Nobility or Not to Be In a time of clear-cut class distinctions and social stratifications, William Shakespeare snatched up an opportunity to juxtapose the cultural norms of Elizabethan society with fictional plays on the stage of the Globe Theater. His use and demonstration of the word “noble,” throughout the play Julius Caesar, reflects the context of the word in 17th century England as well as its use and connotations in ancient Roman society. The word “noble” itself was loaded in both Elizabethan and Roman societies with multiple ideals clinging to its five letters.
Questions of virtue, status, aristocracy and fame that both the characters in Julius Caesar, as well as Shakespeare’s audience at the Globe asked, connect the total meaning of this word to human nature across the boundaries of time and context. Shakespeare used the theme of nobility in Julius Caesar to interpret the relationship of commoners in the Elizabethan era and the social order, the role of the monarchy and the emphasis on virtue of his time. According to the online Oxford English Dictionary, noble is both an adjective and a noun. Therefore, you can be it or you can have it.
The characters of Julius Caesar that are considered nobility in society—such as Brutus, Julius Caesar and Cassius, are the ones seeking to have nobility. This can be seen from the very beginning of the play, during one of Cassius’ first soliloquys: “Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! ” (1. 2. 242). Depending on interpretation, it can be argued that this quote indicates that the higher social stratus of Rome is losing power as plebeians gain more influence on government and economy. Or it can be interpreted that Rome is losing its virtue, its moral superiority.
To understand the difference, it is imperative to take a closer look at the definitions of both kinds of “noble. ” As a noun, a noble is “a person of noble rank or birth” (oxforddictionaries. com). As an adjective, to be noble is defined as, “belonging to a hereditary class with high social or political status,” and almost more importantly in context of the play, as “having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals” (oxforddictionaries. com). In either case, both Rome in Julius Caesar, as well as Elizabethan England, faced tension when it came to nobles n society, the human act of nobility and their nobility (the rank) acting with nobility (the virtue). Shakespeare was able to make an example out of Rome that transcended to his Globe audience because of the institutions of society and government in Rome. The Republic of Rome that harbored a representative, elected government was of clear interest to the commoners of 17th century England, who were under the rule of the monarchy. The ability to portray a democracy to the masses of England was a way to keep them content under the rule of their own nobility.
According to Skip Knox’s Europe In The Age Of The Reformation, social mobility at this time was impossible. The source of status in England was blood, plain and simple (Knox, “Social History”). This is reflected in Julius Caesar, and the spilling of blood does not change the social mobility of any characters. Brutus is the perfect example here. After Caesar’s assassination, although he is convinced that he acted out of sheer virtue, is Brutus exalted in the social structure? No. In fact, he is hated by the masses of Rome.
This example would have hit a nerve with England’s commoners that deeply resented, but still believed, that blood was the acquisition of one’s social standing. A common saying among the populace of England was, “blood will tell,” which affirmed the resentment and acceptance that the estate did indeed exist, with many popular stories where a noble in disguise will nevertheless be recognized—even among commoners (Knox, “Social History”). This plays out directly for the audience in Julius Caesar, when we are first introduced to nobleman Marc Antony.
While he speaks in iambic pentameter, which indicates noble status, his actions and environment speak otherwise. Antony arrives in the play naked, among commoners and celebrating with them during a fertility festival. His nakedness and place among the plebeians suggests equality with them, while his speech and title indicate his place as a nobleman. Later in the play, his actions distinguish him as a noble man of virtue, elevating him not in society, but morally—while Cassius and Brutus, who were nobler in status than Antony, fall at the price of their own blood.
There is the motif of blood showing up again. The layers that Shakespeare uses to bridge the societies, values and contexts of both ancient Rome and 17th century England are twisted and tangled as to where they seem to merge. This merging is evident in the attitude of the noble class of both societies towards the commoners of the place and time. In Elizabethan England, commoners could not take part in government—the monarchy was a power that they had no control over, but had complete control over them.
