Superstition In Shakespeare


Superstition In Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy Of Julius Caesar” Essay, Research Paper

Superstition has been around almost since people first inhabited the earth. For this reason, it has played a main role in many classical pieces of literature. One of Shakespeare’s tragedies, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, is full of superstition and the supernatural. It contained so much superstition in order to foreshadow key events in the plot, to further develop characters, and to thrill and relate to the Elizabethan audience for whom the play was written.

Foreshadowing was perhaps the main reason superstition was used in Julius Caesar. The supernatural provided hints to the reader about many important events to come. The most important event that was foreshadowed, without a doubt, was the death of Caesar himself by the hands of Brutus and the conspirators on the ides of March.

When the soothsayer cries out “Beware the ides of march”(312; act1,sc2) he is truly laying the groundwork for the rest of the events leading up to Caesar’s assassination. Although Julius dismisses the soothsay with a simple “he is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass.” (313; act1, sc2) the reader realizes that this date will prove important in the near future. To the audience, the prophecies are dramatic irony-when Caesar is warned about the ides of March, we already know what is going to happen to him. (Farrow) That one simple dialogue sets the stage for the rest of the plot to advance swiftly.

One of the reasons why this warning may have gone unheeded is because most sooth-sayers were not well respected, though many turned out to be right. “Since they lack any formal office or shop, and they predict forthcomings without fee, one can see quite easily why citizens would distrust their predictions”(Julius) One of the most graphic

examples of Caesar’s death being foreshadowed was most definitely Calpurnia’s dream the night before Caesar is scheduled to go to the Senate. Caesar says “…she dreamt tonight she saw my statue, which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, did run pure blood, and many lusty Romans came smiling and did bath their hands in it…”(341; act2, sc2). This very gruesome image is meant to hint at Caesar’s death.

However, when Decius arrives at Caesar’s home, he tries to convince Caesar that he has misinterpreted the dream, and it is actually a good omen. Eventually, Caesar chooses to believe that the dream is a good sign after all. Farrow believes that “instead of being able to decipher the cryptic language of the supernatural prophesy running through the play, the characters either ignore it, or they construe the meanings ‘after their [own] fashion’” (Farrow). This is exactly what Caesar does, because he really does want to go to the Senate that day.

Another major event that is foreshadowed in Julius Caesar is Brutus’s death at Phillipi. Caesar’s ghost pays a visit to Brutus in order to tell him “…thou shalt see me at Phillipi” (382; act4, sc3). The reader knows Caesar’s ghost came for this reason, because “ a ghost always had a mission when he came to earth-although it might vary considerably…others saw into the future and wanted to warn the living, and still others intended to punish a promise-breaker” (Papp).

Superstition also played a major role in developing the main characters in the play. It’s use provided further insight into the characters, because of each person’s individual beliefs in superstition. For instance, Caesar himself only believes in the supernatural when

it benefits him. At the Lupercal race, he asks Antony “forget not in your speed, Antonius, to touch Calpurnia; for our elders say the barren, touched in this holy chase, shake off their sterile curse. He wants a child to carry on his family name, so he chooses to believe that if Calpurnia is touched during the race, she will become pregnant. However, when Calpurnia dreams about Caesar’s murder at the Senate, he doesn’t believe in that.

Even Cassius realizes this when he said “ but it is doubtful yet whether Caesar will come forth today or no; for he is superstitious grown of late, quite from the main opinion he held once of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies. The unaccustomed terror of this night, and the pervasion of his augurers may hold him from the capitol today.” (335; act2, sc1). What Cassius is trying to say is that Caesar never used to believe in the supernatural, but he has quite suddenly become much more superstitious.

Normand Holland believes that Caesar is superstitious throughout the entire play. He says “ He believes in omens and auguries; he believes dreams are prophetic. He is superstitious by modern standards, but so is the play as a whole” (Holland 137). Calpurnia is selectively superstitious in a very similar way to Caesar. She herself admits “ Caesar, I never stood on superstitions, yet now they fright me. There is one within, besides the things that we have heard and seen, recounts the most horrid things seen by the watch” (339; act2, sc2). This trend is noted by James Farrow, who stated “…as the play continues, we find more and more characters who selectively believe in the supernatural…”(Farrow).

The supernatural also provides more characterization when Caesar’s ghost appears

before Brutus and calls himself “Thy evil spirit” (382; act4,sc3). Leithart agrees that “…Brutus too has been transformed into a little Caesar. Caesar’s ghost introduces himself to Brutus as ‘Thy evil spirit’. Even if the ghost had not given us this huge clue, Shakespeare has made it clear that Brutus is becoming everything he feared Caesar would be” (Leithart). Brutus is becoming everything he feared Casear would be because he too has become a tyrant . At first he killed Cesar because he deluded himself into thinking that it was best for Rome, that is no longer true. He is now only thinking of himself.

Although The Tragedy of Julius Cesar was set in ancient Rome, Shakespeare wrote it to please audiences of the time period that he was living in–the Elizabethan Era. The Elizabethans were very enamored with the theater, actors, and playwrights. In fact, Shakespeare is considered the most famous playwright of the entire era.

Many of Shakespeare plays dealt with the supernatural in some shape, like MacBeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, and The Tempest. There were also other works having to do with superstition, such as The Spanish Tragedy, Doctor Faustus, and The Alchemist. The reason so many pieces of literature from that time period spoke of the supernatural was because the supernatural was in fact a very big part of the Elizabethan culture and ,“…in a day before medical science understood disease, before astronomy, meteorology, and geology had learned much about the heavens and the earth, magical beliefs played an even larger role in daily life than they do today” (Papp).

Almost all Elizabethans believed in astrologers, alchemists, sorcerers, witches, and soothsayers. Astrologers were actually very well respected as opposed to their position in

society nowadays. In fact, Shakespeare made many subtle references to astrology and the stars in order to relate to his audiences. Calpurnia speaks of “…comets seen” (339; act2,sc2) while Caesar proclaims “…but I am as constant as the Northern Star”(349; act3, sc2).

However, there are even more important references to astrology made. In fact, the actual type of astrology alluded to frequently in Julius Caesar is catarchic astrology, which determines whether a particular action or decision is suitable to a particular moment. Catarchic astrology is consulted quite often, especially when Caesar is choosing whether to go to the Senate House or not.

It truly must have shocked the people of that era when Caesar went to the Capitol against all warnings, because “Elizabethans generally believed that prophecies were to be taken seriously, and certainly that no prudent statesman could run the risk of ignoring them” (Ribner 58). The people of the Elizabethan era were very proper, and to see someone, even if only a character in a play, break one of the laws of nature in which they so firmly believed, was quite astounding.

Truly, Shakespeare wonderfully used superstition and the supernatural to create a masterful literary work. As Ribner said “ We find Shakespeare approaching the matter of history with a surer hand, and out of it creating tragedy of a singular power” (Ribner 58). He accomplished his ultimate goal of using superstition to foreshadow important plot events, to delve deeper into character’s personalities, and to create excitement among the audiences of the Elizabethan era.

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