On a street in Rome, some skilled workers, including a carpenter and a cobbler, were celebrating the triumphal procession of Julius Caesar, who had defeated his political rival, Pompey, and Pompey’s two sons, in a civil war. Now Julius Caesar held the power in Rome, and some Roman citizens worried that he wanted to be King. To be King, he would have to do away with the Roman Republic.
Two Roman tribunes named Flavius and Marullus arrived. They were angry at the commoners for celebrating Julius Caesar’s victory.
Flavius said to the commoners, “Get away from here! Go home, you idle creatures, go home! Is this a holiday? Don’t you mechanicals — you laborers — know that you ought not walk on these streets on a work day unless you are wearing work clothes and carrying the tools of your profession?”
He asked one of the laborers, “Tell me, what is your trade?”
“Why, sir, I am a carpenter.”
Marullus said to him, “Where are your leather apron and your ruler? Why are you wearing your best clothing?”
He asked another laborer, “You, sir, what trade do you follow?”
“Truly, sir, compared to a fine workman, I am only, as you would say, a cobbler.”
Marullus misheard him: “A bungler? No doubt. But what trade do you follow?”
The cobbler, who was in a joking mood, replied, “A trade, sir, that I hope I may practice with a safe conscience. I am indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles.”
Marullus, understanding this to mean that the person repaired bad souls, asked again, “What trade do you follow, you knave? You worthless knave, what trade do you follow?”
The cobbler replied, “Sir, please do not be out with me, but if you are out, sir, I can mend you.”
The cobbler smiled, thinking, That was a good joke: “Sir, please do not be out of patience with me, but if you are out of shoes — that is, if your shoes are worn out — sir, I can mend you — that is, I can mend your shoes or I can improve your character.”
Marullus, who did not understand the joke, said, “What do you mean by that? What do you mean by ‘mend me,’ you saucy fellow!”
“Why, sir, I can cobble you.”
Flavius interrupted, “So you are a cobbler, are you?”
“Truly, sir, I make my living by using the awl to pierce holes. I meddle with no tradesman’s matters, nor women’s matters, except with an awl to pierce holes.”
The cobbler smiled, thinking, That is another good joke. I use a tool like an awl to pierce a woman’s hole.
He added, “I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover — that is, repair — them. As proper men as have ever trod upon cowhide have trod upon my handiwork — many men of standing have trod the ground while wearing my shoes.”
Flavius asked, “But why aren’t you working in your shop today? Why are you leading these men about the streets?”
The cobbler joked, “Truly, sir, I am trying to wear out their shoes, to get myself more work. But, indeed, sir, we are taking a holiday today so that we can see Julius Caesar and rejoice in his triumph.”
Marullus said, “What is there to rejoice at? What conquest of foreign foes has he made? What captured enemies has he brought to Rome to be displayed in captive bonds beside his chariot-wheels? You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! You hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome — don’t you remember Pompey? You used to often climb up on walls and battlements, climb up towers and look out windows, and climb chimney-tops, with your infants in your arms, and there you used to sit the entire day, with patient expectation, to see great Pompey pass through the streets of Rome. When you saw his chariot appear, you used to shout all together and make the Tiber River tremble underneath her banks as your shouts echoed along its overhanging riverbanks. And now you put on your best clothing? And now you call this a holiday? And now you strew flowers in the way of the man who comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Caesar defeated and killed Pompey’s two sons. You workmen, go away from here! Run to your houses, fall upon your knees, and pray to the gods to hold back the plague that ought to come to punish this ingratitude.”
Flavius said, “Go, go, good countrymen, and, to expiate this fault of yours, assemble all the poor men of your sort, take them to the banks of the Tiber River, and weep your tears into the river until the lowest part of the stream rises up to the highest riverbanks.”
The commoners departed.
Flavius said to Marullus, “The commoners seem to be moved in the right way — they vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness. You go down that way towards the Capitol — the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill — and I will go this way. If you see any statues decorated with Caesar’s trophies, strip them.”
Marullus asked, “May we do so? You know it is the Feast of Lupercal. Now is when we hold a feast day to honor the fertility god Lupercus. Won’t it be sacrilegious to strip the statues?”
Flavius replied, “It doesn’t matter. Let no statues be hung with Caesar’s trophies — with decorations to honor Julius Caesar. I will go around and drive away the commoners from the streets. You do the same thing when you see many commoners gathered together. We need to restrain these early signs of enthusiasm for Caesar. That will keep him from flying so high above us that we will all feel servile and fearful. If we can pluck some of his feathers now, we can keep him from flying high above us.”
— 1.2 —
In a public place in Rome were standing Julius Caesar, Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife), Brutus, Portia (Brutus’ wife), Mark Antony, Decius Brutus, Cicero, Caius Cassius, and Casca. A great crowd of people, among them a soothsayer (fortune teller), were around them. Trumpets occasionally sounded. Marullus and Flavius now came walking up to the group of people; they had arrived too late to keep the commoners from gathering around Caesar.
Caesar said, “Calpurnia!”
Casca ordered, “Everyone, be quiet. Caesar is speaking.”
Caesar said again, “Calpurnia!”
Calpurnia replied, “Here I am, my lord.”
“Mark Antony will be one of the young men running naked through the streets and touching spectators with leather thongs to celebrate the Feast of Lupercal,” Caesar said, “Make sure that you stand directly in Mark Antony’s way when he runs.”
He then called, “Antony!”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Do not forget when you are running naked through the streets to touch Calpurnia because our wise men say that barren women, when touched in this holy chase, will be cured of the curse of sterility.”
“I shall remember to do so,” Antony replied. “When Caesar says, ‘Do this,’ it will be done.”
“Let us proceed,” Caesar said. “We will observe all the rites.”
The soothsayer in the crowd called, “Caesar!”
“Who is calling me?” Caesar asked.
Casca ordered, “Let all noise stop. Again, be quiet!”
“Who in the press of people is calling my name? I hear a voice, shriller than all the music, crying, ‘Caesar!’ Speak to me. Caesar is ready to listen to you.”
The soothsayer called, “Beware the Ides of March — beware March 15.”
“Which man is saying that?” Caesar asked.
One of Caesar’s friends, Brutus, replied, “A soothsayer tells you to beware the Ides of March.”
“Set him before me; let me see his face.”
“Soothsayer, come from the crowd,” Cassius said. “Look at Caesar.”
“What have you to say to me now?” Caesar asked. “Speak once again.”
“Beware the Ides of March.”
“He is a dreamer,” Caesar said. “Let us leave him. Let us pass him.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: This is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: