On a street in ancient Rome, Flavius and Marullus, two Roman tribunes — judges meant to protect the rights of the people — accost a group of workmen and ask them to name their trades and to explain their absence from work. The first workman answers straight forwardly, but the second workman answers with a spirited string of puns that he is a cobbler and that he and his fellow workmen have gathered to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph over Pompey. Marullus accuses the workmen of forgetting that they are desecrating the great Pompey, whose triumphs they once cheered so enthusiastically. He upbraids them for wanting to honor the man who is celebrating a victory in battle over Pompey's sons, and he commands them to return to their homes to ask forgiveness of the gods for their offensive ingratitude. Flavius orders them to assemble all the commoners they can and take them to the banks of the Tiber and fill it with their tears of remorse for the dishonor they have shown Pompey.
Flavius then tells Marullus to assist him in removing the ceremonial decorations that have been placed on public statues in honor of Caesar's triumph. Marullus questions the propriety of doing so on the day during which the feast of Lupercal is being celebrated, but Flavius says that they must remove the ornaments to prevent Caesar from becoming a godlike tyrant.
Understand the opening scenes of Shakespeare's plays and you understand what follows: The scene has been painted with brilliant strokes. As Julius Caesar opens, Flavius and Marullus, tribunes of Rome, are attempting to reestablish civil order. But it's too little, too late: There is disorder in the streets. The tribunes call upon the commoners to identify themselves in terms of their occupations. In the past, Flavius could recognize a man's status by his dress, but now all the signposts of stability are gone and the world is out of control and dangerous. At first glance, this disorder is attributed to the lower classes who won't wear the signs of their trade and who taunt the tribunes with saucy language full of puns, but while the fickle and dangerous nature of the common Romans is an important theme in later scenes, here the reader is given indications that the real fault lies with the ruling class, which is, after all, responsible for the proper governing of the people.
When Flavius demands, "Is this a holiday?" he is asking whether Caesar's triumph ought to be celebrated. It's a rhetorical question. Flavius thinks poor Romans ought not to celebrate but should "weep [their] tears / Into the channel, till the lowest stream / Do kiss the most exalted shores of all." Caesar, a member of the ruling class, has violently overthrown the government and brought civil strife with him. These issues would have resonated with an audience of the time, able to recall civil disturbances themselves and with a ruler who, by virtue of being a woman, was perceived as less able to rule than a man. (Paradoxically, Elizabeth brought a great deal of peace and stability to England.) In addition, his contemporaries would have recognized that Caesar has overstepped his bounds. Statues of him wearing a crown have been set up before he has been offered the position of ruler, and Flavius and Marullus plan to deface them. Just as Caesar has brought disorder with him, the tribunes contribute to the upheaval by becoming part of the unruly mob themselves.
Why are these statues, erected by supporters of Caesar, set up in the first place? In effect, they are, like modern advertising and political spin doctoring, meant to establish an image of Caesar in the popular imagination. Romans would associate statues with gods and important political figures. Thus Caesar would take on the same associations. In addition, by putting a crown on Caesar before he is actually given the job, the people of Rome are better prepared when it happens. The image already established, Caesar's supporters hope that the event will be more palatable and the transition to power smoother. The act of erecting these statues is part of the process of persuasion and persuasion is a central theme of this play.
But if persuasion is necessary, it is because political factions are vying for power. This splintering of the ruling class means that there is no longer one common vision of what Rome is and what it is to be a Roman. Marullus draws attention to this problem when he returns to Flavius' original question, "Is this a holiday?" As Marullus points out, it is indeed a holiday, the festival of Lupercal. He is concerned that by disrobing the images "deck'd with ceremonies" he will destroy ceremonies meant not only to celebrate Caesar but also a festival that is part of Rome's history, tradition, and religion. Ceremonies and rituals, in both Roman and Elizabethan terms, were means of maintaining social order, of knowing who you were as a group. By destroying that identity, Marullus seems to sense that he will contribute to the destruction of the state. His intuition is correct and foreshadows the battles to come.
mechanical of manual labor or manual laborers.
wherefore for what reason or purpose; why.
triumph in ancient Rome, a procession celebrating the return of a victorious general and his army.
tributaries captive princes who will pay tribute.
Pompey Roman general and one of the triumvirs, along with Caesar and Crassus, defeated by Caesar in 48 BC and later murdered.
vulgar of the great mass of people in general; common; popular.
pitch a term from falconry. A pitch is the highest point of a hawk's flight from which it swoops down on its prey.