Time for the Plebs in Julius Caesar
Christopher Holmes
McGill University

Holmes, Christopher. "Time for the Plebs in Julius Caesar." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 2.1-32 <URL:

Cicero: Indeed it is a strange-disposed time.
But men may construe things after their fashion
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves. [1]

  1. Cicero is right: time is strange-disposed indeed in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Calendars are not the only source of confusion within this Roman world, and the recurring ambiguities and misapprehensions that occur throughout make Cicero's pithy remarks about interpretation emblematic for the whole play. [2] But dates and their observances pose particular problems in Julius Caesar, both for characters within the play and for interpreters of it. This "strange-disposed time" is construed in so many different ways that it threatens the very idea of temporal organization itself. This need not have been Shakespeare's "purpose," or even the purpose of the play; it is unquestionably one of its effects. The time in Rome, as Hamlet would say, is out of joint. But who is trying to set it right?

  2. Putting the question that way, of course, begs the question of what the "right" ordering of time is or should be, and in a larger sense what right order is. Elias Canetti makes the point succinctly: "one might say that the regulation of time is the primary attribute of all government. A new power which wants to assert itself must also enforce a new chronology." [3] As a generalization, this is undoubtedly true, and encourages us to look to the patrician factions as embodying alternative temporal orders (in several senses). Julius Caesar certainly does dramatize the competing claims of republic and empire, played out in part as a struggle to control the names and significance of days and times. But the social regulation of time is by no means always a top-down affair. The play can be read and performed in ways that bring out a plebeian account of temporal order, as I hope to demonstrate through a reading of the first and last scenes in which the plebs appear: the conflict with the Tribunes, with which the play opens, and the altercation with Cinna the Poet. The plebs in Julius Caesar have, on the whole, received harsh treatment in Shakespeare studies, and their treatment of Cinna has become a touchstone for discussions of Shakespeare's attitudes towards the common people. What happens to Cinna, however, is not self-evident, nor is it necessarily mindless mob violence. Taking seriously the possibility that the plebs are players in their own right in the struggles for temporal order might profoundly disturb the fashion in which we construe Julius Caesar.

  3. For Plutarch, the man who puts time back into joint is Caesar himself. In The Life of Julius Caesar, Plutarch praises the implementation of the Julian calendar as Caesar's only successful social reform: it was "a great commodity unto all men . . . an excellent and perfect calendar, more exactly calculated than any other that was before; the which the Romans do use until this present day, and do nothing err as others in the difference of time." [4] Plutarch goes on to emphasize the political and social consequences of the calendars, both old and new. In the old calendar, an intercalary month of 22 or 23 days called Mercedonius was inserted after the Festival of Terminalia (23 February) in every other year or as needed. This brought the average length of the Roman year from 355 to 366 days, so that it much more closely approximated the tropical year. This intercalation was designed to halt the drift of holidays through the year, which resulted in "such incertainty and alteration of the month and times that the sacrifices and yearly feasts came by little and little to seasons contrary for the purpose they were ordained." However, this "weak remedy" made the calendar appear to be subject to the whims of Rome's religious leaders: "of the Romans themselves, only the priests understood it. And therefore, when they listed, they suddenly (no man being able to control them) did thrust in a month above their ordinary number." [5]

  4. The goal of the Julian calendar was, for Plutarch, "to take away all confusion of time." While it is hardly surprising that a historian would praise calendar reform, not every Roman agreed. Indeed, Caesar's political enemies considered calendar reform to be another egregious example of his ambition to rule: "But his enemies, notwithstanding, that envied his greatness did not stick to find fault withal. As Cicero the orator, when one said: 'Tomorrow the star Lyra will rise,' 'Yea,' said he, 'at the commandment of Caesar' - as if men were compelled to say and think by Caesar's edict." And so the lines of conflict are clearly established: the calendar, old and new alike, was seen to be a political tool, strategically manipulated by ruling elites.

  5. As most Elizabethans would have known, however, the Julian calendar did not succeed in taking away all confusion of time. As Sigurd Burckhardt convincingly argues, in 1599 Caesar's calendar reform would have resonated with the 1582 decree of the Gregorian calendar: "at the turn of the century . . . a situation existed in Europe exactly analogous to that of Rome in 44 B.C. It was a time of confusion and uncertainty, when the most basic category by which men order their experience seemed to have become unstable and untrustworthy, subject to arbitrary political manipulation." [6] It is worth emphasizing that Burckhardt, unlike Plutarch, does not consider the Julian calendar to be a perfectly accurate system of measuring natural processes. Burckhardt's remarks about the competing political systems are particularly appropriate in evaluating the competing calendars, both in classical Rome and in early modern Europe: "Measured by Caesar's time, the Caesarean system is not a general wrong but a true order, however it may look measured by another time. The natural order cannot be known, or at least not be known certainly enough to legitimize the murder of Caesar in the classical style" (19). For Burckhardt, Brutus is guilty only of an anachronism, not of embracing an inherently wrong political philosophy: the New Style has replaced the Old, and Brutus has simply failed to move with the times.

  6. A much more Plutarchian view of the new calendar is advanced in Steve Sohmer's recent study of Julius Caesar. [7] Sohmer argues that an English audience in 1599 would have felt that the refusal to accept the Gregorian calendar was "absurd . . . degrading, humiliating, scandalous, mortifying. It was tyranny" (23). No doubt some people did feel this way, especially astronomers, computists, and recusants. But there is little evidence of a widespread English preference for the Gregorian calendar. [8] The Gregorian calendar improves on the Julian only in its measurement of the year and its calculation of leap years. (It was not even the most astronomically correct calendar proposed in the sixteenth century: Joseph Justus Scaliger's system of Julian days is more accurate, and is still the system used by astronomers today.) Even competent astronomers could disagree, and they were well aware that many of the issues involved in reforming the calendar were theological and social rather than scientific; as Johannes Kepler famously remarked, "Easter is a feast and not a planet. You do not determine it to days, hours, minutes and seconds." [9]

  7. The significance of the Gregorian calendar to an Elizabethan audience was not only that it offered (or demanded) a choice between two mutually incompatible calendars. To be sure, a great deal was written advocating the use of one or the other, or which elements of the new calendar should be adopted. But there is also an enormous body of literature denouncing both the English and the Catholic calendars. (One thinks, for instance, of all the Sabbatarian texts.) The English calendar was far from stable throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulting in confusion and conflict over how days were to be observed. [10] One possible consequence is the recognition that every calendar is, fundamentally, as much a product of historical circumstance and human custom as it is a measurement of nature. Getting the day "right," then, is meaningful only within a consensual system.

  8. In Julius Caesar, disagreement over days and their interpretation does, in part, divide along political lines between the patrician factions. On the morning of the assassination, Brutus does not know what time it is; indeed, he does not know what day it is:

    Brutus: Is not tomorrow, boy, the first of March?
    Lucius: I know not, sir.
    Brutus: Look in the calendar, and bring me word. (2.1.40-42)

    When Lucius returns, he informs Brutus that it is, in fact, the ides of March. Caesar's time, authoritatively printed in the calendar, has triumphed over the archaic oral proclamation of the kalends by the priesthood, just as the Caesarian style of politics has triumphed over the Republican.

  9. But are these two competing patrician orderings of time the only ones in Julius Caesar? This is the question pointedly raised at the very outset of the play by the tribune Flavius to the commoners:

    Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!
    Is this a holiday? What, know you not
    (Being mechanical) you ought not walk
    Upon a laboring day, without the sign Of your profession? (1.1.1-5)

    In the torturous punning exchange with the Cobbler which follows, it is at least established that the commoners "make holiday to see Caesar, and to rejoice in his triumph" (30-31). Murellus scolds them for their fickleness: those who once embraced Pompey now "cull out a holiday" for Caesar. Murellus orders them home, and, when the crowd disperses, concludes from their silence that they are "tongue-tied in their guiltiness" (62). For the tribunes, time is clearly political and factional. Supporters of Pompey, or at least opponents of Caesar's ambitions, they attempt to block any holiday observances made in Caesar's honour; for their pains, they themselves will be "put to silence" (1.2.285). Their view of the crowd, moreover, is shared by the patricians in the play: the commoners are fickle and easily manipulated, audiences for whom state pageantry is performed rather than actors in their own right. And so the crowd has almost universally been understood by commentators on Julius Caesar. 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.

  10. What immediately complicates this straightforward account of the events in Julius Caesar's opening scene is that it is, in fact, a holiday: this is the feast of Lupercalia. The choice of this date for this encounter was Shakespeare's, as are the particulars of the disagreement between the tribunes and the commons, significantly altered from Plutarch. [11] As Naomi Liebler demonstrates, what Lupercalia meant was deliberately manipulated in 44 B.C.E. by Caesar himself, as the prehistorical rites of purgation and fertility held in February and associated with Romulus and the founding of the republic were appropriated for political ends: "the ancient, sacral, mythic center symbolized by the Lupercalia, the root definition of Roman civilization, has collapsed into a redefinition of Rome 'founded' by Julius Caesar, whose appropriation is, in turn, challenged by the tribunes and the conspirators" (91). What the tribunes are criticizing, then, is not the holiday deportment of the commoners, but their understanding of Lupercalia as a civic celebration of Caesar's military triumph rather than as the sacred (and Republican) ritual sacrifice that corresponds with the expulsion of a mock-king.

  11. If the goal of the Tribunes is to arrange a counter-demonstration that opposes Caesar's appropriation of Lupercalia, as Alan Sinfield convincingly argues, [12] why do they criticize the commoners for culling out a holiday, for idling in their Sunday best when they should be labouring in their prescribed work clothes? Within the Rome represented in the play, Lupercalia has become a palimpsest of holidays-traditional fertility rites, the founding of Rome, Caesar's military triumph, and Caesar's staged coronation-an overlapping bricolage of incompatible ceremonial goals which allows for innovation in observance. As a result, cultural uncertainty rules the day, reflecting, as Rene Girard argues, a crisis of order in which the fundamental alteration of festive and non-festive time has been collapsed, resulting in social undifferentiation. [13]

  12. But the opening encounter between tribunes and commoners is further complicated by its particular resonance not in Shakespeare's Rome but in early modern England. Even if the argument about working and holiday time does not specifically echo the Reformation transformation of many festival days into working days in 1536, as Liebler suggests, it certainly resonates with Sabbatarian literature at the turn of the sixteenth century, and "emerges as part of a deeper contestation of the economic matrix of the political balances at stake in Rome and the roles of the plebs (their autonomy vs. their submission) in sustaining class divisions" (92). To which I would add, at stake in London, too. For, as Richard Wilson points out, just as Caesar appropriates a public feast for private purposes, the Tudor monarchs reformed the Shoemaker's Shrovetide football into foot-races. [14] What is contested in the definition of holy days and holidays, both in the Rome represented in Julius Caesar and in early modern culture, is the nature of authority and the legitimacy of popular observances of days and times.

  13. Julius Caesar opens, then, not only on a day being appropriated in the struggle between patrician factions, but also with a dispute within the Roman commoners and within the London commons about the kind of day this is. Does the play--does Shakespeare--take a side in this latter argument? For Wilson, the answer is an unqualified yes: what we are watching is a clash between early modern mechanicals and Sabbatarian Puritans like the London Aldermen who complained about the theatres' encouragement of idleness, and if "working men were present to hear the beginning of Julius Caesar and stayed despite it, the implication was clear that they had no business to be there." [15] The opening of the play, then, "can be interpreted . . . as a manoeuvre in the campaign to legitimise the Shakespearean stage and dissociate it from the subversiveness of London's artisanal subculture" (47). And the elite authority of the poet would displace the demotic traditions of dance, mumming, impromptu clowning, and jigs.

  14. In fact, Thomas Platter's description of the jig performed at the end of Julius Caesar in 1599 is clear evidence that the play in performance was not the kind of controlled, text-centred elite drama that Wilson argues is announced in its opening scene. It does not anticipate the suppression of jigs, and may indeed be a manifestation of resistance within Shakespeare's commercial theatre to the segregation of audiences and performance traditions. We might be better served by adopting Robert Weimann's notions of "bifold dramaturgy" to account for the several different meanings being staged in the opening of Julius Caesar, in which the anachronistic London cobbler displays almost all of what Weimann includes within the category of "platea occasions": wordplay, impertinency, misrule, and anachronistic comedy. [16] Bifold dramaturgy also helps to explain how references to multiple calendars--both within Rome and within England--can be intelligibly understood simultaneously, as they perform both "referential functions" within the Roman world and "performant functions" within an Elizabethan theatre (Author's 105-07). As Naomi Liebler says of the holidays in the play, an audience receives them "on, as it were, a two-tiered stage." [17] And what the commoners actually do in performance is exit silently, which may not have looked anything like the tongue-tied "guiltiness" that Flavius offers as an interpretation: it is easy to imagine the saucy cobbler's physical reaction as anything but reverential, exposing the Tribunes as anachronisms themselves, out of step with traditional popular culture.

  15. Julius Caesar affords an opportunity to test Weimann's claim that rethinking our understanding of the modes of legitimation and authorization will affect "our reading of the plays both as brilliant artifacts and as sites of cultural communication and politics" (417). This is especially true of another scene in the play, one which has not given most commentators much interpretive difficulty, although it has proven rather more of a concern in performance. The scene is 3.3, the encounter of the plebeians with Cinna the poet. Plutarch describes the event in The Life of Julius Caesar and in The Life of Marcus Brutus, but Shakespeare changes both the day and time at which this happens, and also makes what was a genuine case of mistaken identity into something rather different. [18]

  16. There is virtually no disagreement among critics about what happens in this scene: Cinna is brutally murdered by the plebeians, stirred up to vengeance against the conspirators by Antony's funeral oration. David Daniell's 1998 Arden edition of Julius Caesar is perhaps extreme in the vehemence with which it advocates this interpretation, but it very much reflects the mainstream of Shakespeare studies in viewing what the plebeians do to Cinna as senseless murder at the hands of the mob. Daniell's notes provide a sustained argument about both what is going on in this scene and how we are meant to respond to it. He informs the reader that "There are at the heart of the play two frenzied gang-attacks. The first killed Caesar, who was said to have some guilt; the second victim is innocent" (3.3.28 n.). Moreover, he makes it clear where our sympathies are supposed to lie: "The mildness of this poet's wordplay, and the fact that he is both answering and proceeding directly, are charming. . . . He is thus appallingly out of key with the thugs attacking him" (3.3.19 n.). It is the ending of the scene, however, which attracts the most sustained commentary:

    Cinna: I am not Cinna the conspirator.
    4 Plebeian: It is no matter, his name's Cinna. Pluck but
    his name out of his heart and turn him going.
    3 Plebeian: Tear him, tear him! [They set upon him.] (3.3.32-35)

    33-4 Pluck . . . heart a violent physical action for what has been metaphorical before {. . . .} As elsewhere in Shakespeare, disturbing imagery rises into horrific action.
    34 turn him going not so much 'send him away' as 'send him where he was going', i.e. to join the mangled Caesar.
    35 Tear him Prudish staging should not conceal the horror of the action in the imperative verb.

    While grounded in the authority of the printed text, all of Daniell's commentary is clearly intended to ensure that Cinna is murdered in production. To that end, the stage directions are particularly important: neither "they set upon him" nor "dragging off Cinna" appears in the First Folio, and they strongly influence how we understand the action of the scene. In many productions, of course, the scene is either cut entirely, or Cinna is not killed (as in John Philip Kemble's 1812 production at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, in which Cinna runs on and off the stage, speaking no words). [19] I would wholeheartedly support Daniell's insistence that this scene be performed in its entirety, if that were all that he is advocating. But Daniell goes further, insisting that Cinna is murdered, and that the Plebeians are a mindless mob, devoid of any intelligible agenda. On this point there has been little dissent, even by commentators such as Annabel Patterson and Alan Sinfield whose work explicitly attempts to rehabilitate the representation of the common people in Shakespeare's plays, and the murder of Cinna has featured prominently in twentieth-century of performances, strongly influenced by Orson Welles' Julius Caesar: Death of a Dictator, which not only returned Cinna to the American stage but augmented the scene with lines from Coriolanus. [20]

  17. One notable exception to this critical consensus is Nicholas Visser, who provides a wholesale critique of the ideology embedded in the assumption that crowds (in Shakespeare and elsewhere) are inherently fickle, irrational, and violent. Visser describes the reactions of two 1980 South African student audiences--one white, one black--to a screening of Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 film version of Julius Caesar. The audiences reacted very differently to representation of the plebs in the Forum scene, in which the crowd is swayed in turn by the speeches of Brutus and Antony. The white students watched the Forum scene in respectful silence, and it confirmed several unspoken assumptions about the inherent irrationality, fickleness, and violence of crowds; the black students, on the other hand, began to snigger and eventually hoot with laughter. Having been members of political crowds themselves, there was nothing at all "realistic" about the representation of the plebs in Mankiewicz's film. [21]

  18. I would love to know how the two audiences would have responded to the Cinna the Poet episode. Alas, although the scene was scripted and even shot for the film, Mankiewicz, like so many directors before, eventually cut it. It seems reasonable, however, to assume that the black students would have found the crowd's behaviour just as funny here. All the more so since the exchange between Cinna and the plebs is manifestly comic. The 4th Plebeian's concern with Cinna's marital status, in particular, is patently ludicrous, as is the 2nd Plebeian's reaction when Cinna reveals that he is a bachelor: "That's as much as to say they are fools that marry. You'll bear me a bang for that, I fear" (17-18). And the threat to tear Cinna for his bad verses is clearly a playwright's joke, eliciting the same kind of laughter with which Cassius responds to the cynic poet on the battlefield.

  19. The importance of acknowledging the comic tone in the encounter between Cinna and the plebs lies in the fact that "the hitherto easy assumption that Cinna is the terrified victim of a frenzied mob cannot be taken for granted; the scene is, without straining against orthodox interpretative conventions, susceptible to alternative readings" (Visser 26). Indeed, the 4th Plebeian's command "turn him going" may well mean no more than that he is to be roughed up a bit and then released. If so, this bloodless "banging" of Cinna might look somewhat like the canvas-tossing punishment of the sheep rustler Mak in The Second Shepherd's Play, a play not coincidentally often seen as affording Shakespeare theatrical precedent for mingling the serious and the comic, elite and popular modes of entertainment. [22]

  20. What happens if Cinna does not die? One consequence of such a comic reading is that might no longer read Julius Caesar through the lens of the ideological myth of the crowd, that irrational, cruel, fickle, and easily manipulable mob. If Cinna survives, an argument like Gary Taylor's "Bardicide," in which Shakespeare's plebs becomes the mob slaughtering the innocent, apolitical Orphic poet, loses much of its polemical force. [23] Indeed, the actions of the plebs as Visser describes them--roughing Cinna up a little and releasing him--come much closer to the behaviour of crowds which Taylor sees Shakespeare as deliberately falsifying. It is a manifestation of early modern popular culture, which could be given a variety of names but which, following E. P. Thompson, we might call "rough music," or rough riding, a form of popular protest and local demonstration which both maintained social continuity and modulated, but did not eliminate, social conflict. [24] Taken out of its dramatic context, the plebs who encounter Cinna may offer no greater threat than the communal policing of social mores often exercised by youth groups; this helps to explain, for instance, the otherwise bizarre concern with Cinna's bachelorhood.

