The Incorporation of Superstition, Omens, and the Theme of Fate in Julius Caesar, a Play by William Shakespeare
From soothsayers to stormy nights, William Shakespeare found a way to incorporate superstition, omens, and the theme of fate into the famous scenes of his political play, Julius Caesar. This has caused readers to question the purpose and importance of omens and portents in the play and how they reflect the time in which Julius Caesar lived. The fact that Shakespeare, who was alive in the late 1500s was writing about Julius Caesar who was alive around 100 B.C. to 44 B.C., also allows the reader to question if the superstitions, omens, and themes of fate were more reflective of the Roman Empire or of the Elizabethan Era. Research has shown that most of the omens and portents in Julius Caesar are reflective of the Roman Empire, but there is also a presence of these superstitions from Shakespeare life during the Elizabethan Era. This knowledge of these views of omens, superstitions, and fate gathered from research on the two different time periods allows for a different impact of the play on the reader and allows the reader to gain a greater understanding of what they are reading.
Many of Shakespeare’s tragedies were well known for his incorporation of supernatural forces into his plays. From the three witches in Macbeth to the nightmare experienced by Richard III, Shakespeare obviously had some knowledge of omens and portents. This being said, there are also plenty of supernatural forces in the play Julius Caesar, but how much of these forces reflect what was believed during the life of Julius Caesar and which of these forces did Shakespeare incorporate based on the beliefs of his own time? Julius Caesar was born in 100 B.C. and was murdered in 44 B.C. (Maltz) while Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Because of the large time difference between the life of Julius Caesar and the life of Shakespeare, there are bound to be some omens and other supernatural forces in the play that reflect the time of Shakespeare more that the time in which Julius Caesar lived.
During the life of Julius Caesar, the most prominent omens included “unusual behavior of birds and animals, strange births, spontaneous movements by statues, lighting strikes and the like.” (Maltz) In a history of omens that were reported during Julius Caesar’s time, the report of “A three-footed mule was born at Reate” (Maltz) is included. This is a real example showing that strange births were something strange and ominous that should be reported. An omen from the play Julius Caesar that is reflective of the omens from 100 B.C. to 44 B.C. is when Calpurnia begged Caesar not to go to the meeting of the senate and told him that during the night, the watch reported that a “lioness hath whelped in the streets” (The tragedy of Julius Caesar, 2.2, 25). This quote means that during the night, a lioness gave birth in the street. This incident falls under the omen of strange births making it very reflective and typical of omens during the Roman Empire.
There are various encounters with birds in the play and while they have been seen as bad omen across all times, the specific behavior of the birds is what make them reflective of the Roman Empire. The birds and the stormy, lighting filled night that Caesar’s assassination was planned, added to the omens reflecting the time of Julius Caesar. In act 1 scene 3, Casa says he saw “the bird of night”, which likely meant an owl, sitting “Even at noon-day upon the market-place, Howting and shrieking” (lines 34-35). Then, in act 5 scene 1, Cassius tells Brutus and Messala that he saw “Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch’d, Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands…. This morning are they fled away and gone, And in their steads do ravens, crows, and kites” (Lines 101-102 and 106-108). Cassius saw these eagles as symbols of him and Brutus and believed that the two of them were going to die in battle when the eagles were replaced with ravens and crows. Both of these examples from the play are descriptions of unusual behavior of birds, which was a common omen of the time. These examples also show that Shakespeare, again, used omens that were reflective of the Roman Empire. As for the stormy night in which Cassius and Brutus planned for the assassination of Caesar, “lightining strikes and the like” (Maltz) were also omens of Caesar’s time. There was also thunder and lightning on the morning that Caesar went to meet with the senate. In a book of reported omen, from 84 B.C. to 54 B.C. events such as “Lightning struck the temples of Luna and Ceres…” (Maltz) and “Thunder and lightning bolts flashed through the sky…” (Maltz) showing that Shakespeare had some knowledge that storms were omens of the Roman culture.
Along with the use of omens reflective of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare also, either intentionally or unintentionally, used omens and supernatural forces that were more reflective of his time. A very memorable character from Julius Caesar is the Soothsayer. The Soothsayer warns Caesar to “Beware the ides of March” (1.2, 30) and when the Ides of March comes and Caesar tells the Soothsayer, “The Ides have come,” (3.1, 1) the Soothsayer replies “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.” (3.1, 2) The Soothsayer is a very significant supernatural force in the play because he predicts that day that Caesar’s life will come to an end. He is very reminiscent of the belief in witches during the Elizabethan Era. There were a total of 270 Elizabethan witch trials during the era (Alchin, Elizabethan Superstitions), which extended into Shakespeare’s life. While the Soothsayer was not a witch, his supernatural power of foretelling the future shows influences from the beliefs of Shakespeare’s time. Another important Omen in the play is Calpurnia’s dream the night before Caesar would go to meet with the Senate. The use of this Omen can be seen in Elizabethan’s intricate views of dreams as omens. During the Elizabethan era, there were three types of dreams: Natural, Divine, and Supernatural (Camden) Supernatural dreams were dreams that told the future, which makes Calpurnia’s dream very reflective of the Elizabethan time. There are many more examples of Omen, portents, and supernatural forces in Julius Caesar that are both reflective of the Roman Empire and the Elizabethan Era but, the main point is that in the play, Shakespeare used omens and portents that were more authentic to Julius Caesars time while still incorporating some of the beliefs of his own time.
