Julius Caesar

by: William Shakespeare


Because Julius Caesar is set in ancient Rome, where augury, soothsaying, and sacrifice played significant roles in both public and private life, foreshadowing has a correspondingly large presence in the play. Below are several examples of foreshadowing in Julius Caesar.

The Assassination of Caesar

One of the most famous and oft-quoted usage of foreshadowing comes from Act I, Scene ii, when the soothsayer begs Caesar to “beware the Ides of March!” This same augury also appears in the accounts of ancient historians, such as Suetonius and Plutarch; an Elizabethan audience would likely have known that March 15th (the Ides of March) 44 BCE was the official date of Caesar’s assassination. Therefore, they would have recognized the soothsayer’s warning as a foreshadowing of the murder to come. The famous admonition makes a second appearance at the very beginning of Act III, scene i. It is now March 15th, and Caesar remarks to the soothsayer that the Ides of March have come. “Ay / Caesar, but not gone” (III.i.) the soothsayer replies, meaning the day is not over yet, and Caesar shouldn’t get too cocky about assuming he’s defied his fate. Sure enough, by the end of the scene, he has been stabbed to death, the senators have bathed their hands in his blood, and Antony has sworn revenge.

Cassius’s narration in Act I, Scene ii, relating the manner in which he saved Caesar from drowning in the Tiber River also foreshadows the assassination. While Cassius is telling this story, he brazenly compares himself to Aeneas (the Trojan primogenitor of Rome, who left behind his burning homeland to start anew in Italy) and Caesar to a crippled Anchises (Aeneas’s ailing father, who Aeneas had to rescue from the fire by hoisting on his back and shoulders): “I, as Aeneas our great ancestor did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder/The old Anchises bear” (II.ii) Cassius tells Brutus. By referencing this particular founding myth, and drawing direct parallels between the hero and himself, Cassius reveals not only his dismissive attitude toward Caesar’s right to power, but also hints at his future ambitions: the assassination functions, in his mind at least, as a reinvention or second founding of Rome. Just as Lucius Brutus’s revolt against the Tarquins first established the Republic, Cassius’ actions will help restore it.

Calpurnia’s vision in Act II, scene ii (related to Decius Brutus through Caesar) in which she envisions Caesar’s statue spouting blood while “lusty Romans” bathe their hands in it directly foreshadows the circumstances of his death, particularly the way the conspirators literally dip their hands in his blood. Similarly, the servant’s report of priests slaughtering an ox with no heart is another bad omen that forewarns of death. Caesar, however, dismisses his wife’s dream and misinterprets the meaning of the heartless beast: “The gods do this in shame of cowardice/Caesar should be a beast without a heart/ If he stay at home today for fear”(II.ii). Caesar understands the heartlessness of the animal to mean that he would be a coward if he stayed home (i.e heartless, as the heart is associated with honor and bravery). Therefore, when Caesar decides to follow Decius Brutus to the Senate, despite the ample warnings not to go, the audience knows with certainty that he is walking to his death.

Civil War, Empire and the End of the Roman Republic

In Act I Scene iii Casca warns Cicero about recent omens including “ghastly women” and lions near the Capitol. “When those prodigies/ Do so conjointly meet, let not men say / ‘These are their reasons; they are natural,’” Casca says. These signs resonate later in the play, when viewed in retrospect as harbingers of the tragic events that unfold. The omens foreshadow the havoc that will occur as a result of Caesar’s death. Cicero, always wise and balanced, is more cautious in interpreting the symbols: “Men may construe things after their fashion” (I.iii) he says, suggesting that more important than the symbols themselves, is the way people decode them. He’s right; the conspirators misread the omens as a divine endorsement of their plot, when in fact they are warnings not to proceed.

The appearance of Caesar’s ghost in Brutus’s tent at the end of Act IV, scene iii, also has several foreshadowing effects. First, the grim appearance of the ghost and its assurance that it will meet Brutus again at Philippi, suggests the final battle with Antony and young Octavius will bode poorly for Brutus. Second, the apparition foreshadows the lasting legacy of Caesar on Rome. The fact that he physically appears on stage (the role is typically played by the same actor) and speaks to Brutus, implies a kind of resurrection or reanimation. And indeed, even though Caesar has been physically killed, his memory still endures through Antony and Octavius, and will continue to endure through the subsequent rulers that will propagate the name of Caesar as one synonymous with Emperor. The appearance of Caesar’s ghost here can be viewed as a symbolic foreshadowing of the Empire that is yet to come.

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