  21. Of course, the encounter of the plebs and Cinna is not an isolated incident. It is sandwiched between acts of violence: the assassination and the triumvirate's damning of its enemies. It is this recurring pattern of violence, including the wars which frame the action of the play as a whole, which leads René Girard in A Theater of Envy to describe all of the events in Julius Caesar as a series of murders of substitute victims, a mimesis of collective violence that results in the complete undifferentiation of everyone, pleb and patrician alike. For Girard, the significance of the mob's slaughter of Cinna is that it is modelled on the assassination, differing only in the fact that Cinna is the first (but by no means the last) entirely innocent victim in the play. There is no particularity to the event, and Girard explicitly rules out of bounds any analysis of politics in Julius Caesar that does not acknowledge the mimetic process at work in the play (197-99).

  22. I cannot do full justice here to the value of Girard's analysis of the ritual processes and patterns of violence in Julius Caesar, although I will return to his idea that the anonymous violence of war is analogous to the stereotype of the mob. I simply want to point out that there is something different about what happens to Cinna, even in Girard's own account:

    After listening to Brutus, then to Mark Antony, the crowd reacts by collectively putting to death an unfortunate bystander, Cinna, in a grotesque parody of what the conspirators themselves have done. The crowd becomes a mirror in which the murderers may contemplate the truth of their action. They wanted to become mimetic models for the people and now they are, but not of the kind they intended.
               When they kill Cinna, the people mimic Caesar's murder, but in a spirit of revenge, not of sacrificial piety and republican virtue (194)

    The key word here is "parody." I can only conclude that Girard means that the parody is Shakespeare's, since the mechanism of mimetic desire seems to preclude conscious divergence on the part of the plebs from the pattern initiated by the conspirators. This is parody of the kind François Laroque describes as operative in the Jack Cade scenes in 2 Henry VI: "a distorted mirror of authority as the commons blindly reenact the brutalities of the aristocracy." [25] Or, as Dennis Kezar says of the Cinna episode, this is "a savage farce, a brutal simplification of the theatrical appropriation that pervades the play." [26]

  23. Parody, however, inevitably puts several possibilities into play, raising the questions of what is being parodied, and who the parodist is (or, who the parodists are). Whether or not Julius Caesar was ever performed as the conscious parody perpetrated by commoners--both by the Roman plebs and by the common actors who played them--is ultimately unknowable, as is the response of the various constituencies of an audience in 1599. A case can, however, be made for the theatrical consciousness of the plebs within the represented world of the play; rather than a simplified re-enactment of patrician violence, what the plebs do to Cinna is intelligible as a theatrical political gesture, if not of a clearly articulated political program of action. An important element of E. P. Thompson's understanding of popular protest is the concept of countertheatre, a contest for symbolic authority which is not simply a way to act out "real" contests, but is a real contest in its own right ("Patricians" 74). Such countertheatre (and the corresponding patrician theatre) is abundantly evident in the first three acts of Julius Caesar: in the draping and subsequent stripping of Caesar's statues with scarves; in the unsuccessful staged "coronation" of Caesar; and in the sacrificers-vs.-butchers debate. The Plebeians are either the actors or audiences of all of these attempts to assert symbolic authority. Thus, the rough riding of Cinna becomes meaningful within the larger structure of political pageantry that dominates the action of the first three acts of Julius Caesar. Moreover, the calendar which provides the interpretive framework for the plebs is neither the Republican nor Caesar's; rather, it is, anachronistically, the traditional English ritual calendar, one which was under increasing pressure at the turn of the seventeenth century but had not yet altogether been transformed.

  24. Popular protests almost always were triggered by contemporary local concerns, but they also tended to coincide with occasions for festivity, if for no other reason than the fact that holidays were occasions when crowds could gather, as the Tribunes are acutely aware. Carnival (and, in England, Shrove Tuesday in particular) was the most famous occasion for festive misrule and as an occasion for popular protest, and several critics have emphasized the close proximity of Lupercalia and Shrove Tuesday (and the even closer correlation with Valentine's Day, another occasion on which a mock king was chosen). [27] For Richard Wilson and François Laroque, the events of the first three acts of Julius Caesar correspond with Carnival, wherein Caesar unsuccessfully attempts to have himself made a carnival king, intending to make his kingship permanent. His death is, in the terms of Carnival, a literalised sacrifice of the mock-king at the end of Carnival. But while Shakespeare blends the Roman Lupercalia and English Carnival, the ides of March could not, in either the Julian or Gregorian calendar, occur within Carnival. It always came in Lent, and it was the earliest possible date of Palm Sunday.

  25. The character who seems most conscious that the ides of March falls within Lent is Brutus, especially in his account of the manner in which the assassination should be conducted:

    Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
    To cut the head off and then hack the limbs-
    Like wrath in death and envy afterwards-
    For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
    Let's be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius.
    We'll all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
    And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
    O that we then could come by Caesar's spirit
    And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
    Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
    Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
    Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    We shall be called purgers, not murderers. (2.1.161-79)

    Just as Caesar tries to manipulate Lupercalia by transforming a ritual election of a Carnival-king into a real coronation, Brutus tries to manipulate the Ides of March by transforming political murder into ritual sacrifice. His desire that the conspirators not be seen as butchers is motivated by the prescription of butchering in Lent. What he specifically fears is that in killing Caesar the conspirators will be seen as Lenten Butchers.