A very important theme in Julius Caesar was Fate. As seen with the omens and portents, there are ideas of fate in the play that reflect the beliefs of both Shakespeare’s time and Julius Caesar’s time. During the Elizabethan Era, it was strongly believed that a person’s fate was predestined based on the astrological alignments when you were born (Alchin). It was believed that the events in a person’s life and the decisions they made during their life didn’t matter because their fate was already decided for them (Alchin). This belief is reflected in the play each time that Julius Caesar dismissed the omens and events that are presented to him as warnings. In Act 2 Scene 2, after Calpurnia tells Caesar of the event during the night, he replies, “It seems to me most strange that men should fear, Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come” (Lines 35-37). This shows that Caesar believes that his fate is out of his control, just as the Elizabethan’s believed. An example that goes against this belief is when Cassius tells Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The mention of the stars shows a direct rejection of the Elizabethan beliefs.
When compared to the belief of fate during the Elizabethan Era, the beliefs during the Roman Empire were quite different. Omens were taken very seriously and were seen as serious warnings from above (Religion). As Cassius would say, the fault is not in the stars, but in the decision that an individual makes. This belief explains why some characters, such as Cassius believed in omens and found meaning in them. In Act 5 Scene 1, Cassius saw the two eagles that left and were then replaced by crows and ravens. This event is not only an example of an omen of the Roman Empire as discussed above, but it is also an example of Cassius’s belief in fate and how it reflected the Roman Empire. When Cassius sees these two eagles, he sees them as symbols of him and Brutus. When the crows and ravens replace the eagles, Cassius then knows that he will not survive the upcoming battle. If Cassius had traditional beliefs of fate during the Elizabethan era, he would have ignored these birds and would not have seen them as omens of his death. He would have realized that if he were to die in the battle, it would be because he was destined to rather than because the birds told him that he would. While Cassius did not act against this omen, (he continued into the battle knowing that he would die) he understood that if he went into battle he would die and that his death could be prevented if the battle was avoided. If Julius Caesar would have had held traditional beliefs of fate during the Roman Empire, he would have acknowledged the warnings from Calpurnia and he would not have gone to the senate that morning. With this information and examples from the play, it is apparent that the themes of fate reflect both the Elizabethan Era and the Roman Empire without one overshadowing the other.
While the different omens and beliefs of fate during the time of the Elizabethan Era and the Roman Empire were interesting, why are they important to the play or to the reader? The difference between these ideas and the time period they reflect are important because they impact the reading and understanding of the play. Because Julius Caesar was a real and historical character, it can be unclear to the reader what actually happened or if anything in the play is even true. Also, because there are components of this play that can be found in other Shakespeare plays, for example, ghosts and witches as supernatural forces (Macbeth and Hamlet) and nightmares in both Henry III and Macbeth, it is easy to think that Shakespeare just put into the play what he wanted to. However, as seen by the omens, portents and ideas of fate, Shakespeare did use a lot of real facts and real culture of the Roman Empire to write this play. In fact, An Ancient Rome Chronology, 264-27 B.C. even states “Despite illness and many disquieting omens, he (Julius Caesar) decided to attend a meeting of the senate, where he was assassinated.” Obviously, Shakespeare knew the history and understood what happened during the Life of Julius Caesar. However, just as Shakespeare added his own additions should not lead to thinking the play was made up, this knowledge should not lead the reader to think that the play is biased only on fact. This is why it is important to understand what time period everything is coming from so that you understand that a certain event actually happened or that Shakespeare added the event for some extra effect.
Overall, there is a blend of cultures from the Elizabethan Era and the Roman Empire when looking at omens, supernatural forces, and fate. This blend has proven to be important to the reader’s ability to understand what they are reading. It is important to understand the viewpoint from which the play was written and the history behind it. While only omens, supernatural forces, and fate were examined, there are many other aspects in this play that show a discrepancy between roman and Elizabethan cultures. This is why it is important for readers to examine facts and do research to understand what point of view they are reading from.
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