The Soothsayer in Julius Caesar

Instructor: Sarah Bostock
In this lesson, you will explore the concept of fate verses free will in Shakespeare's play, 'Julius Caesar'. This lesson will instill an understanding and appreciation for the character of the soothsayer and his importance to the play.

The Warning of the Soothsayer

If someone told you that death awaited on a particular day, would you believe it? Would you choose to go out on this day or would you stay home? These are questions William Shakespeare asks of his audience in his well-known play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.

The soothsayer, or fortune teller, in Julius Caesar only has nine lines in the play, yet he has an important role. He warns Julius Caesar to 'Beware the Ides of March'. The Ides of March refers to March 15, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated. Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with this date.

The Real Caesar

Julius Caesar
caesar statue

Historically, Julius Caesar was a powerful military genius and politician in Ancient Rome. He was born in 100 BCE and by 61 BCE he was elected to the highest office in the Roman republic known as consul. As consul Caesar helped command the army, the Senate, and held judicial power over Rome. In 46 BCE, he was made dictator for life. A dictator refers to one who gives orders, but Caesar allegedly used his dictatorship for personal gain.

As a result, many Romans felt that Caesar's dictatorship went to his head. They felt that his dictatorial style was ruining the Roman republic. After only a little over a year as dictator for life, Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BCE. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar focuses on the people's anger and fear over Caesar's dictatorship. In fact, the character Julius Caesar dies at the beginning of Act 3, leaving two more acts for Shakespeare to explore the consequences of his assassination.

The Ides of March

The soothsayer in Julius Caesar warns Caesar to 'Beware the Ides of March' twice in Act 1, scene ii. The soothsayer is telling Caesar to avoid coming out to the Senate on March 15 or he will surely die. In the play, Julius Caesar ignores the soothsayer and calls him, 'a dreamer'.

The Ides of March became a day of danger only because of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Although Caesar did die on March 15, no one considered it a superstitious day until after the play in 1601. One could say that the Ides of March was purely Shakespeare's invention.

The Ninth Hour

The Assassination of Julius Caesar
The Assassination of Julius Caesar

In Act 2 the soothsayer tells Portia (wife of one of the assassins) that the time is 'About the ninth hour'. This reference to time does not mean 9:00 o'clock but rather nine hours after sunrise. It is speculated that the time of Caesar's death in the play occurred around 3:30 in the afternoon even though the soothsayer even mentions he doesn't know the time of death. By mentioning the ninth hour, Shakespeare uses Roman horology, or the measuring of time, and he compares Julius Caesar's death to that of Jesus Christ. Three of the Gospels of the New Testament indicate that Jesus Christ died at 'the ninth hour'. These Gospels are those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Fate or Free Will?

Shakespeare explores the idea of fate verses free will in many of his tragedies including Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth. Shakespeare lived during the Elizabethan Age (1558-1603) named for when Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England. Many Elizabethans believed that fate, or predestination, controlled positive and negative things in life and little was left to free will. However, Shakespeare questioned whether life was left up to chance or if people could make their own destinies.

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