Nobility or Not to Be?

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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 in 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...
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