  26. The Lenten Butcher in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was an ominous figure, whose activities cut across the boundary between Carnival and Lent, between law and its transgression. [28] He acts both within the criminal underworld and as a licensed agent of the state, and he could be found, according to John Taylor,

    in Sir Francis Drake's ship at Deptford, my Lord Mayor's barge, and divers secret and unsuspected places, and there they make private shambles with kill-calf cruelty and sheep slaughtering murder, to the abuse of Lent, the deceiving of the informers, and the great griefe of every zealous fishmonger. (Qtd. in Bristol, 217)

    While the conspirators might be able to justify their "untimely" slaughter of Caesar as essential for reasons of state (and, of course, Brutus will do just that in the pulpit), their Lenten Butchery remains ambiguous, equally open to the interpretation that it is private murder.

  27. Shakespeare's Brutus is fully aware of the ambiguous symbolism of Lenten Butchery, which explains why he elects not to conceal the physical killing, but to indelibly mark each of the conspirators with it:

                                  Stoop, Romans, stoop,
    And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
    Up to the elbows and besmear our swords.
    Then walk we forth even to the market-place,
    And waving our red weapons o'er our heads
    Let's all cry, 'Peace, Freedom and Liberty.' (3.1.105-10)

    What Brutus is trying to do is symbolically transform the conspirators from Lenten Butchers into the butchers triumphant return after the expulsion of Lent. John Taylor's description of such a triumph in Iacke a Lent uses imagery conspicuously close to that at the heart of Julius Caesar:

    Then pell-mell murder in purple hue,
    In reeking blood his slaughtering paws imbrue:
    The butcher's axe (like great Alcides' bat)
    Dings deadly down, ten thousand flat:
    Each butcher (by himself) makes marshall laws,
    Cuts throats, and kills, and quarters, hangs, and draws. (Qtd. in Bristol, 215-16)

    Brutus's theatrical gesture is not without its own risks. (For an Elizabethan audience, its evocation of Easter is one of several echoes of Christ's passion in the play. [29]) But it is, in itself, an intelligible manoeuvre as an invocation of legitimate killing--indeed, killing that was celebrated in early modern England. Brutus's claim to the role of triumphant butcher is unsuccessful, on the symbolic level of days and times, because Antony is able (in large part by means of the theatrical coup of producing Caesar's corpse) to re-cast the conspirators as Lenten Butchers--more precisely, as Lenten Butchers of the criminal variety, motivated by private gain.

  28. The Plebeian crowd that encounters Cinna, I would argue, understands this perfectly. Palm Sunday was one of the festival days in early modern England which licensed the transgression of boundaries and dividing lines, especially the border between private and common property. It is Antony who most clearly articulates this idea when he reads the contents of Caesar's will:

    To every Roman citizen he gives,
    To every several man, seventy-five drachmaes.
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
    His private arbors and new-planted orchards,
    On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
    And to your heirs for ever-common pleasures,
    To walk abroad and recreate yourselves. (3.2.240-51)

    What had been Caesar's is now to belong to the citizens in perpetuity, and the plebs seize upon the opportunity to assault the private houses of the conspirators. But Palm Sunday was also, in popular culture, a day on which a symbolic scapegoat was expelled by the community (much like the expulsion of Carnival Giants on the continent). This was Jack-a-Lent, a scarecrow or puppet decorated with Lenten symbols, pelted with missiles throughout Lent, and ritually destroyed on Palm Sunday (or, in some localities, on Easter Sunday, conjoined with the butchers' triumphant return). [30]

  29. Read as a displaced expulsion of Jack-a-Lent, the Plebeian crowd is not a mindless, violent mob; its actions are calculated countertheatre, an expression of the need of the commons to re-establish its own ritual understanding of time. The conspirators' failure to have themselves perceived as the triumphant return of butchers--signalling the end of Lent, the end of winter and the ushering in of spring--leaves a ritual gap, a gap which the Plebeians try to fill by substituting the rough riding of Cinna the Poet for the expulsion of Jack-a-Lent.

  30. It would be a mistake to over-idealize the actions of the plebs. Even if they do not kill Cinna, the underlying aggression and cruelty of singling out an innocent scapegoat remain, and festive celebrations and protests did sometimes erupt into little more than wanton destruction. Nor does the politics of the plebs display anything resembling class-consciousness or any long-term agenda of emancipation. On the contrary, its goals are essentially conservative, denying Caesar a crown while attempting to preserve their traditional liberties, including their elected tribunes and the mixed constitution of the Roman state. Left to their own devices after the Tribunes have been put to silence, the plebs once again attempt to use holiday observance as a vehicle for political expression, only to learn (just as Brutus has) that Rome is now governed by the time of the Caesars.

