Casca and Cicero meet on a Roman street. Casca says that though he has seen many terrible things in the natural world, nothing compares to the frightfulness of this night’s weather. He wonders if there is strife in heaven or if the gods are so angered by mankind that they intend to destroy it. Casca relates that he saw a man with his hands on fire, and yet his flesh was not burning. He describes meeting a lion near the Capitol: bizarrely, the lion ignored him and walked on. Many others have seen men on fire walking in the streets, and an owl, a nocturnal bird, was seen sitting out in the marketplace during the day. When so many abnormal events happen at once, Casca declares, no one could possibly believe that they are natural occurrences. Casca insists that they are portents of danger ahead. Cicero replies that men will interpret things as they will: “Indeed it is a strange-disposèd time; / But men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (I.iii.33–35). Cicero asks if Caesar is coming to the Capitol the next day; Casca replies that he is. Cicero departs, warning that it is not a good atmosphere in which to remain outside.
Cassius enters. He has been wandering through the streets, taking no shelter from the thunder and lightning. Casca asks Cassius why he would endanger himself so. Cassius replies that he is pleased—he believes that the gods are using these signs to warn the Romans about a “monstrous state,” meaning both an abnormal state of affairs and an atrocious government (I.iii.71). Cassius compares the night to Caesar himself, who
like this dreadful night,
. . . thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars
As doth the lion in the Capitol. (I.iii.72–74)
He also calls Caesar “prodigious grown, / And fearful, as these strange eruptions are” (I.iii.76–77).
Casca reports to Cassius that the senators plan to make Caesar king in the Senate the following day. Cassius draws his dagger and swears to the gods that if they can make a weak man like Caesar so powerful, then they can empower Cassius to defeat a tyrant. He declares that Rome must be merely trash or rubbish to give itself up so easily to Caesar’s fire. Casca joins Cassius in his censure of Caesar, and Cassius reveals that he has already swayed a number of high-powered Romans to support a resistance movement.
A conspirator named Cinna enters. Cassius now divulges his latest scheme in his plot to build opposition against Caesar: the conversion of Brutus. Cassius gives Cinna the letters he has forged to place in Brutus’s chair in the Senate, and others to throw through Brutus’s window and place on Brutus’s statue. Cassius claims that Brutus has already come three-quarters of the way toward turning against Caesar; he hopes the letters will bring him the rest of the way around. Casca comments that the noble Brutus’s participation in their plot will bring worthiness to their schemes, for “he sits high in all the people’s hearts, / And that which would appear offence in us / His countenance, like richest alchemy, / Will change to virtue and to worthiness” (I.iii.157–60).
This scene demonstrates the characters’ inability to interpret correctly the signs that they encounter. The night is full of portents, but no one construes them accurately. Cassius asserts that they signify the danger that Caesar’s possible coronation would bring to the state, while they actually warn of the destruction that Cassius himself threatens. Meanwhile, Cassius plots to win Brutus to his cause by misleading him with letters; he knows that Brutus will take the written word at face value, never questioning the letters’ authenticity.
The juxtaposition of Cicero’s grave warning about not walking in this night’s disturbing weather with Cassius’s self-satisfied mood upon meeting with Casca (he labels the night “very pleasing . . . to honest men” [I.iii.43]) aligns Cassius with the evil that the omens portend. Further, this nexus suggests a sort of pathetic fallacy—an artistic device by means of which an inanimate entity assumes human emotions and responses (Shakespeare was especially fond of employing pathetic fallacy with nature in moments of turmoil, as in Macbeth, when the night grows increasingly eerie until Macbeth observes that “Nature seems dead” right before he goes to murder King Duncan [II.i.50]). In Julius Caesar, the terrifying atmosphere of supernatural phenomena reflects Cassius’s horrific plan to murder Caesar.
Furthermore, Cassius not only walks about freely in the atmosphere of terror but relishes it: “And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open / The breast of heaven, I did present myself / Even in the aim and very flash of it” (I.iii.50–52). He insinuates that the “monstrous state” of which the heavens warn refers to Caesar and his overweening ambition, yet he himself has become something of a monster—obsessed with bringing Caesar down, brazenly unafraid of lethal lightning bolts, and haughty about this fearlessness (I.iii.71). As Casca notes, “It is the part of men to fear and tremble” at such ill omens; Cassius seems to have lost his humanity and become a beast (I.iii.54).
The various omens and portents in Julius Caesar also raise questions about the force of fate versus free will. The function and meaning of omens in general is puzzling and seemingly contradictory: as announcements of an event or events to come, omens appear to prove the existence of some overarching plan for the future, a prewritten destiny controlled by the gods. On the other hand, as warnings of impending events, omens suggests that human beings have the power to alter that destiny if provided with the correct information in advance.
An idea about Shakespeare's Julius Caesar...
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I just read Julius Caesar. I liked the play, and I loved Marc Antony's funeral speech. If you're interested, check out my blog on the play:
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