How do portents, omens and dreams add to the dramatic tension before Julius Caesar’s murder, in ‘Julius Caesar’
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays because in it he deals powerfully and excitingly with the themes of power and conscience. Particularly in ‘Julius Caesar’ Shakespeare uses disruptions as portents, omens and predictions to give us a sense of approach of terrible events. Shakespeare lived the Elizabethan period; therefore like many Elizabethans he would have had the conception of the divine order of the universe being mystical. Similar to the characters in ‘Julius Caesar’ the Elizabethans would see storms as a warning to some sort of disaster or calamity to be visited upon men, pagan or Christian, by God.
Also many Elizabethans were superstitious about things, which explains Shakespeare’s use of predictions and omens in the play. The uses of these techniques allow Shakespeare to create dramatic tension in the play, as shown in acts 1-3, before his death. Shakespeare starts of relatively early on in the play where in Act one, scene two; a soothsayer approaches Julius Caesar. A soothsayer can be described as a prophet-like being that has special abilities to see what troubles or fortunes are forthcoming.
In this case, the soothsayer tells Caesar to ‘beware the ides of March’; this is an example of a bad omen, which predicts a bad outcome on the 15th March. This would lead to the audience thinking that something bad was going to happen in the middle of March. In Elizabethan times this would look bad to them because they knew if anyone ignored the significant heaven there would be trouble. Caesar shows a great deal of arrogance towards he soothsayer by completely ignoring the soothsayer, this shows when he uses phrases like ‘he is a dreamer, let us leave him’.
Although it is so early on in the play Shakespeare is already creating an impact on Caesar’s character as being self minded and a selfish emperor, also in other plays like ‘Macbeth’, there is a selfish king called Macbeth who murders Duncan to take power based on magical predictions by the three witches. So by linking Julius Caesar with other plays he has created a wide range of themes, power, greed and deception. In Act one scene three there is a portent, the thunder begins to rumble and grows in volume. As in the Elizabethan period a storm was to predict a bad forthcoming, and so Shakespeare shows at the start of the scene.
The reactions of the characters were expressed a lot at the start of the play, especially Casca who is just introduced in the play as a ‘plain blunt man’. But in this scene after the storm he changes to such a large extent that he draws his sword out. ‘Are you not moved, when the sway earth Shakes like a thing unfirm? ‘ this is a line from the play showing casca reactions. It is quite common to see a ‘tough character’ become so nervous, talkative and excitable as Casca does in circumstances of danger because Shakespeare might have known that men were like that in his time.
Casca says a man should beware of the anger of the gods, but Cassisus, who is speaking to him in the scene, answers that there are more monstrous things than these portents, which are only symptoms of the evil state of affairs in Rome. Cassius’s reactions to the storm are really noticed in the scene; instead he is more focused on the plot to get rid of Julius Caesar. This shows the audience that Cassius is smart enough to ‘construe things after his fashion’. It leaves the audience with two options either God is unhappy with the conspirators or with Caesar.
In Act two Scene two, we see one of the main dreams of the play. Caesar is at his house and there is another storm, his reactions to the storm were actually quite different then to Casca, he asks sacrifices to be made and omens to be read all day. As the leader of the country Julius Caesar would feel directly linked to God, so he must feel that as a result to avoid any evil portents he must make a sacrifice. The audience’s view of this would be that Julius Caesar is misinterpreting events, which could lead to his death.
The main part of this scene is when Caesar’s wife, Calaphurnia has a bad dream of evil portents and begs Caesar not to go out. Calaphurnia is afraid, and has had a dream of Caesar statue bleeding from many wounds. This is possibly the only part of the play where the audience knows that Caser will actually be murdered, just by a dream. There is a great deal of dramatic tension in this scene when Calphurnia states that, in her dream she saw plenty of wounds, this could only mean that Caesar was murdered by more than one person, possible everyone in the conspiracy.
In desperate thought for Caesar the emotions show when she is down on her knees, this is a very shocking reaction by her. As seen in an earlier scene Caesar once again shows a great deal of selfishness and arrogance even toward his own wife, all because it will affect his chances of being crowned. ‘Call it my fear that keeps you in the house, And not your own. We’ll send Mark Anthony To the senate House’. This quote taken from line 50 is from Calaphurnia’s speech to Caesar. Caesar reaction to this is his increasing arrogance and ignores his wife.
The audience response to this reaction would be that death is inevitable for him as he denies his fate and other people. So the audience have shaped together in their imagination that Caesar will die soon. So far we see Caesar’s character as being greater than god in a way, because he is ignoring all his messages from god of evil portents and omens. As a result he is very arrogant and takes very little notice of the people around him. As far as he is concerned, they are meaningless and not worth his time. In Shakespeare’s time leaders were said not to be so arrogant, but in this play Shakespeare has created a very arrogant character, which would surprise the audience even more. So the impact of portents and omens on this play are very important, as they will predict what’s going to happen and also it creates tension in the audience as to what will happen. It is a very effective way of changing the atmosphere of the play as well the character’s reaction. The dramatic tension started to increase when Julius Caesar was showing arrogance by describing himself as a lion, as Mount Olympus, these are all images of God like greatness.
When Caesar starts talking he is very arrogant and uninterested. He does not look at the people he is talking to as he is above them in his own mind. He therefore looks as he is addressing no one in particular as to him, no one else matters. Which in the end had resulted to the death of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare shows in ‘Macbeth’, that Duncan dies due to a religious offence and it was not greed and ambition that led to it, although Julius Caesar is a different play in terms of themes, the style in which portents are used are basically the same.
For example in ‘Macbeth’, the witches warn Macbeth of the danger he’ll come across, similar to Caesar he ignores them. Also when Macbeth had the dream when he had blood all over his hands after killing King Duncan, there was a great build-up of dramatic tension. We find that some of Shakespeare’s play are linked, possibly due to that there might have been based on the Elizabethan era, whereby people took portents and omens quite seriously. So by using the style of writing with uses these effects, Shakespeare creates great tension in his plays.