  31. Like so many of the other attempts at ritual sacrifice in Julius Caesar, treating Cinna as a pharmakos fails to restore order in Rome. It fails, I believe, precisely because it is so easily interpreted as mob violence rather than countertheatrical protest and ritual purification. It is no accident that Northrop Frye singles this scene out as the only literary example of the lower limit of art "in actual life":

    This is the condition of savagery, the world in which comedy consists of inflicting pain on a helpless victim, and tragedy in enduring it. Ironic comedy brings us to the figure of the scapegoat ritual and the nightmare dream. We pass the boundary of art when this symbol becomes existential, as it does in the black man of a lynching, the Jew of a pogrom, the old woman of a witch hunt, or anyone picked up at random by a mob, like Cinna the poet in Julius Caesar. [31]

    Frye is, of course, well aware that a performance of Julius Caesar is not life. But his subsequent justification of this quality of ironic comedy might be also read as an analogue to the kind of countertheatre performed by the Plebeians:

    But the element of play is the barrier that separates art from savagery, and playing at human sacrifice seems to be an important theme of ironic comedy. Even in laughter itself some kind of deliverance from the unpleasant, even the horrible, seems to be very important. (46)

    If we could still hear the laughter in the rough riding of Cinna the Poet, as I have been arguing, that laughter is quickly stilled in the chilling prescription scene. Not coincidentally, the concerns with social time developed in detail in the first three acts of Julius Caesar disappear with the final exit of Plebeians from the play. (It is not until Octavius' final speech--in which he both announces the funeral of Brutus "With all respect and rites of burial" and calls for the celebration "To part the glories of this happy day" [5.5.77; 81]--that communal time is mentioned again. Time is still important, but in the very different manifestations of either military timing or an individual's biography.) In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare dramatizes the importance of a community's calendar, the ability of its members to identify both what time it is and what kind of time it is, and the disastrous consequences which ensue when this is not possible. Elias Canetti asserts of political structures in general that

    Civilizations are perhaps best distinguished by their arrangement of time. They prove themselves by their continued capacity to organize their traditions and they disintegrate when they cease to do this. A civilization comes to an end when a people no longer takes its own chronology seriously. . . . For a civilization . . . periods when the awareness of time is lost are periods of shame, which are forgotten as soon as possible. [32]

    Julius Caesar does not, of course, forget the period in which the awareness of time is lost in Rome; rather, it is an act of remembering such a period. Thomas Hobbes gives this kind of time a name: he calls it war.

  32. War, writes Hobbes, "consisteth in a tract of time" in which there can be "no account of Time." [33] At the moment when the plebs last leave the stage, the Lenten truce of God is clearly over, and all attempts to frame events within ritual time cease. Indeed, as Antony predicts, war will be the ultimate world turned upside down, in which all of the traditional, custom-based mechanisms by which the plebs attempt to understand and regulate social life will be transformed into a nightmare vision of inculcated habit:

    Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
    And dreadful objects so familiar,
    That mothers shall but smile when they behold
    Their infants quartered with the hands of war;
    All pity chok'd with custom of fell deeds[.] (3.1.265-9)

    As René Girard points out, it is on the battlefield that we have the "total unleashing of the mob," and unlike the encounter of the plebs and Cinna, there will be no ambiguity whatsoever about these deaths. The second half of Julius Caesar reveals that having too many calendric choices may well, in Cicero's words, make time "strange-disposed" and subject to the vagaries of interpretive fashion; when there are no choices at all, however, we confront a different lower limit of art than the one identified by Frye: the abandoning of all kinds of play for open war. Of course, when Thomas Platter saw Julius Caesar, it ended with a jig. A propos the cynic poet, Brutus asks rhetorically, "What should the wars do with these jigging fools?" (4.3.137). Julius Caesar, seen through the eyes of the plebs, answers in kind: What should these jigging fools do with the wars? And it answers: play them.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of the play are from Julius Caesar, ed. David Daniell, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ser. (Walton-on-Thames, 1998). While I take issue with aspects of this edition below, it is by far the most calendrically informed to date.

2. On the importance of Cicero's lines, see Naomi Conn Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre (London: Routledge, 1995), 98; Dennis Kezar, "Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe," English Literary Renaissance 28 (1998), 18-46; and Alan Sinfield, "Theaters of War: Caesar and the Vandals," in Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992), 25.

3. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York, 1981), 397.

4. Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 80.

5. As Anthony Aveni laconically points out, intercalation was not always a matter of astronomical observation: "the politics of intercalation became an issue in the development of the calendar, for the pontiffs, those Romans responsible for the administration of the cults of state, ordered the calendric observances. Periodically they allowed the full years to be those during which their friends were in office." (Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures [New York, 1989], 114.)

6. Sigurd Burckhardt, "How Not to Murder Caesar," in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968), 6.

7. Steve Sohmer, Shakespeare's Mystery Play: The Opening of the Globe Theatre 1599 (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999), esp. ch. 6: "The Web of Caesar's Time," 77-87.