In Julius Caesar, we can see the nobility’s distrust of the plebeians and their influence on the state, from the words of the nobleman Flavius: “…I’ll about / And drive away the vulgar from the streets. So do you too, where you perceive them thick. / These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing / Will make him fly an ordinary pitch…” (1. 1. 69-73). Interestingly enough, as Knox points out, our word “vulgar” comes from the Latin vulgus, which translates to “common people” (“Social History”).
This linguistic history proves the distaste of the noble class for the common people and gives stock to the commoners’ mutual resentment of the estate. Throughout the play we also see the characterization of the common masses as being fickle. This interpretation would have served the 17th Century monarchy well in keeping the power of government out of the hands of the English people. By convincing audiences that masses are fickle and do not have any place in influencing government and making decisions in matters of which they have no knowledge, keeping power in the small circle of the monarchy was much simpler.
Julius Caesar affirmed to English audiences that democracy leads to disorder because the unintelligent commoners take part. Scene 3, Act 3 illustrates this theme in an ideal pro-monarchy English manner by representing the fickleness and perceived idiocy of the common man: CINNA THE POET. Truly, my name is Cinna. FIRST PLEBEIAN. Tear him to pieces. He’s a conspirator. CINNA THE POET. I am Cinna the poet. I am Cinna the poet. FOURTH PLEBEIAN. Tear him for his bad verses! Tear him for his bad verses! CINNA THE POET. I am not Cinna the conspirator.
FOURTH CITIZEN. It is no matter. His name’s Cinna. Pluck but his name out of heart and turn him going. (3. 3. 26-31. ) This distrust, along with the characterization of the common man made for a social environment where nobility in England were able to argue the sensibility and safety of the monarchy, while keeping the commoners at bay. The representation of democracy, a seemingly fictional and fantastical idea to English masses, made for a government that was less than favorable if it led to assassination, war, bloodshed and tragedy.
By “protecting” them from this kind of government, English nobility was acting out of “noble virtue” for the welfare of the people—but just as we ask of Brutus’ actions, were these actions noble and selfless, or dishonorable and selfish? Throughout the play, we see that Brutus sees himself as the most noble Roman of all, not directly because of his actions, but the motives that drive his actions. He explains of his desire to seek nobility in the most pure sense of virtue during a conversation with Cassius: “And it shall please me well. For mine own part / I shall be glad to learn of noble men” (4. . 55-56. ). He truly does believe that his actions and words match in motive and deed, but beyond the character we see hints that Shakespeare wants to characterize Brutus differently than Brutus would like himself to be characterized. While Antony speaks in iambic pentameter as was mentioned earlier, Brutus speaks in prose. Prose is the language of the people, and if the people are ignorant, fickle and lacking nobility in every sense of the word, then the fact that Brutus’s language puts him on their level suggests that he embodies the same ignorance, fickleness and dishonor.
He just happens to represent these negative characteristics in a higher level of society, which indicates that these characteristics exist in the upper estate. Through Brutus and Antony, Shakespeare proves to the common masses of England that virtue can be found in the masses and the high society, and that dishonorable men are not only confined to the masses but can also be at work in the state. The question of nobility and its place in society and in the heart of man was a question that existed in the turbulent times of the ancient Roman Empire and transcended all the way to the revolution-ready Elizabethan Age.
Shakespeare was able to apply context to the meaning of status and virtue throughout Julius Caesar with the use of the word “noble,” and its two main definitions—as the noun and as the adjective. He proved to his audiences that while the blood pulsing through your veins was the indicator of your social status and advantage as a noble or lack of nobility entirely, the nature of a man’s heart was the indicator of nobility and honor. Through this, one man and one stage could bridge fiction and reality, Rome and England, plebeian and commoner, senator and duke, democracy and empire.
Works Cited “Julius Caesar. ” Opensourceshakespeare. org. George Mason University, 2003-2013. Web. 27 February 2013. Knox, Skip. “Social Structure. ” Europe In The Age Of The Reformation. Boisestate. edu. Boise State University. Web. 27 February 2013. “Noble. ” Oxforddictionaries. com. Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 27 February 2013. Shakespeare, William. “Julius Caesar. ” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare; Ed. , Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. Penguin Books, 2002. Print.