What is a detailed description of the supernatural elements seen in Act 1 of Julius Caesar?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Examples of superstition and the supernatural include the soothsayer’s prediction and the mysterious sightings in the streets of Rome.

Superstition was a big part of Roman culture.  Romans believed in gods, and they had a collection of gods for just about anything.  They also believed in signs.  Signs were how the gods communicated with people.  Signs often came in the form of elements of nature, such as lightening or rain, birds, or animals.

During the first Act of Julius Caesar, things are coming to a head for Rome.  Julius Caesar is very powerful, and there is a powerful faction of the Roman Senate that is concerned that he is too powerful and has decided to do something about.  Through political force and charisma, Caesar made his way from being a member of a triumvirate (with Pompey and Crassus) to becoming the sole dictator after defeating Pompey in a civil war (Crassus died earlier in a battle against the Parthians).

In Act One, Cassius decides to lure Brutus, who is politically significant because of his name, into a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.  They are tired of triumvirates, dictators, and powerful consuls who are loved by the people but happen to be on the wrong side.

The most obvious example of supernatural occurrences in the play is the soothsayer’s prediction.  A soothsayer is basically a fortuneteller.  They were found in Rome in various forms.  Augurs were priests, and taking fortunes was very common.  We see them later in the play.  They had more clout than soothsayers.  

The soothsayer shows up, on his own, to warn Caesar.  This takes place in Act 1, Scene 2, during the Feast of Lupercal celebration.  Caesar is presiding, and at this point has Brutus at his side.  Brutus, you may recall, is eventually the leader of the conspiracy that assassinates Caesar.  At this point though he is just a loyal follower.

SOOTHSAYER:

Beware the Ides of March.

CAESAR:

Who is that man?

BRUTUS:

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March. …

CAESAR:

What say'st thou to me now? Speak once again.

SOOTHSAYER:

Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR:

He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass. (Act 1, Scene 2)

The Ides of March means the middle of March, or March 15 we’d say.  This was the day Caesar was killed, so Caesar should have listened!  Of course, the Soothsayer’s warning is very specific.  Brutus should have changed his plans, even though Caesar discounted the soothsayer, but apparently he is full of self-confidence!  Caesar was a also confident man, some would say arrogant, and his dismissal of the soothsayer shows it.  Most Romans would have taken this kind of thing very seriously.

In Scene 3, we see descriptions of strange things happening in Rome, which most Romans would have taken as signs.  You will see that some of the conspirators do and some don’t.  Casca, for instance, seems to have seen all kinds of strange things.  He tells Cicero that “all the/sway of earth/Shakes like a thing unfirm” (Act 1, Scene 3).  He goes on to say that he has seen unusual or frightening things before, but nothing like this.

But never till tonight, never till

now,

Did I go through a tempest

dropping fire.(10)

Either there is a civil strife in

heaven,

Or else the world too saucy with the

gods

Incenses them to send destruction. (Act 1, Scene 3)

Casca also claims to have seen a slave on fire, a lion in the Capitol, and “Men all in fire walk up and down the streets” (Act 1, Scene 3).  He also saw a “bird of night” howling and shrieking at noon.  He believes these are portents, meaning they predict the future.  Portents might predict doom, and things did go badly for the conspirators eventually, so maybe he was right! 

Cicero, however, does not buy into the whole portentous strange things are happening idea.  He tells Casca:

Indeed, it is a strange-disposed

time;

But men may construe things after

their fashion,(35)

Clean from the purpose of the

things themselves. (Act 1, Scene 3)

In other words, things are what you make of them. 

However, he also doesn’t want to walk around outside in the “disturbed sky,” maybe because it’s raining, or maybe because he believes in bad omens after all! 

Cassius describes the lightening as blue.  He sees strange things too, but has a different take on them.  He explains to Casca that there is nothing to be afraid of, it is not a bad omen, it is just testing their faith in their mission.

Why all these things change from

their ordinance,

Their natures and preformed

faculties,

To monstrous quality, why, you

shall find

That heaven hath infused them with

these spirits(75)

To make them instruments of fear

and warning

Unto some monstrous state.  (Act 1, Scene 3)

So you see, Casca, nothing to worry about!  We can go ahead and kill Caesar, and we don’t need to worry about all of these scary omens.  They are just testing our faith.  He is basically saying what Cicero said, but Cicero did not stick around to talk about it.  The conspirators don’t trust him, because they think he would rather be a leader than a follower.

The conspirators are able to successfully kill Caesar, but then the conspirators meet with disaster too.  They did not want another triumvirate, but they get one.  After they kill Caesar they are defeated by Mark Antony in a speech, who forms a triumvirate with Octavius (Caesar's nephew) and Lepidus (his lieutenant). They should have listened to the omens.

In the end, what we have here are many examples of foreshadowing that Shakespeare is using to add suspense to the story, create a mood, and demonstrate how characters react to challenges.  None of them listened to the warnings they were given.  We also learn a lot about Roman culture.  Are any of these things possible?  They are not, and most of them are probably not historically accurate either (except the soothsayer).  They sure make for good theater though!

Sources:

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