8. If, as Sohmer argues, censorship is responsible for reticence on this subject, we might expect to find more explicitly stated preferences for the Gregorian calendar in manuscripts, such as Thomas Harriot's clear preference for the New Style (the "true Easter day intended) in his 1615-1616 MSs, transcribed in J. D. North, "Thomas Harriot's Papers on the Calendar," The Universal Frame: Historical Essays in Astronomy, Philosophy, and Scientific Method (London and Ronceverte, 1989). But Harriot is no polemicist, and nowhere expresses views about religious tyranny.

9. Qtd. in H. M. Nobis, "The Reaction of Astronomers to the Gregorian Calendar," in Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican Conference to Commemorate its 400th Anniversary, 1582-1982, ed. G. V. Coyne, et. al. (Vatican City, 1983), 250.

10. For historical accounts of calendar changes in England, see especially Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994); David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989); and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1500-c.1580 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992).

11. John Dover Wilson provides a succinct summary of the differences: "In Plutarch, the clash of tribunes and crowd takes place after, not before, the Lupercalia; the tribunes are adherents of Brutus, not Pompey; the crowds come to rejoice at the insult to Caesar's images, not at his triumph; while finally the images are adorned with diadems for the proposed coronation, not, as in Shakespeare, with trophies for the triumph." (Julius Caesar, ed. John Dover Wilson [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1948], xvii-xviii.)

12. "Theaters of War," 17-19.

13. René Girard, A Theater of Envy (New York, 1991), 176-78.

14. Richard Wilson, "A Brute Part: Julius Caesar and the Rites of Violence," Cahiers Élisabéthains 50 (1996), 23.

15. Richard Wilson, "'Is this a holiday?: Shakespeare's Roman Carnival," in Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Brighton: Harvester, 1993), 46-47. The composition of early modern theatrical audiences is a matter I cannot address in detail here, although Charles Whitney's recent analysis of guild records strongly suggests that, statues notwithstanding, subaltern playgoing was unexceptional, and that "the relationship between subalterns and the theater was and remained complex and ambivalent, not simply negative." ("'Usually in the werking Daies': Playgoing Journeymen, Apprentices, and Servants in Guild Records, 1582-92," Shakespeare Quarterly 50 [1999], 433-58.) See also Ann Jennalie Cook, "Audiences: Investigation, Interpretation, Invention," in A New History of Early English Drama, ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (New York, 1997), 305-20.

16. Robert Weimann, "Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theatre," Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992), 410. See also, most recently, his Author's Pen and Actor's Voice: Playing and Writing in Shakespeare's Theatre, ed. Helen Higbee and William West (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000).

17. Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy, 111.

18. Shakespeare's Plutarch, 98, 129-30. Sohmer, 144.

19. For treatments of Cinna on stage, see John Ripley, Julius Caesar in England and America, 1599-1973 (Cambridge, 1980).

20. Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford, 1989), 11, 129; Sinfield, 1-28, esp. 17. For the text of Welles' production, see Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts, ed. Richard France (New York, 1990).

21. Nicholas Visser, "Plebeian Politics in Julius Caesar," Shakespeare in Southern Africa 7 (1994), 22-31.

22. The Second Shepherds' Play, in English Mystery Plays, ed. Peter Happé (London, 1975), 289.

23. Gary Taylor, "Bardicide," in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, ed. Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1994), 333-49. See also Dennis Kezar, "Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe," Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1998), 18-46. Kezar challenges and qualifies Taylor's arguments about the scene in several important respects, but his account would also need to be revised if Cinna survives.

24. E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York, 1994), esp. ch. 2 ("The Patricians and the Plebs") and ch. 8 ("Rough Music").

25. François Laroque, "The Jack Cade Scenes Reconsidered: Popular Rebellion, Utopia, or Carnival?" in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, ed. Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells (Newark: U of Delware P, 1994), p. 86. Laroque does, however, recognize the metadramatic function of these scenes, a function of their subversive and comic impact both in the play and on the Shakespearean stage (86-87). For other accounts of the subversive potential of the Cade scenes, see the sources cited by Laroque (87 n.2) and Stephen Longstaffe, "'A short Report and not otherwise': Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI," in Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin, ed. Ronald Knowles (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), 13-35.

26. Kezar, p. 41.

27. François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) 206; 278-79; Sohmer, 105-19; and Wilson, "'Is this a holiday?'" While acknowledging the significance of the Lupercalia-Carnival connections, Naomi Liebler sees an even closer resemblance between Lupercalia and the custom of "beating the bounds" (109-11).

28. My account of the Lenten Butcher closely follows that of Michael D. Bristol, "Lenten Butchery: Legitimation Crisis in Coriolanus," Shakespeare Introduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York, 1987), 207-224. For a different account of lenten butchery in Julius Caesar, see Richard Wilson, "A Brute Part."

29. See, especially, David Kaula, "'Let Us Be Sacrificers': Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar," Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981), 197-214; and Sohmer, passim.

30. On Palm Sunday and Jack-a-Lent, see François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World, 13-14; 103-4, and, for Jack-a-Lent's manifestations in 2 Henry VI, Laroque, "Jack Cade."

31. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957), 45.

32. Canetti, 398.

33. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. K. Minogue (London: Everyman, 1973), 64.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)