William Shakespeare, although not Catholic, was a Christian and the Christian faith dominated all aspects of everyday life in his England. He therefore would have known that Christianity condemns all form of superstition including interpreting omens and dreams to try to predict the future. Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar to dramatize a pagan historical event that predated Christianity. He based it mostly upon the historical record in Plutarch’s Lives of Famous Romans. All the dreams and omens in the play come from Plutarch, they are not Shakespeare’s inventions, and he uses them to illustrate that they do not in fact predict the inevitable. It is clear from Shakespeare’s presentation that everyone has the freedom and ability, with God’s aid, to reach his destiny. It was the acts and omissions of Caesar and of the conspirators, not the occurrence of strange events, that lead to the assassination.
Lets look at what Caesar himself has to say about omens and dreams. When he hears the soothsayer’s warning about the Ides of March ,he dismisses him without a second thought, saying, “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him.”. Calpurnia keeps Caesar up in the night with her bad dreams, saying that he will be murdered, and when she urges him not to leave the house, he tells Calpurnia that dreams and omens are shadowy things that lurk in the dark, and when confronted, they disappear. He says, “Caesar shall forth. The things that threatened me Ne’er looked but on my back; when they shall see The face Caesar, they are vanished.” Caesar’s low opinion of omens and dreams is echoed by other characters. Cicero for example, listens to Casca’s list of strange occurrences and comments only that these that these things may be interpreted in different ways: “men may construe [these events] after their fashion,”. Decius, the Roman equivalent of 21st century PR spin doctor, takes Calpurnia’s dream of Caesar’s mutilated and bleeding body, and turns it into “fair and fortunate” vision of Caesar of the source and and lifeblood of Rome’s prosperity. He dismisses Calpurnia’s fears as a misinterpretation. Even the soothsayer, when cross examined by Portia as to what exactly is supposed to happen on the ides of March, admits that he doesn’t know.
The omens and dreams that appear in the play are all found in Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s life, Shakespeare’s historical source. If he had used only one or two omens in the play, they might have seemed important, but Shakespeare lists so many of them that they can’t possibly be taken seriously. In Act one Scene two, the soothsayer gives a vague warning about the ides of March. Casca tells us in Act one, Scene three, that he is inspired by an extraordinary storm, that a slave’s hand burns but has no scar, that he encountered a lion who, mysteriously, did not eat him, that one hundred pale women claim to have seen men on fire roaming the streets, and that a night bird was seen during broad daylight. Calpurnia tells us in Act two, Scene two, that a lioness gave birth in the street, that the graves opened and the dead wandered the streets, that warriors fought in the heavens raining blood on Rome, and that ghosts screamed and squealed in the streets. Her servant tells us that augurers opened a beast for sacrifice and found that it had no heart. We’ve already heard about Calpurnia’s dream of Caesar’s mutilated body and the one hundred lustful Romans bathing their hands in his blood. After this litany, anyone who believes that omens foreshadow the inevitable, would also have been convinced by Marc Antony that Brutus was an honourable man.
The conspirators assassinated Caesar because they feared that his power and his popularity would result in a Monarchy and the end of the Roman Republic. Shakespeare’s play demonstrates that it is the actions and decisions taken by men that result in certain outcomes that influence certain outcomes, but that there is no way to predict the inevitable. This would be clearly understood by Shakespeare’s Christian audience, who were all well aware of the Biblical condemnation of omens and superstitions.
This is not part of Shakespeare’s play, when Caesar made his fateful decision to cross the Rubicon River, with his legions, Plutarch reports that he said, the dice are tossed high. Other source report that Caesar said the die is cast, but I like Plutarch’s version because it shows, Caesar believed the outcome of his action of his decision was not predictable, but in the hands of God.