Discuss the theme of freewill versus fate with textual proof in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act I, Scene ii, of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare,  Cassius works to manipulate Brutus into joining the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.  One of the statements that he makes to Brutus addresses the issue of fate versus free will:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Cassius asserts that men are in charge of what happens to them.  If the Roman senators do not intervene, Caesar will become a dictator.  Then, everyone in Rome will be subservient to Caesar.  Fate is not the problem; choosing not to act makes the problem.

Of course, Cassius wants to lure Brutus into the plot. His assertion is true. Yet,  there are many things that happen in the play that suggest that a man’s fate is predetermined.   Fate seems to be on the side of the conspirators.  Many people and events tried to forewarn Caesar about his assassination.

What makes the outcome of the play appear to be preordained?

  • The soothsayer warns Caesar twice about the Ides of March.  Caesar ignores the warning although he does appear to be a little bothered by the man’s prediction. 
  • Caesar was superstitious.  He asks for the augurers to sacrifice an animal and read the organs for insight about his future.  When he hears that the animal had no heart, he interprets the sign:

“The gods do this in shame of cowardice.

Caesar should be a beast without a heart

If he should stay at home today for fear…”

  • Calpurnia’s dream frightens her.  She begs Caesar not to go.  He acquiesces, but Decius Brutus reinterprets the dream and shames Caesar into going to the Capitol. 
  • Caesar himself makes the comment to Calpurnia:

                                What can be avoided

Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?

To Caesar, if the gods wish for something to occur, man will not be able to change it.

  • The terrible night before the assassination offers many omens and warnings about the future.  The omens included men on fire; a terrible battle in the heavens could be heard by the citizens;  a lion gave birth in a Roman street.
  • Cicero creatively gives the answer to these omens when he says that men will interpret these things to suit themselves. All of the omens are open to interpretation. 
  • Even when Caesar gets to the Senate, he was offered another chance to learn about the plot.  Artemidorus knows about the assassination plans and writes Caesar a letter naming all of the conspirators.  In his arrogance, Caesar tells him that he will look at nothing that is about himself.  He is concerned only with the people.

Shakespeare’s attitude toward free will is a conundrum.  He shows the human capacity for logic and reasoning.  This is true especially of Brutus who spends many sleepless nights before he decides to join the conspiracy.  His inner turmoil and eventual decision suggests that man makes his own decisions based on his thought processes. 

Despite Brutus’s stoic attitude, he faces the evil spirit of Caesar who intimates that Brutus will die in Philippi.  The spirit comes again when Brutus arrives in Philippi.  The gods try to forewarn Brutus that he is going to die.

On the other hand, many of the events in the play are predicted both by human prophetics and by mysterious omens. Based on the overwhelming evidence in this play, the fate of the characters seems predetermined. 

Read the study guide:
Julius Caesar

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