Discuss the attention paid (or not paid) to omens, nightmares, and other supernatural events. What do the various responses to these phenomena show about the struggle between fate and free will in Julius Caesar? Can the play’s tragedies be attributed to the characters’ failure to read the omens properly, or do the omens merely presage the inevitable?
The characters in Julius Caesar neglect nearly universally the play’s various omens (dead men walking, sacrificed animals who lack hearts), nightmares (Calpurnia’s vision of Caesar’s statue running with blood), warnings (the Soothsayer’s advice to Caesar to avoid the Ides of March, Artemidorus’s letter about the conspiracy), and supernatural events (Brutus’s visitation by the Ghost). Caesar believes that the omens in Rome could apply just as easily to Rome in general as to him personally, and he quickly comes to believe that Calpurnia has misinterpreted her dream. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that these omens warn of events that take place without exception. The hand of fate, or of the gods, appears to strike with undeniable omnipotence; and yet, it seems peculiar to provide omens without allowing individuals time to alter their behavior or choose among fates. In any case, the characters fail to heed the warnings in almost every instance. Tragically, the characters often believe that their refusal to heed these signs proves their strength, courage, and indomitable nature; thus, Caesar believes that he is displaying the force of his will by ignoring the warnings and attending the Senate, though, ironically, it is precisely this action that precipitates his fated death.
Think about Caesar the mortal man as opposed to Caesar the public figure. How does he continue to wield power over events even after he is dead? Do the conspirators succeed in their goals by killing him, or is Caesar’s influence too powerful to be contained even by his death?
The conspirators manage to kill Caesar, the physically infirm man, who is deaf in one ear, probably epileptic, and aging; indeed, it may be Caesar’s delusions about his own immortality as a man that allow the conspirators to catch him off guard and bring about his death. In many ways, however, Caesar’s faith in his permanence proves valid: the conspirators fail to destroy Caesar’s public image, and Antony’s words to the crowd serve to burnish Caesar’s image. Additionally, the conspirators fail to annihilate the idea that Caesar incarnated: that of a single supreme leader of Rome.
Death does not diminish Caesar’s influence on matters or his presence in the minds of those who loved him. Caesar seems to speak from the grave when Antony reads his will, stirring the people to rebellion. Cassius and Brutus attribute their deaths to Caesar when they fall in battle. Perhaps most important, Antony begins to call Octavius “Caesar” when Octavius starts to display an undeniable authority in military strategizing. This appellation has a double significance: it reveals both Octavius’s future as the bearer of Caesar’s personal legacy and the metamorphosis of Caesar the man into Caesar the institution. Even with his death, Caesar has initiated a line of Roman emperors, ending the era of Brutus’s beloved republic.
As Caesar’s appointed successor, how does Octavius carry on the great general’s legacy? Consider his use of language and commands as well as the ways in which the other characters regard him and refer to him.
Early in the play, Caesar gives an order to Antony, who declares that Caesar is so powerful that words equal action by the mere fact of his having pronounced them. After Caesar’s death, words cease to have this kind of absolute power until Octavius arrives on the battlefield. When Antony tells him to attack from one side of the field, Octavius announces his intention to do the opposite. Like Caesar, Octavius is able to effect his will merely by speaking. Antony’s earlier recognition of Caesar’s power epitomizes one of the driving forces behind this power—the self-fulfilling prophecy of believing in Caesar’s supremacy. As a public figure, Caesar depends on the acceptance and awe of those over whom he rules to sustain the legendary, godlike aura surrounding him. With little resistance, Antony submits to Octavius’s notion of how they should proceed in battle. This recognition of Octavius’s inherently supreme nature and the consequent deference it inspires cements Octavius’s status as the emerging successor to Caesar’s great legacy. It is at this moment, notably, that Antony begins to call Octavius “Caesar.”