Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Julius Caesar is full of cryptic omens: the soothsayer's advice for Caesar to "beware the Ides of March," bad weather, wacky animal behavior, scary dreams, and, of course, ghosts. We talk about each of these omens in more detail below but here are two overall points we want to make, so pay attention...or else something terrible might happen.
Point 1: Just about every omen in the play is subject to interpretation. (Kind of like all of Shakespeare's plays are subject to interpretation. And yes, we are most definitely drawing a parallel between how characters (mis)interpret omens and the way we perform literary analysis.) Take, for example, Calphurnia's dream about a bunch of Romans standing around washing their hands in Caesar's blood (2.2.11). Calphurnia correctly guesses that this is a bad thing but Decius convinces Caesar that the dream means he will be Rome's savior. Of course, it turns out Calphurnia was right, but nobody believes her (partly because she's a woman), so Caesar ends up getting stabbed 33 times. The play is full of people running around misinterpreting omens.
Point 2: You've probably already figured out what our second point is, but we'll say it anyway: the true meanings of the play's omens tend to be lost on most of the characters until it's too late to do anything about them. So does this mean we should talk about how dumb Caesar is to ignore Calphurnia's scary dream or the soothsayer's advice to "beware the Ides of March"? Should we criticize Cassius for failing to anticipate his own doom? Not necessarily.
As students of history and literature, we have an edge over the play's characters. First, we know how things will end in the play, because Shakespeare is writing about historical events. Second, it's pretty easy for us as readers to recognize a bad omen when we see one. In literature, lousy weather pretty much always signals that something bad is going to happen, right?
The Ides of March
Historically and in Shakespeare's play, the "Ides of March" refers to March 15, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by the Roman conspirators. The term first appears in Julius Caesar when a soothsayer approaches Caesar and cryptically warns him (twice) to "beware the Ides of March" (1.2.3), which Caesar arrogantly dismisses as the meaningless ranting of a silly "dreamer" (1.2.1). "Ides of March" is repeated no fewer than seven times in the play, which serves as an ominous reminder of Caesar's impending doom.
The soothsayer's warning raises an interesting question about the relationship between fate and free will, an important theme we discuss at length in this learning guide: if Caesar had actually heeded the warning to "beware the Ides of March," could he have changed the course of his future?
This one's kind of a no-brainer. As in most of Shakespeare's tragedies, here's the rule: where there's lightning and thunder, bad stuff happens. (Just read Macbeth if you don't believe us.) On the night Cassius and the conspirators are plotting to murder Caesar, thunder and lightning shake the streets like no one has ever seen. Casca interprets the weather as an omen of bad things to come: "Either there is a civil strife in heaven, / or else the world, too saucy with the gods, / Incenses them to send destruction" (1.3.2). Hmm, that pretty much alerts us to the fact that the conspirators' plot against Caesar will cause a big old civil war, don't you think? But Cassius thinks the bad weather and other signs are a "warning" to the Romans about Caesar's "monstrous state" of tyranny in Rome" (1.3.5). The important thing here is that you can interpret omens in different ways depending on what you want them to mean.
Every time there are bad omens in the play, animals, especially birds, center prominently.
When Casca talks about how fearsome the night that Cassius gathers the plotters is, there's thunder and lighting, but there's also the strange occurrence of a nocturnal bird showing up at the marketplace at high noon, shrieking doom.
Calphurnia warns Caesar not to go to the Capitol because she's seen a war in the air, the domain of the birds.
Finally, when Cassius accepts that he has to die in the battle against Antony and Octavius, he knows it because two great eagles that fed from the hands of soldiers were replaced the next day by ravens, crows, and kites – dark birds that filled the air with shrieking and spread a shadow of death over the army. Cassius knows the eagles feeding from soldier's hands symbolize him and Brutus, two noble men whose fates rest with their armies. After the eagles fall, the black army of Antony and Octavius will spread the shadow of tyranny over the land, like those scavenger birds.
Other animals show up on occasion, such as the lions both Calphurnia and Casca see in visions. Calphurnia envisions a lioness giving birth in the streets, a strange location for this to take place. The lion that Casca saw walked by him sulkily without attacking. So the lion (king of the jungle) acts unnaturally in the play, perhaps symbolizing the fact that Caesar, who could become king (of men) will not reach this status.
Just to beat us over the head with the symbolism, Cassius refers to Caesar as "the lion in the Capitol" when he talks about the need to overthrow him. And when Caesar claims he's more dangerous than danger itself, he says: "We are two lions litter'd in one day, And I the elder and more terrible." By identifying himself with such a powerful and fearsome animal, Caesar forces the "hinds" (deer) of Rome to gang up against him.
Finally, as far as animals go, there's also the unknown beast that Caesar has sacrificed, whose lack of a heart is definitely a bad omen. Again, Shakespeare reminds us that omens can be interpreted in many ways. Caesar takes it to mean that if he doesn't go to the Capitol that day he is a coward. Caesar borrows here from the Latin word for "heart" ("cor"), from which we get the word "courage," since the heart was thought to be the source of that particular passion. Of course, we readers know that the omen might better be interpreted as a sign that the conspirators don't have hearts or mercy when they agree to take Caesar's life.
Ghosts appear a few times in the play and are obvious symbols for bad news. On the fateful night before the Ides of March, Casca meets terrified women who claim the streets are filled with men in flames – visions no one else can see. Brutus is visited twice by a ghost, which he believes to be the ghost of Caesar. Obviously, this can't be good – you don't come all the way out of the grave to deliver a casual "howdy."