How superstitious is Caesar in Julius Caesar?
Superstition is not something simple or quantifiable. One rarely refers to one's own beliefs as superstitions. Instead, the term is used as a way to denigrate the beliefs of others as inherently irrational. In thinking about whether Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play was superstitious, we actually need to consider three separate questions:
- Whether Caesar was portrayed as superstitious according to the beliefs of his own period
- Whether Caesar would have been considered superstitious in Shakespeare's period
- Whether a twenty-first century rationalist would consider him superstitious
In response to the first of these questions, Caesar's belief systems appear fairly normal for his period. He is not portrayed as someone the Romans would have considered overly superstitious and in fact is initially skeptical about Calpurnia's dreams and the warnings of the soothsayer, making him appear rational and skeptical within the context of the play.
Shakespeare was writing in a Christian context in which traditional pagan Roman religion would have been considered superstition or even idolatry, but certain pagan beliefs such as astrology were actually assimilated into Renaissance Christianity. Thus the original audience might have considered him moderately superstitious.
A twenty-first century rationalist would consider many of Caesar's beliefs pure superstition.
Shakespeare characterizes Caesar as superstitious but not as superstitious as Calpurnia. In the first act, Caesar orders Mark Antony to touch his barren wife because an old belief claims that the touch from the race's winner will eradicate infertility. Later, Caesar is almost convinced by the stormy night, the prophet's reading, and his wife's bad dream not to go to the Senate. This demonstrates that he does give credence to what would be considered superstitions by most observers. However, in the end, Caesar's pride is stronger than his belief in such old wives' tales, and he allows Decius to persuade him that he should go to the Capitol in order to be crowned and in order to maintain his reputation.