Determining Fate in Julius Caesar
When Casca asks Cassius, “Wherefore did you so much tempt the heavens?” (1.3.56) he touches on a central theme in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, namely whether man is in control of his own fate or subject to the whims of the divine. Characters talk of signs that indicate a divine or natural order affecting the passage of events. Other characters believe in their ability to use words or actions to decide their destiny. This creates an implicit debate over whether the favor of the gods or the strategic decisions of man determine future outcomes. This tension underwrites all of the reflections on politicians, portents, rhetoric, and honor that appear throughout the dialogue of Julius Caesar. Calphurnia looks to signs to determine the future. Brutus, who trusts greatly in honor and Roman values, believes in the inevitable dominance of honor. This inevitable dominance determines fate and the outcomes of events. Cassius, Antony, and Caesar quite clearly believe in the primacy of rhetoric and action in deciding fate. These views come into inevitable conflict, shaping much of the drama in the tragedy. Shakespeare’s play makes the argument that men, not fate, destiny, or gods, ultimately control the passage of history.
Multiple characters place great faith in the play’s many signs and portents, denoting their belief in a divine or natural order which controls the world. The portents appear early in the play, with the soothsayer prophesying Caesar’s eventual assassination on the Ides of March (1.2.21). Caesar himself does not dwell on this warning at all because he does not attribute any power to the superstitions of the soothsayer. Caesar believes that he has full control over his life and the events surrounding him. However, such superstitions do cause Calphurnia’s fear for her husband’s life in Act 2, Scene 2: “O Caesar these things are beyond all use,/ And I do fear them” (2.2.13-26). The unusual things she refers to are a series of strange events that occur in and around Rome prior to Caesar’s appointment with the Senate. Calphurnia’s fear demonstrates a belief that external powers affect history and the fate of man. The various signs, combined with the initial prophesy about the Ides of March, heighten her fear for Caesar. The text makes Calphurnia seem to be a weak and superstitious woman. She is barren (1.2.9-11), though the play’s frequent mentions of Caesar’s physical weakness imply that he may be the truly sterile one. She is also regarded as foolish by her own husband (2.2.110). Through association with Calphurnia, portents, superstition, and physical signs of the future are devalued. They are reflections of her physical and mental weakness. That she is ultimately right about the betrayal that awaited Caesar complicates the matter. However, Caesar was not assassinated by the prophesy itself, but rather through the careful planning and decisive action of the conspirators. This suggests the value that the text places on human agency in determining outcomes.
The play demonstrates a disapproval of superstition in another critical instance. Cassius, who had previously seemed to be fully convinced of his own ability to manipulate and influence events through rhetoric, undergoes a conversion of sorts just before dying:
You know that I held Epicurus strong
And his opinion. Now I change my mind
And partly credit things that do presage. (5.1.84-86)
Epicurus was an ancient philosopher that denied supernatural influence on human affairs. Cassius’s mention of Epicurus indicates that he has partly abandoned the philosophy that man is in full control of his own fate (Shakespeare 184). He also ascribes some morbid significance to the day of battle being his birthday (5.3.24). This sudden belief in ominous omens is part of what leads Cassius to commit suicide on the mistaken belief that Titinius has been taken captive (5.3.32). At exactly the wrong time, Cassius gives himself over to belief in the omens of the eagles and the cosmic significance of his birthday. It is unlikely that he would have killed himself had he not converted to the ideas of Epicurus. Cassius becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result of having too much faith in the power of portents and omens. This further devalues the idea that portents, signs, or a natural order control the passage of history.
Brutus represents a more complex study in whether or not man controls destiny. When Brutus is first introduced, it seems that he lacks belief in his own capacity to affect events, a belief that he keeps through most of the play. He says to Cassius,
Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius
That you would have me seek into myself
For that which is not in me? (1.2.69-71)
Brutus is referring to confidence in himself as a leader and a source of change. Cassius, who is initially representative of the view that men have control over fate, wishes to persuade Brutus to take action against Julius Caesar. He is reticent to assassinate Caesar both because he doubts his agency or ability in the matter and because he is concerned by the possible dishonor committing the act. Brutus thinks that honor functions almost as a sort of god which always decides history in its own favor. In other words, Brutus believes that the honorable always triumph. This is demonstrated when he decides to leave Mark Antony alive after Caesar’s assassination (2.1.179). The implication is that the honorable action is more powerful than the clever or strategic action. Others members of the conspiracy wanted Antony to die with Caesar to eliminate trouble after the assassination. Brutus refuses such an action because of a steadfast belief that good will prevail. He turns out to be mistaken.
