Julius Caesar is one of those figures from Roman history that probably everyone has heard about, either generally or from Shakespeare’s play itself. Shakespeare’s audience might well have thought of him in association with the Tower of London which, according to traditional thinking, was built on the site of a fort built by Julius Caesar during the Roman occupation of Britain. So far as Shakespeare’s overall thematic concerns go, the tragedy falls into an ongoing pattern in his work–ideas concerning social and political order, how should a ruler rule, how should the body politic react when faced with an absolutist ruler, is assassination acceptable, how do you depose a ruler, and so forth.
The opening sub-scene of Act 1 (1-60) could be regarded as rather striking when compared, for example, with 1.1 of, say Richard II which is full of ceremony centered on the king himself. In contrast, Julius Caesar (like Romeo and Juliet, 1.1) begins at the opposite end of the social scale or spectrum. The stage is populated by “certain commoners” chief among whom are a carpenter and a cobbler representing two of the trades most basic to existence (as their speeches reveal, though not without some some punning and quibbling–see the Cobbler referring to himself as a “mender of soles” ). The obvious question to ask is a simple “why?” The answer is equally simple–Shakespeare is always at pains in his plays to demonstrate that social disorder affects every stratum of society, whether that disorder is caused by those at the top, middle or bottom. Here the “commoners” are out on the streets “to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph” (31); that in itself might not seem to point to disorder, but for those with a sense of history it is inherently so, for Caesar’s “triumph” leads to him being offered the absolute rule of the Roman empire together with all that absolute power entails. The two tribunes (Marullus and Flavius) are in the scene to indicate how and why the commoners are “wrong,” namely that Caesar’s triumph is because he has defeated a fellow-Roman, not a common enemy of Rome itself: “And do you now strew flowers in his way / That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?” (50-51). In other words, Caesar is essentially the victor of a civil war or struggle (never a good thing in the minds of Elizabethans who could easily recall such matters as England’s Wars of the Roses). Moreover, ironically, these same commoners had in the past cheered Pompey and his triumphs; in short, the commoners represent the fickleness of the masses easily swayed by whomever happens to be in power currently. As every schoolchild (in England at least) knows the commoners are summed up in the line “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! (35) since every teacher (in England at least) thinks of his or her pupils in such terms!!!