Sunday, 18 January 2015

Foreshadowing in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

The role of the supernatural, atmospheric disturbances, portents, visions and curses
Perhaps the most ominous words in the list of predictions used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar are spoken by the Soothsayer in Act I scene II while Caesar and his entourage are proceeding towards the festival at Lupercal - ‘Beware the ides of March.’ In spite of all his  outward bravado, Caesar is within his mind perturbed by this prediction!The fifteenth of March is the day Caesar will die, and the pervading sense is that no one can escape what fate has ordained for them, not even Caesar the Great! Shakespeare makes a very liberal use of visions, portents and atmospheric disturbances,and curses in order to create a foreshadowing of the events that are going to take place. Suddenness, or unexpected changes in the plot are simply not tolerated! The use of foreshadowing does help Shakespeare develop the plot of the play along the expected flow of the classical plot line where  all the events are plotted rather nicely along that triangular plot line which starts with the introduction of the characters, goes on to the introduction of the problem - the conflict the upward movement dealing with the conflict coming to a head in the assassination of Caesar at the turning point or the climax, followed by the downward movement of the plot leading to the the anti-climax, and the tying up of the loose ends or the denouement.
It would be a good idea to look at some of the examples of foreshadowing that Shakespeare uses throughout the play. The first would be the description of the thunderstorm that takes place prior to the assassination of Caesar. Act I Scene III starts the sound of thunder and sight of lightning. Casca describes the violent storm in the following words, ‘never till now, did I go through a tempest dropping fire. Either there is a civil strife in heaven, or else the world, too saucy with the gods, incenses them to destruction.’ It is clear here that atmospheric disturbances are directly linked to supernatural events, in this case, ‘civil strife in heaven’. Such disturbances augur disturbing events in the near future, they foreshadow events that will take place after the assassination of Caesar. A little later, Casca goes on to describe the celestial events as, ‘this dreadful night,that thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars as doth the lion in the Capitol-‘. Calpurnia too dreams of the dreadful events that are going to take place soon and in Act II Scene II she describes to Caesar what she had dreamt, a vision, no doubt tempered by the actual celestial events of thunder and lightning, ‘I never stood on ceremonies, yet now they fright me. There is one within, besides the things that we have heard and seen, recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch. A lioness hath whelped in the streets, and graves have yawn’d and yielded up their dead; fierce warriors fight upon the clouds in ranks and squadrons and right form of war, which drizzled blood upon the Capitol; the noise of battle hurtled in the air; horses did neigh…these things are beyond all use, and I do fear them.’ This is a description of a vision, a dream which is no doubt fed by the thunder and lightning that struck Rome in the night. The blood drizzling down on the capitol foreshadows the dreadful event of the killing of Caesar. The raindrops were thick and heavy as they fell on the city, they take up a tinge of red suggesting drops of blood, drops of blood that will spout from the body of Caesar. Unfortunately, Caesar doesn’t want to show to Decius Brutus later when the latter comes to get him out that he believes and fears the vision described by Calpurnia of his statue spouting blood. This desire to project an aura of invincibility despite of the visions and portents is probably points out to the tragic flaw in Caesar’s character. He was too confident about his invincibility that Calpurnia says to him, ‘Your wisdom in consum’d in confidence’. Much to Calpurnia’s chagrin and despair, Caesar walks to his death and with welcoming hands embraces it like a fool consumed with vanity. He had been warned by the thunder and lightning, and Calpurnia’s vision, and the soothsayer’s prediction and yet fell headlong into what fate had predicted for him.
Curses too play an important role in the play in so far as they help to foreshadow and predict the course of events that will be taking place in the near future. Shakespeare probably made it a point not to tax the simple minds of the common people who formed his audiences ins spite of his choice of rather difficult themes and plots, and complicated historical events with the help of the tool of foreshadowing, otherwise, surely the people would soon have lost interest in his plays. We need to remember the fact that Shakespeare wrote his plays for the common people and not for intellectuals. Antony’s curse and prophecy in Act III, Scene I, after Caesar’s death is yet another powerful example of foreshadowing, a favourite tool in Shakespeare’s style of writing. Looking at Caesar’s bleeding body, Antony vows to avenge him in a monologue that is most powerful and so relevant even today, ‘Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood! Over thy wounds now do I prophesy…A curse shall light upon the limbs of men; domestic strife shall cumber all the parts of Italy;…and Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, with Ate by his side come hot from hell, shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war’. Some of the words remind me of the book titled, The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth suggesting that Shakespeare is relevant even today, even if it means supplying the title: The Fault is in our Stars! The Curse of Mark Antony would be a suitable title for this monologue. A foreshadowing of the civil strife that will follow the death of Caesar, the rather graphic descriptions made by Antony remind us of the strife and violence that take place even today. Civil strife is all about the drying up of the ‘milk of human kindness’, the inability of human beings to feel for others; it is all about desensitisation, dehumanisation, and  emotional detachment that result from being exposed repetitively scenes and examples of extreme violence and extreme depravity. And yes, the events that follow this monologue are exactly as predicted. The ‘dogs of war’ follow each on of the conspirators, till they have  no option but to fall on their upturned swords rather than face the wrath of the combined armies of Rome headed by Ocatvian Caesar.


  1. I prefer to think that Shakespeare wrote his plays for Everyman.

    1. Very true, Bruce! Shakespeare wrote for 'Everyman' which I would equate with 'Common Man'. My assumption is that portents,visions and curses were not only a means of connecting with 'The Everyman' of that age but also making the plot less complicated, a way of foreshadowing future events.

  2. It was about connecting to the common man with the help of metaphors taken from nature: atmospheric disturbances, visions and portents which the common man used in daily life.