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  • The Cobbler and the Tribunes in Julius Caesar
  • Athanasios Boulukos

The first scene in Julius Caesar, in which the cobbler and his fellow plebeians are confronted by their supposed leaders, the tribunes Flavius and Marullus, is the first skirmish in the play between the forces of Caesarism and those who oppose them. Dramatically, the scene opposes the humor of the equivocating cobbler, which looks forward to the graveyard scene in Hamlet, with Marullus' denunciation of the plebeians as an unthinking, many-headed hydra; their unreliability is proved later in the Forum scene, when they agree first with Brutus' speech, and then with Antony's.

The scene raises some intriguing questions, first regarding the cobbler's philosophical punning, secondly with respect to the seemingly ambiguous identity of the cobbler himself (I am referring to Flavius' inability to recognize the cobbler as a cobbler because the man is dressed in his holiday clothes, and because the cobbler equivocates about his identity). Also, the seeming mysteriousness of the entire scene raises the question of whether it relates to the play in some way that is not immediately apparent to the reader.

One of the paradoxes of the Stoic Chrysippus provides interesting answers to the first two questions, and helps in answering the third. The paradox was well known in antiquity. In Renaissance England, there were a number of works by Horace and Cicero, then considered to be a part of a man's education, in which the idea might be encountered.1 It is mentioned five times in the work of Cicero: once in Pro Murena, twice in De Finibus and once in Academica.2 In its most basic form, it states that the wise man achieves such virtue that he is at once king, rich man, and a cobbler. More significantly, [End Page 1083] Cicero tells us that the wise man alone is free, the definition of free being different from the normative one of the ancients, i.e., not being a slave (Jaeger, 55). In Satire I. 3, Horace, while attacking the Stoic view of vice (and crime), makes mention of Chrysippus' paradox, in a manner that is helpful to the task at hand:

But if the wise man alone is rich and handsome and a good cobbler and also a king, why crave what you have?

How's that? 'Well even when silent, Hermogenes remains a first-rate singer and composer; that smart fellow Alfenus, even after throwing all the tools of his trade away and shutting up shop, was still a cobbler; in the same way the wise man alone is master of every craft, and hence a king.'


The passage connects philosophy with cobblers; it suggests that putting his tools away and shutting up shop does not change a cobbler's identity (the thought behind the tribunes' attack on the plebeians), and it assigns every craft and every office in human society, and wealth and beauty too, to the wise man, as being potentially his due to his virtue. Horace also suggests that the wise man need not desire the possession of any of the political and social positions of which he is capable when he asks, "why crave what you have?"

On the basis of the dubious connection which seems to exist between Horace's satires and Shakespeare's works, T. W. Baldwin surmises that Shakespeare did not know them, as he obviously knew the Odes.3 Lacking proof that Satire II, 3 is a direct source for Shakespeare, we may nevertheless take advantage of the help it provides us in deciphering the tribunes' exchanges with the cobbler:

Marcellus. You sir, what trade are you?

Cobbler. Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into more work. But indeed, sir, we make holiday to see Caesar, and to rejoice in his triumph.


Although the humor of the equivocating cobbler resembles the graveyard scene in Hamlet, Flavius does not compete with him in wit as Hamlet does with the gravedigger. The cobbler has the upper hand; he has all the fun. Moreover, the menace Marullus hears in "if you be out, sir, I can mend you," is realized when the...


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