14 MARCH 2014

Portents in Julius Caesar and Macbeth

Portents in Julius Caesar and Macbeth

We’ll post your next blog on the Ides of March, I was told. Should I worry? Well, the tide of Roman history did turn on that day.

The Ides were determined by the full moon and fell on the 13th or 15th of the month in the Roman calendar. It was an unlucky time, the Romans thought. But who cares about the Ides now? George Clooney does. He used it as the name of his 2011 film dealing with a fiercely contested Democratic Primary dominated by political intrigue, sexual rivalry and death. Mmmmm, will this be my last post?

Caesar: What say’st thou to me now? Speak once again.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: He is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass.

A mysterious figure approaches Caesar and says ‘Watch your back on the 15th of March’. Not what Caesar wants to hear and he does not hear it; one month later he is assassinated. The Soothsayer or truth teller’s words are portentous; they are a significant sign of something about to happen. Or are they? When Portia, Brutus’ wife, asks the Soothsayer on the Ides of March if he KNOWS whether any harm is ‘intended toward Caesar’, the Soothsayer replies:

‘None that I know will be, much that I fear may chance.’

When Macbeth meets the witches on the heath, they speak of ‘present grace and great prediction of noble having and of royal hope’, but not of how these things will happen. Frustrated by this, Macbeth calls them ‘imperfect speakers’. Have they planted a seed or warned ominously of the future? Either way, the dramatic tension has been heightened.

Shakespeare offers no consistent view of the power or accuracy of portents or omens, but rather explores their interpretation and effect. In Act 3 Caesar refuses to engage with the Soothsayer again, this time only minutes before his death. Macbeth goes back to the witches for more. Cassius, a key conspirator against Caesar, says just before his own death: ‘Now I change my mind/And partly credit things that do presage’.

Who delivers the verbal portents? In both plays, they are outsiders, seemingly dwellers in another realm. Caesar calls the soothsayer ‘a dreamer’, Banquo says the witches ‘look not like the inhabitants of the earth’. Military, male worlds are briefly addressed by those from another sphere whose instruments are potentially destructive words not weapons.

Then there are the ghosts; one speaks and one does not. The Elizabethans were unsure about how to treat ghosts; did they speak the truth or were they agents of the devil? (Think of Hamlet’s struggle on this point.) The ghost of the murdered Banquo appears at the banquet to celebrate Macbeth’s coronation. He is seen only by Macbeth who becomes distracted and angry and the gathering breaks up. Is the ghost a significant sign of the incipient destruction of Scotland and the Macbeths’ sanity or a reflection of Macbeth’s fears and guilt at having ordered Banquo’s death? The Ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus twice and speaks to him. After the Ghost’s second appearance, this time in Philippi fields, Brutus says to his ‘poor remains of friends’, ‘I know my hour is come’. The battle is lost, but Brutus is not killed; he chooses suicide.

Recently severe weather in the U.K. has been seen by one UKIP councillor as divine retribution for the passing of the same-sex marriage bill, by others as a sign of climate change. Elizabethans could be just as divided about its significance. In these plays does the weather warn of or reflect man’s actions? When Macbeth first meets the witches he describes the stormy weather and the battle’s outcome as ‘foul and fair’, ominously echoing the witches’ own words. Just before Macduff announces the regicide, Lennox says ‘the night has been unruly’, punctuated by fires, screams, tremors and high winds. The Old Man and Ross tell of cannibalistic horses and an owl killing a hawk in the days before Duncan’s murder. Are these all portents before the event and/or reflections of it afterwards? Ross describes the Old Man’s attitude thus: ‘Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act’.

Similarly, the weather is extreme on the night when the conspirators meet to plan the murder of Caesar. It is a ‘tempest dropping fire’. Again, Shakespeare offers several viewpoints on this. Casca offers three explanations: ‘there is civil strife in heaven’, humans have angered the gods and the gods plans to destroy them or ‘they are portentous things’. Cicero, however, warns that:

‘men may construe things after their fashion

Clean from the purpose of the things themselves’.

In demonstration of that, Cassius makes the case for this storm and the unnatural behaviour of animals being a ‘warning of some monstrous state’. These portents aid his conspirator recruitment drive; there will be trouble ahead because of Caesar.

And what does Calpurnia’s gory dream mean? Over to you….

Time to post; perhaps you’ll hear from me again.


Vicki Wienand is a former Head of English who taught English in a variety of schools, including one in Sydney. She then became a freelance publisher and began work on the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare series in 2011, becoming Series Editor with Richard Andrews. She co-edited Cambridge School Shakespeare Julius Caesar (latest edition) for the series.

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