During Caesar’s triumphal march into Rome, a soothsayer cries out from the crowd, “Beware the ides of March!” Later, on the day of the assassination, the soothsayer positions himself among the crowd once again. Caesar, who’d curtly dismissed him the first time, sees the soothsayer and says rather challengingly, “The ideas of March are come.” The soothsayer replies, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.” This ambiguous scene sets the tone for the role of fate throughout the play: does human action prevail in spite of fate, or does fate defy human action? Shakespeare never neatly resolves this question. In fact, by showing how characters often read supernatural signs to confirm their intended courses of action, Shakespeare argues that while supernatural phenomena may be real, human beings are chiefly responsible for their own destinies.
The night before the assassination, Casca observes that the sky is filled with meteors, fiery figures roam the streets, and an owl shrieked in the marketplace at noon. There are so many omens, he tells Cicero, that he’s convinced “they are portentous things / Unto the climate that the point upon.” Cicero agrees that it’s all quite strange, but that “men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” Arguably, Cicero’s words end up being more prophetic than the mysterious signs themselves—when Casca talks with Cassius thereafter, Cassius uses the omens to persuade Casca that Caesar has grown “prodigious […] and fearful, as these strange eruptions are” and must therefore be killed. The conspiracy to kill Caesar predates the “strange eruptions,” and Cassius reads the omens as a positive sign of imminent success, rather than as a warning, in order to win Casca to his cause. This suggests that, as Cicero has argued, people will see what they choose to see.
This point is further illustrated when Caesar wrestles with the meaning of Calpurnia’s prophetic dream. Calpurnia dreams that Caesar’s statue spurts blood, in which Romans happily bathe themselves. Based on the dream and the other alarming signs, Calpurnia at first convinces Caesar to stay home from the Capitol; but when Decius arrives—dispatched by the other conspirators to ensure the newly superstitious Caesar’s attendance at the Senate—he puts a different spin on things: “This dream is all amiss interpreted. / It was a vision fair and fortunate.” The people’s eagerness for Caesar’s blood, claims Decius, signifies not that anyone seeks to kill him, but that Caesar has a reviving impact on Rome. This almost laughable twist on a grisly dream persuades Caesar to leave the house despite Calpurnia’s warnings—suggesting that he was determined to do so anyway, and that Decius’s words simply provide the justification.
The very fact that Decius was sent to escort Caesar also suggests that the conspirators don’t rely too closely on omens, either—various human efforts are put in place to ensure that the conspiracy is accomplished as they intend. This is further seen when, on the threshold of the Capitol, the conspirators take their places in a carefully-orchestrated configuration to ensure that Caesar is killed in the manner and timing they desire. As far as the conspirators are concerned, everything depends upon them; omens are subservient to their own intentions and efforts, and primarily serve to confirm them.
The attitude Julius Caesar takes towards free will is paradoxical. On one hand, many of the play's key events are accurately predicted, both by humans with prophetic abilities like the soothsayer, and by the natural world itself. This suggests a world where fate is predetermined, or at least heavily influenced by uncanny forces. Yet, at the same time, the human capacity for reason plays a chief role, as many scenes involve characters going through careful decision-making processes or engaging in complex arguments. This suggests a world where events come about as a result of free will. Shakespeare leaves his audience to puzzle over this apparent paradox much as his characters are forced to do, although hinting through Caesar that “death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.”
Fate Quotes in Julius Caesar
“Beware the ides of March.”
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
But this same day
Must end that work the ides of March begun;
And whether we shall meet again I know not.
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell, Cassius!
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why, then, this parting was well made.