Omens in Julius Caesar

Instructor: David Raudenbush
Omens, signs that foretell future events, appear throughout 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.' Test your knowledge of omens in the play by taking a short quiz after the lesson.

Strange Events

Suppose you are a student at Julius Caesar High School. The big football game against Cleopatra Tech is coming up this weekend. A large statue of Caesar occupies your school's foyer. Friday, before the game, the right arm inexplicably falls off the statue. You could take that two ways - it probably just means the sculptor didn't do a good job with that arm but it could be an omen that the quarterback is going to get his arm torn off in the game.

In William Shakespeare's 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' omens are unusual occurrences used to symbolize impending events. They provide foreshadowing for upcoming plot developments such as Caesar's death or the conspirator's defeat in battle. However, not all unusual events may be construed as omens; some may see them as natural occurrences or coincidences. As Cicero says in the play, 'But men may construe things after a fashion, Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.' In other words, sometimes people might read too much into ordinary things and create a meaning for them which is separate from what they actually are. The lion Casca sees walking through the streets of Rome could have simply escaped from a cage; however the lion could also represent Julius Caesar himself.

The Soothsayer

Twice in the play, Caesar encounters a soothsayer, a kind of fortune teller. He tells him repeatedly, 'Beware the Ides of March.' The soothsayer repeats the phrase seven times over the course of both encounters. Caesar rejects the warning every time. 'He is a dreamer,' Caesar says, 'Let us leave him.' We don't know much about this soothsayer, although he does appear in Plutarch's 'Life of Caesar,' the historical record Shakespeare used for research for the play. In reality, he may have been someone who suspected what the conspirators had planned. Shakespeare uses the soothsayer character to not only add foreshadowing but build suspense.

A Dark and Stormy Night

The conspirators gather on a stormy night to plot Caesar's assassination. During the storm, several odd sights portend calamity. Casca, one of the conspirators, reports seeing a slave with his hand on fire but not feeling the pain and he meets women who also claim to see men on fire walking the streets. He describes a previous encounter when a night bird of some sort showed up screeching in the market during daytime. Casca believes these omens appear because there is something evil in the air.

Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, agrees that the omens point to something rotten in Rome. The same night Casca sees a parade of omens in the street, she dreams of Caesar's death. She tries to convince Caesar not to leave home the next day, the infamous Ides of March. She tells him about other strange sights in Rome that night, including a lioness giving birth in the streets, flaming warriors fighting in the sky, opening graves and ghosts walking around.

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