Brutus is ruined by his belief that honor determines fate. He demonstrates his naïveté once more in the play, leaving immediately after his own oration (3.2.67). By doing this he removes any possibility of controlling the damage that Antony causes. Brutus does this because he believes that his own virtue, honor, and patriotism, expressed through his funeral oration will carry the day because honor always determines fate. This belies any belief in the capacity for men to influence events. He does not truly believe that Mark Antony, hardly a man of honor, could create disaster for him. Brutus thinks that he “is armed so strong in honesty” (4.3.76), and that such armor will always protect him. This is a fatal mistake, and further devalues the reliance on a predetermined order. Though Brutus does not believe in portents or soothsayers, he does think that destiny is set. The play reveals Brutus to be foolish for thinking so.
Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cassius each believe in their own agency with regard to fate. Cassius’s view is seen early on in his attempt to persuade Brutus to join a plot to kill Caesar (1.2.97). This act of persuasion necessitates an acknowledgment of the power of rhetoric. This is confirmed later when Cassius asks Brutus, “Know you how much the people may be moved/ By that which he will utter?” (3.1.258-259). The belief in the power of rhetoric and persuasion implies a fundamental belief in human capacity to affect events. Cassius sees the power that men have in shaping history in a way that Brutus does not. While Brutus’s love of honor shapes his philosophy, Cassius understands that events are not automatically decided in favor of justice or virtue. Rather, they are more often decided in favor of calculated action. Caesar expresses this philosophy saying in response to the omens and portents, “Danger knows full well/ That Caesar is more dangerous than he” (2.2.47-48). Julius Caesar is indicating that he possesses the capacity to overcome any fate foretold by signs. Caesar believes that he determines his own fate. This is true to a fault, as he thinks of himself as being practically divine (3.1.76) and thus ignores all warnings, superstitious or otherwise.
Though Caesar is killed, Mark Antony espouses the same conviction about agency, and Antony’s actions prevail in the end. In the Act 3, Antony discusses in grotesque detail his plan to avenge Caesar’s death (3.1.280-301). This revenge does not rely on any sort of natural order or divine will to be carried out. At no point in the soliloquy is the action even justified by Antony within normal moral structures. This is an example of Antony believing totally in not only his own capacity for action, but also in his own will as the only needed justification. The gods are completely separate from Antony’s view of action and destiny. Thus, Antony illustrates perfectly the philosophy that man has the capacity to influence and determine events without recourse to any divine or natural order. That he prevails in the end indicates the triumph of his philosophy over that of Brutus who always trusted in the inevitable victory of honor overall. The play suggests that such beliefs in predetermined outcomes are foolish. Those that act strategically and carefully will influence the direction of history.
The play itself provides the great complication of this tension over the agency of destiny. The characters are not ultimately in control of their own fates because the script tells exactly what will befall each of them. The outcomes are all predetermined in a play. This introduces a sad irony when characters like Brutus believe in some divine order. The play follows a divine order imposed by its writer, and in the case of Julius Caesar, history itself. It is as if Brutus’s character were pleading with Shakespeare to change the plot. Yet this does not mean that the play argues in favor of this philosophy of divine ordering. Rather, the references to actors indicate that the text argues just the opposite. Casca says in Act 1:
...If the rag-tag people did not
Clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and
Displeased them, as they use to do the players in the
Theater, I am no true man. (1.2.269-272)
The comparison between politicians and actors is critical for understanding the argument that the play is making about agency and destiny. Politicians and actors must both appease the people through rhetoric, appearance, and manipulation. Actors must make the audience feel certain emotions. The people in the crowd must think that they are in this artificial world constructed on the stage. Though the fates of the characters are predetermined in a play, the success of the play itself is not. The text is saying that the power to determine fate is possessed by man because the power to determine the fate of the play is possessed by the actors that give it life. If they are unskilled in manipulating the crowd, as with Brutus in his funeral oration, the play will ultimately be unsuccessful. Brutus tells his fellow conspirators, “Let not our looks put on our purposes,/ But bear it, as our Roman actors do” (2.1.244-245). Again, this illustrates the manipulation involved in acting, and thereby the ability for men to impact the direction of their lives and their pursuits. Acting is about appearance and timing, which would not matter in a world that was ordered by the divine or governed by signs and symbols. Analyzing the dynamics of the play itself complicates the central tension of this paper. However, the metatheatrical elements of the play indicate that the play’s argument remains consistently in favor of man’s capacity to alter fate.
Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar asks whether man is bound to some divine order that determines fate or if it is possible to safely tempt the heavens and impact destiny. The various characters represent different sides of this tension. This issue has implications that reach beyond Julius Caesar. It creates a foundation for exploration into the dynamics of metatheatre, the theological debate between predestination and justification, and greater philosophical ideas on human agency. The fates of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony were determined long before Shakespeare began writing. The craft of the play is making the audience forget the preordained outcome and think that the characters do control their own lives, even if it is one of murderous or vengeful intent.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.