Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Omens and Portents

Throughout the play, omens and portents manifest themselves, each serving to crystallize the larger themes of fate and misinterpretation of signs. Until Caesar’s death, each time an omen or nightmare is reported, the audience is reminded of Caesar’s impending demise. The audience wonders whether these portents simply announce what is fated to occur or whether they serve as warnings for what might occur if the characters do not take active steps to change their behavior. Whether or not individuals can affect their destinies, characters repeatedly fail to interpret the omens correctly. In a larger sense, the omens in Julius Caesar thus imply the dangers of failing to perceive and analyze the details of one’s world.

Read more about the motif of omens in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


The motif of letters represents an interesting counterpart to the force of oral rhetoric in the play. Oral rhetoric depends upon a direct, dialogic interaction between speaker and audience: depending on how the listeners respond to a certain statement, the orator can alter his or her speech and intonations accordingly. In contrast, the power of a written letter depends more fully on the addressee; whereas an orator must read the emotions of the crowd, the act of reading is undertaken solely by the recipient of the letter. Thus, when Brutus receives the forged letter from Cassius in Act II, scene i, the letter has an effect because Brutus allows it to do so; it is he who grants it its full power. In contrast, Caesar refuses to read the letter that Artemidorus tries to hand him in Act III, scene i, as he is heading to the Senate. Predisposed to ignore personal affairs, Caesar denies the letter any reading at all and thus negates the potential power of the words written inside.

Read more about letters as a motif in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.


Sickness prevails as a motif throughout the play, whether it be a literal illness or merely the idea of one. The conspirators liken Caesar to a disease that has infected the country and its people; when Caesar faints following his refusal to accept the crown, Brutus explains that Caesar has “the falling sickness,” otherwise known as epilepsy. Cassius insists that because Caesar will soon wield absolute power, it is the people of Rome who are truly sick. Assassinating Caesar, then, is the equivalent of curing Rome of its disease; in Act II, Brutus describes the act as “a piece of work that will make sick men whole” to the seemingly ailing Ligarius.

When Portia notes that Brutus appears unwell, Brutus assures her he’s currently in the process of doing what he needs to do to get better, alluding to his plans to kill Caesar and reinforcing the idea of Caesar as a plague upon Rome. However, Portia claims that her husband possesses “some sick offense within [his] mind.” This suggests that Brutus is “sick” not because Caesar is gaining power but because Brutus is wrestling with his own guilt, weighing his friendship with Caesar against his principles.