Misinterpretation: the Role of Omens, Divination and Superstition in Shakespeares Julius Caesar - Essay Example

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here are many religions in which omens and superstition play an important role. There are likewise many Shakespearean plays that deal in these things: they are excellent plot elements to keep the interest in plays where the audience perpetually knows that the entire cast – or at least much of it, is eventually going to die…
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Misinterpretation: the Role of Omens, Divination and Superstition in Shakespeares Julius Caesar
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Download file to see previous pages Yet in Julius Caesar, omens, divination and superstition take on a larger role even than they often do in other Shakespearean tragedies. Omens, divination and superstition are, at their most fundamental levels, attempts to know things that are unknowable: to predict the future. They vary widely in supposed predictive powers; superstitions are things that give people temporary pause but may or may not be disregarded: they are the least potent of the three. One step up are omens – these are things that are known and generally believe to have predictive powers of some sort, but are often vague in their predictions; a certain thing might mean that it will be a bad year for agriculture, for instance, but might not tell of a specific event (the same is true of windfalls, the positive cousin of omens, which are, by definition, ill). Divination is supposedly the most strongly predictive of the three, seeing directly into the future. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar indicates that omens, superstition and divination were important parts of Roman religion, and well practiced; it also makes some room for human free will, however, in whether or not to heed the omens and give them their just respect. One of the major things that jumps out at someone upon reading or seeing this play is that there are simply a massive sheer number of omens, superstitions and episodes of divination in the play. For instance, in Act One Scene 3 alone, Casca experiences three things that she considers omens. The first of these omens was possibly the most notable: a slave had his left hand set on fire, but he did not feel the burn. This is clearly an unnatural experience: flesh should burn when set aflame. Yet it does not. In almost any society this would be taken as an omen. Later, however, there is a lion who gazes at Casca in the street – free and unfettered, but chooses not to attack him. This is something of a more understandable occurrence; not every lion is a bloodthirsty killer. Finally, an owl was seen sitting and hooting at the marketplace at noon, at the height of the day, when Owls are supposed to be nocturnal animals. This is something more natural than the last event even – owls are rarely but still occasionally seen by day, and it is quite easy to imagine this happening without there being some kind of mystical force at work. It would be strange, certainly, but imaginable. However, what these omens do show is that Roman culture was incredibly sensitive to omens and incredibly superstitious. Firstly, their sheer number and placement in the play demonstrates this – these three are simply the first examples, and occur early in the play, but there are countless others that could have been chosen. This alone shows that omens were taken very seriously. The relatively mundane nature of the last two omens further reinforces the importance of omens to Roman religion. Someone from a different religious or cultural background might simply think it was a full lion and a strange owl, but someone immersed in Roman religion sees otherwise – the natural explanations fall to the wayside and these two possibly ordinary events become omens. Julius Caesar clearly shows that omens and superstition were important parts of Roman religious practice, and beyond this they also show that these omens are far from prescriptive; they are open to interpretation, and are often misinterpreted, giving room for human free will. One of the best examples of divination’s subjectivity occurs in the Second Act. At one point, Calphurina dreams that a large group of Romans were standing together ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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