A Characterization of the Plebs in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

"Drive Away the Vulgar from the Streets"

Term Paper, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. “Home, You Idle Creatures”

3. Funeral of Caesar - Birth of the Mob
3.1 “Be Patient till the Last”
3.2 “You gentle Romans.”
3.3 “We will be satisfied”

4. “Tear Him to Pieces”

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The first associations with William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are generally the main characters Caesar and Brutus and the consequent conflict between loyalty to a friend and the common good. Furthermore there are the conspirators or other important characters known from history, but there is an important “figure” which is more essential than it seems at first sight: the plebs.

A major part of the play is about Brutus' struggle about the common good. In fact he never puts this into concrete terms. “For the good of Rome” (JC 3.3.45) should be the same as ‘for the good of the plebeians’, since they are the biggest group of people living in Rome. What exactly Brutus meant by that stays vague. In contrast to this it is obvious that in the end the plebeians not only lose their beloved Caesar but also the most important thing in a community: peace. Cassius characterizes the plebs “sheep” (JC 1.3.105), “trash” (JC 1.3.108) and “offal” (JC 1.3.109). Nevertheless the plebs are at the same time (evident) reason for the conspiracy and reason for its failure, thus symbols of the ambiguity of the conspirators intentions. Their characteristics are crucial for the process of the tragedy.

In the following chapters I am going to characterize the plebeians on the basis of their development in the course of the play, focusing on the three scenes in which they appear and then subsequently elaborate their attributes.[1] “the fundamental incompatibility between representational politics and the direct participation of the people in political life.”, so the reader is under the impression that there is an incompatibility of interests right at the beginning of the play.

So the carpenter and the cobbler do not submit to the tribune’s will. They do not want to go home, but to “make holiday to see / Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.” (JC 1.1.31-32). This statement annoys the tribunes even more as I will discuss later on. It is remarkable that the people speak for and express themselves. They do not leave the streets, but are even brave enough to mock the ones they are supposed to listen to. Jan H. Bilts clarifies that even more:

Our first glimpse of Caesar’s Rome shows the tribunes, whose ancient office had been established to protect the people against the nobility’s arrogance, now apparently forced to defend the Republic against the people themselves.[2]

Throughout the passage it is obvious that the cobbler is not only the dominant part in the discussion but also a lot more offensive than the carpenter. “[H]e answers the tribunes’ questions with glib puns, vexing evasions, and even threats which taunt both them and their concerns.”[3] The basis of the whole confusion is the choice of words he uses to reply to the first time they ask him about his trade (JC 1.1.19.): “Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am / but as you would say, a cobbler.” (JC 1.1.10).The word ‘cobbler’ has two different meanings: shoemaker, which would be the answer to the tribunes’ question, or bungler. The tribunes only think of the last sense. Maybe because the cobbler uses the expression “as you would say”, which indicates that someone else would say it in a different way. And because Flavius is ‘more important’ than a workman he thinks of himself to be a cut above the cobbler and associates the negative interpretation first. In his mind it is normal to call people like that ‘bungler’; as a consequence he does not grasp the obvious meaning of the word.[4] John Michael Archer points out that “[v]isibly and verbally, the citizen tradesmen of Act 1, Scene 1 are opaque to their own guardians.”[5], so the cobbler is easily able to continue his “game”. He adopts Flavius’ low view of him and has fun misleading and challenging him and Murellus[6]. “And even though they persist in asking about the one [the trade, ‘cobbler’], the tribunes really care only about the other [the political background, ‘bungler’]”[7], which presents the main point of the play: politics and their ambiguity. The cobbler even has the courage to offend the two men in an implicit way by the offer “to mend” and “cobble” them (JC 1.1.16-20).

The carpenter on the other hand is rather reserved. He simply tells Flavius his trade, but also uses the title “sir” (JC 1.1.6) which is used ten more times by the cobbler during the conversation. The mere fact that it is used that frequently makes it sound less respectful. It implies, again, the opposite of what it literally means by putting it into a rather ridiculously context.

But the reason for Murellus’ speech towards the end of Act 1 is not only the rebellious behavior but their lack of loyalty. The people are on their way to celebrate Caesar, the same way they celebrated his rival Pompey before. Murellus seems to be disappointed. Maybe he is even hurt in a personal way and tries to bring them back to reason by illustrating their misbehavior (JC 1.1.33-55). He calls them “blocks”, “stones” and “worse than senseless things” (JC 1.1.36) and also judges their attitude being “cruel” and their hearts being “hard” (JC 1.1.37). He urges personal loyalty and tries to shame them. Athanasios Boulukos describes “the plebeians’ character as the many­headed hydra”[8], which could conceivably be Murellus’ opinion. Flavius does not like this change either and continues to “drive away the vulgar from the streets”(JC 1.1.71) for “[t]hese growing feathers plucked from Caesar's wing will make him fly on an ordinary pitch” (JC 1.1.73-74). They both think that “Caesar’s triumph is unworthy of the people’s rejoicing, not because he is Rome’s enemy (or even the people's), but because he is Pompeys’ and Pompey was their hero.”[9] But the people’s approach changed. They now hail Caesar and want him to be their leader, from this one can infer that every action against him is an action against the people’s will. According to that there are the loyal tribunes compared to the opportunistic plebs.

