In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Shakespeare uses the supernatural to show its importance to the Roman culture and the effect it has to the tragedy. The supernatural brings suspense and mystery to the unfolding events and influences the choices of the characters. The unnatural occurrences enhances the plot and foreshadow future events. It also shows the consequences of ignoring the supernatural, as seen with Caesar’s assassination. Omens help keep order in society and act as warnings to the characters of the consequences of their actions. The supernatural plays a dominant role in Julius Caesar as it serves as an important reminder to the audience of its power, and the chaos and misfortune that will result from underestimating it. The supernatural’s ability to foreshadow the future shows the audience how essential it is to the characters and the plot. This creates a mood of suspense and excitement, as seen when the soothsayer gives a warning to Caesar. While Caesar is celebrating his return to Rome, a soothsayer interrupts with a foreboding warning to, “[b]eware the Ides of March” (I.ii.18). The soothsayer’s message foreshadows Caesar’s assassination and the chaos that will follow. However, Caesar’s ignorance of this warning reveals his tragic flaw of excessive arrogance, which causes his downfall. The audience sees how the soothsayer’s warning comes true with Caesar’s assassination, and experiences the significance of the supernatural again when it appears to Brutus as the ghost of Caesar. Another illustration of the importance not to underestimate the supernatural takes place in the ominous warning to Brutus. As Cassius and Brutus prepare to confront Antony and Octavius on the plains of Philippi, the ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus bearing an important message. The mere appearance of a ghost is already a bad omen, as it shows that its spirit is seeking revenge to those who caused its death. At first, the ghost tells Brutus that it is, “[t]hy evil spirit” (IV.iii.282), which makes Brutus wonder if the supernatural is actually Caesar’s ghost or a manifestation of his own evilness. This uncertainty causes him to feel an acute sense of guilt for murdering Caesar. Before leaving, the ghost warns Brutus that, “thou shalt see me at Philippi” (IV.iii.283). The ghost of Caesar signifies an atmosphere of darkness and fear, which causes Brutus to see and fear the truth of the omen. Through the warning from Caesar’s ghost, Brutus comes to recognize the true power of the supernatural and that underestimating it will only lead to misfortune and downfall, as he himself is now experiencing. Another role of the supernatural is to show the consequences of ignoring its control over events. The presence of the supernatural always indicates important points in the future, and if one chooses to ignore it they have to will face the consequences. An example of this is when Cassius ignores Casca’s omens of chaos. Casca describes the horrible visions he saw, including a lion in front of the Capitol that did not attack him and an owl that was hooting and shrieking it the market-place at noon. However, Cassius laughs the visions and says that the omens are only showing the danger Caesar is to Rome, who is: “yet prodigious grown [a]nd fearful, as these strange eruptions are” (I.iii.77-78). Cassius uses a simile to compare the danger of Caesar’s dictatorship over Rome and the potential chaos in Casca’s omens, showing how the two are equally threatening. Through the simile, Cassius manipulates Casca into believing that Caesar is a major threat to Rome and the omens are signs of what will happen if Caesar remains as dictator. Cassius, however, makes a major mistake of underestimating the importance of the omens, and he even changes the meaning of Casca’s vision to his own advantage. Cassius’ manipulation of the omen is a sign of disrespect towards the supernatural, and because of his actions Casca’s omens come true and Caesar’s assassination leads to complete chaos in Rome. Furthermore, Cassius’ misjudgement of the unnatural leads to his own downfall. The audience sees the full extent of the consequences of ignoring omens again in Caesar’s decision to ignore Artemidorus’ letter of warning.
Cassius’ underestimation of Casca’s omens is an example of how the characters often ignore the supernatural’s importance. However, it is actually extremely powerful and can trigger chaos and the downfall to those who ignore it. Another example of this is seen when Caesar ignores Artemidorus’ letter of warning. Artemidorus writes a warning of the conspiracy to Caesar, and says, “if thou read this, O Caesar, though mayst live; [i]f not, the fates with conspirators do contrive” (II.ii.15-16). Artemidorus makes an allusion to the Fates, who are the 3 Greek goddesses that control a man’s life. With the allusion, he shows the danger of meddling with the paranormal to end Caesar’s life, and chaos that will result from this. Artemidorus’ ability to foretell the future is a gift from the supernatural and a last chance for Caesar to heed the omens and avoid falling into the conspirator’s trap. However, Caesar ignores the letter and as a result is murdered by the conspirators. The consequences of underestimating the supernatural are severe, but they are necessary to keep order in society and similarly caution the characters of what their penalty will be for their actions. One final aspect of the supernatural’s power is that it can warn the characters of the consequences of their actions. For Cassius and Brutus, this means receiving their punishment for murdering Caesar. Only then will peace and order return to Rome. Cassius sees his doom in an omen, which he explains as, “[t]wo mighty eagles... [w]ho to Philippi here consorted us. This morning they fled...in their place do ravens, crows, and kites” (V.i.80-84). Since birds of prey symbolize death and misfortune to those who see them, Cassius tone becomes fearful and distraught as he describes the unusual sight. Cassius’ fear shows that he has changed his opinion of omens and now believes in them. However, it is too late for him to repent, and he must now receive his punishment for underestimating the power of the supernatural. This evokes pathos from the audience, while similarly reminding them that underestimating the paranormal will only bring misfortune and chaos to themselves and others. Cassius’ omens of the birds of prey signify the defeat for him and Brutus, whereas the ghost of Caesar is a more personal and direct omen towards Brutus.
The ghost of Caesar’s appearance to Brutus is a definite sign of his doom, as justice for his role in killing Caesar. After bringing such chaos and disorder to Rome, the country he loves, Brutus must pay the ultimate price to end the violence -with his life. The supernatural gives Brutus a final warning in the form of the ghost of Caesar, who warns Brutus of his death on the plains of Philippi. Unlike the previous omens, Brutus takes this omen seriously and even causes this omen to come true by committing suicide. Brutus tells his friends that, “[t]he ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me...I know my hour is come” (V.v.17-20). Brutus finally understands the importance and power of the supernatural, and that he must face the consequences of underestimating it. He also admits his confliction of killing Caesar as he says, “Caesar, now be still, I kill’d not thee with half so good a will” (V.v.51-52). The ghost of Caesar warns Brutus and the audience what the outcome of underestimating the might of the supernatural will be and that one must tread carefully with omens and unordinary circumstances.
Throughout William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the supernatural’s control over the events reminds everyone that misjudging its power will only result in utter turmoil and one’s destruction. The unnatural occurrences are essential to the play in order to emphasize its overall power and importance. The supernatural also serves as a way to keep order in society through warnings and consequences of poor and harmful choices. Today, there are many examples of war and chaos throughout the world. Could all of these have been prevented if the leaders had acknowledged the supernatural’s power and made a different decision? The supernatural will always affect the world in small, yet significant ways, and it is important to recognize, fear, and respect its power. By avoiding the path of underestimating the supernatural, one can avoid the chaos and misfortune that lies at the end. Work Cited
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.