will out. In this will, Caesar gives his money to the Roman people. The crowd is enraged about this murder of such a noble and great man and call Cassius and Brutus traitors. Octavius, Caesar's adopted son, arrives in Rome. Antony, Lepidus and Octavius prepare to fight Brutus and Cassius who are outside the city. The conspirators had been driven into exile and are getting their armies ready to attack. Brutus is mourning and in grief as his beloved wife Portia committed suicide during his absence. During the battle, Cassius's men flee and Brutus' men do not fight effectively. Pindarus is sent by Cassius to observe the progress. He observes how Cassius's best friend Titinus is surrounded by a cheering troop and jumps to the conclusion that he has been captured. Cassius orders Pindarus to kill him,Cassius, and so he dies without knowing that Titinus was actually surrounded by his own men, celebrating their victory. Titinus mourns his dead friend and also commits suicide. Brutus' army loses the battle and he kills himself. He was the only one of the conspirators who actually believed he was doing something good for the benefit of the empire and its people.

2. The tribunes and the commoners

This opening scene introduces the central conflict of the play. It furthermore presents the 'mob' and introduces the theme of not knowing one's right place. Flavius and Murellus, two tribunes, meet commoners in the streets of Rome. These common people, the cobbler and the carpenter, are celebrating Caesar's victory as well as the feast of Lupercal instead of working in their shops much to the discontent of Flavius and Murellus: “ Hence: home you idle Creatures, get you home: Is this a holiday?”[4] 'Creatures' implies contempt as it can be understood as 'wretch'[5]. Flavius' contempt and negative attitude towards the commoners implies “their inferiority as base and vulgar.”[6] The tribunes demand to know why they are not working and why they are not wearing the sign of their profession which was a symbol of their trade. It was actually Elizabethan law to wear the clothes and carry the tools associated with the profession.

Flavius asks the carpenter to “Speake, what Trade art thou?”[7] In order to understand why this is an insulting question and a contemptuous form of address, it is necessary to define 'thou' first. 'Thou' is a

Pronoun of the second person, singular number, denoting the person spoken to; used in contrast with you to show variations in social or emotional status: (1) in addressing relatives or friends affectionately; (2) by masters or superiors when speaking good-humouredly or confidentially to servants or inferiors; (3) in contemptuous or angry speech; (4) in solemn style generally .[8]

Furthermore, the distinction between 'thou' and 'you' is almost lost for most Anglophone people. “ 'You' can be attributed to a borrowing from the Norman French nobility of vous, itself derived from the Latin plural vos, used to address the Roman Emperor in the fourth century AD.”[9] ' You' was used between upper class members as they had the opportunity to address other important people. The poorer people used 'thou' amongst themselves, but used 'you' to their superiors. Murellus and Flavius use it in a contemptuous way. After the carpenter answered the question, Murellus poses the same one to the cobbler: “ You sir, what Trade are you?”[10] Addressing the cobbler with 'sir' can only be understood in an ironic way. Murellus does use the correct non-familiar pronoun 'you', but as it is repeated it may be meant in a scornful manner. It is the frequency of the use of a word in a particular situation that creates an additional meaning of the pronoun.[11] The cobbler introduces himself as a cobbler, but does not answer him plainly which enrages and disturbs him.


[1] Margreta de Grazia, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, p. 106

[2] Greenblatt ,Norton shakespeare, p.222

[3] Ibid, p. 222

[4] Shakespeare, p.675, 1-2

[5] Blake, Shakespeare's Non standard English A Dictionary of his informal language, p. 130

[6] Arden, p. 155

[7] Ibid, p. 675 5

[8] Onions, A Shakespeare glossary, p. 284-285

[9] Freedman, Power and passion in Shakespeare's pronouns, p. 1

[10] Shakespeare, l. 9

[11] Finkenstaedt, You and thou , p. 129

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The language of the commoners in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"
University of Bonn  (Anglistik)
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Shakespeare, Julius, Caesar
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Victoria Milhan (Author), 2010, The language of the commoners in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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