At this point of the play the plebs seems to have different characters traits: the cobbler representing the confident and rebellious part and the carpenter as the intimidated one, who follows whoever is in power at the moment (which is in this case the cobbler). So this might be the beginning of a civil commotion, but there are still chances to relax the situation. The ‘character plebs’ is still under control but the power struggle between the tribunes and the plebs also suggest that the political situation is not totally clear and the social imbalance might lead to a reorganization of power relations. Altogether the scene prepares the reader “for the mob’s crucial change of sentiment at Caesar’s funeral (by showing the people’s affections and support shifting from Pompey to Caesar).”[10]

3. Funeral of Caesar - Birth of the Mob

After the assassination of Caesar Brutus wants to present the liberation of Rome to the plebs. The following two speeches and the behavior of the people are similar to the first scene, as Christopher Holmes particularizes:

The Roman crowd, initially siding with Caesar, has been redirected by its tribunes to oppose his theatrical coronation, just as the plebeians will be swayed by Brutus and Antony in turn in the forum.[11]

Brutus and Antony use different strategies here and the reaction of the crowd is exemplary for their nature.

3.1 “Be Patient till the Last”

Believing that he did the right thing and supported by the forged letters which pretended to be written by common Romans instead of Cassius (JC 1.3.312-316), Brutus begins his speech with the request to be “patient till the last.” (JC 3.2.12). This illustrates that he is going to speak about an important but at the same time difficult subject. Of course he wants to present Caesar’s assassination as positive and as mandatory as possible in order to convince the common eyes that the popular leader was sacrificed and no butchered. The fact that Brutus himself thinks about this as a stiff subject makes the whole event even more dubious. Brutus addresses the common people by using prose instead of verse. This implies that he might think of them as rather simple minded, something he wants to take advantage of. He addresses the plebs with the famous words “Romans, countrymen and lovers” (JC 3.2.13). This is quite important because he lays stress on the fact that they are “Romans” and “countrymen” first, since this is something they all share and so makes them equal. Another reason is that he is going to justify his deed by a quality which is in his eyes characteristic for a Roman: honor. He wants the people to “[b]elieve me [Brutus] for / mine honour and have respect to mine honour, that you / may believe.” (JC 3.2.14-16). The title ‘Roman’ is also special since it was not used to describe the common people until that point of the play. In the chapters before they are called commoners or simply plebeians (cg. JC 1.3.58, 4.3.186, 5.569) instead. Michael Archer pointes out:


[1] “Home, You Idle Creatures” The first scene is also the first appearance of the plebs in the play. The two tribunes of the plebs Murellus and Flavius encounter certain citizens on the streets, not wearing their traditional work clothing. Instead the people seem to be on their way to an exceedingly event: Caesar’s triumphal procession. A debate between these two groups rises which gives an insight into the conflicts of interest and disputes which dominate the play. “Hence” (JC 1.1.1) is the first word in Julius Caesar and creates the mood of the whole play. It is aggressive, even inimical to the so called “commoners” (stage directions Act 1 Scene 1) and introduces the rigid social hierarchy based on the law of the jungle. Flavius outranks the plebeians, he is a tribune of the plebs, their supposed leader, that is why he thinks he has the right to address them first and in a rude way: “Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!” (JC 1.1.1). He and Murellus clearly do not represent the will of the people in this scene but want them to go by the rules they dictate to these “naughty knave[s]” (JC 1.1.14). Oliver Arnold describes this as

[2] Oliver Arnold, The Third Citizen: Shakespeare's Theatre and the Early Modern House of Commons (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) 146-147.

[3] Jan H. Blits, The End ofthe Ancient Republic: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1982) 22

[4] Blits 24.

[5] John Michael Archer, Citizen Shakespeare: Freemen and Aliens in the Language ofthe Plays (New York: Plagrave Macmillian, 2005) 132.

[6] Cf. Blits 24.

[7] Blits 24.

[8] Athanasios Boulukos, The Cobbler and the Tribunes in Julius Caesar (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2004) 1088

[9] Blits 28.

[10] Blits 34.

[11] Christopher Holmes, “Time for the Plebs in Julius Caesar” Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (2001): 2.1-32 at 4.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


A Characterization of the Plebs in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
"Drive Away the Vulgar from the Streets"
University of Münster  (English Department)
Literatur und Kulturwissenschaft -Shakespeare: The Roman Plays
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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drive, away, vulgar, streets, characterization, plebs, shakespeare’s, julius, caesar
Quote paper
Lisa Blanke (Author), 2012, A Characterization of the Plebs in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/264210


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