“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”

death_of_caesar.GIF

It’s the Ides of March. So watch your back.

Here’s the moment in Shakespeare’s play where Caesar gets the warning from the soothsayer. And ignores it. Because wouldn’t we all ignore a warning from a random-crazy-person in the street? Especially if we live in an urban environment and have to deal with a lot of people in our everyday lives? I can’t be giving credence to everything some wild-eyed homeless person shouts at me as I approach the turnstiles at the 59th Street Station. I HAVE to ignore it. Otherwise I couldn’t survive here. So I don’t blame Caesar for not being like, “OMG, soothsayer, tell me more.”

It is also hard to listen to anything ANYONE says when you are constantly bombarded by “flourishes”.

Seriously. Stop with the constant “flourishes”. GIVE ME A MOMENT TO THINK.

SCENE II. A public place

Flourish.

Enter CAESAR; ANTONY, CALPURNIA, PORTIA, DECIUS BRUTUS, CICERO, BRUTUS, CASSIUS, and CASCA; a great crowd following, among them a SOOTHSAYER

CAESAR
Calpurnia!

CASCA
Peace, ho! Caesar speaks.

CAESAR
Calpurnia!

CALPURNIA
Here, my lord.

CAESAR
Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!

ANTONY
Caesar, my lord?

CAESAR
Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

ANTONY
I shall remember:
When Caesar says ‘do this,’ it is perform’d.

CAESAR
Set on; and leave no ceremony out.

Flourish

SOOTHSAYER
Caesar!

CAESAR
Ha! who calls?

CASCA
Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

SOOTHSAYER
Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR
What man is that?

BRUTUS
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

CAESAR
Set him before me; let me see his face.

CASSIUS
Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

CAESAR
What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.

SOOTHSAYER
Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR
He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

A psychic told me in 1998 that I would meet my future husband the next year, and he would be blonde. The bitch lied. Although I did date someone that year who happened to be blonde, but it ended … not poorly … but weirdly. In fact, I refer to him as Jackass McGee. So Caesar writing The Soothsayer off as a nutbar is understandable.

The conspiracy scene is one of my favorites in the play. Act II Scene 1. It’s chilling, the casualness of it, the resolve.

The conspirators go to visit Brutus at his house, and they stand in the orchard, and decide to do the deed on the morrow.

Here’s a fun exercise: read it out loud and notice how often Shakespeare uses the letter “s” in the scene, or an “s” sound. There’s an “s” sound in almost every sentence. So when you hear the language, just the sound of it, never mind what it is that they’re actually saying, it sounds like a bunch of snakes hissing. It SOUNDS like gossip. “S” is a sound that carries. If people are whispering over the water cooler about the layoffs coming down, they’re pretty safe with not being overheard when they say vowel sounds like “o” or “e” – those sounds don’t carry – but an “S” will ricochet across an office as though there is a megaphone attached to it. “S” is how we imitate gossipy whispers, if you think about it (“so they were over there whispering, like, “psssst pssst pssst pssst”). That’s the effect that Shakespeare has achieved in the sounds in this scene. The theme of the scene is in the language itself. Ssssssssss gives an impression of a crowd of men whispering “psst”, the hissing ‘psst” whisper of conspiracy.

Re-enter LUCIUS.

LUCIUS.
Sir, ’tis your brother Cassius at the
door,
Who doth desire to see you.

BRUTUS.
Is he alone?

LUCIUS.
No, sir, there are more with him.

BRUTUS. Do you know them?

LUCIUS.
No, sir; their hats are pluck’d about
their ears,
And half their faces buried in their cloaks,
That by no means I may discover them
By any mark of favour.

BRUTUS. Let ‘em enter.

[Exit LUCIUS.

They are the faction. O conspiracy!
Sham’st thou to show thy dangerous brow by
night,
When evils are most free? O! then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, con-
spiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability:
For if thou path, thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention.

Enter the Conspirators, CASSIUS, CASCA,
DECIUS,CINNA, METELLUS CIMBER,
and TREBONIUS.

CASSIUS.
I think we are too bold upon your rest:
Good morrow, Brutus; do we trouble you?

BRUTUS.
I have been up this hour, awake all
night.
Know I these men that come along with you?

CASSIUS.
Yes, every man of them; and no man
here
But honours you; and every one doth wish
You had but that opinion of yourself
Which every noble Roman bears of you.
This is Trebonius.

BRUTUS.
He is welcome hither.

CASSIUS.
This, Decius Brutus.

BRUTUS. He is welcome too.

CASSIUS.
This, Casca; this, Cinna;
And this, Metellus Cimber.

BRUTUS.
They are all welcome.
What watchful cares do interpose themselves
Betwixt your eyes and night?

CASSIUS.
Shall I entreat a word?

[BRUTUS and CASSIUS whisper.

DECIUS.
Here lies the east: doth not the day
break here?

CASCA.
No.

CINNA.
O! pardon, sir, it doth; and yon grey
lines
That fret the clouds are messengers of day.

CASCA.
You shall confess that you are both
deceiv’d.
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises;
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence up higher toward the
north
He first presents his fire; and the high east
Stands, as the Capitol, directly here.

BRUTUS.
Give me your hands all over, one by
one.

CASSIUS.
And let us swear our resolution.

And so, in honor of the Ides of March, here’s the “moment before” – the poor ignored SOOTHSAYER comes back into the picture:

Act II, scene iv. The sense of foreboding grows. Portia can feel the wrongness in the air.

PORTIA
Come hither, fellow: which way hast thou been?

SOOTHSAYER
At mine own house, good lady.

PORTIA
What is’t o’clock?

SOOTHSAYER
About the ninth hour, lady.

PORTIA
Is Caesar yet gone to the Capitol?

SOOTHSAYER
Madam, not yet: I go to take my stand,
To see him pass on to the Capitol.

PORTIA
Thou hast some suit to Caesar, hast thou not?

SOOTHSAYER
That I have, lady: if it will please Caesar
To be so good to Caesar as to hear me,
I shall beseech him to befriend himself.

PORTIA
Why, know’st thou any harm’s intended towards him?

SOOTHSAYER
None that I know will be, much that I fear may chance.
Good morrow to you. Here the street is narrow:
The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death:
I’ll get me to a place more void, and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

Exit

PORTIA
I must go in. Ay me, how weak a thing
The heart of woman is! O Brutus,
The heavens speed thee in thine enterprise!
Sure, the boy heard me: Brutus hath a suit
That Caesar will not grant. O, I grow faint.
Run, Lucius, and commend me to my lord;
Say I am merry: come to me again,
And bring me word what he doth say to thee.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

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5 Responses to “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”

  1. Jaquandor says:

    I re-read this play for the first time since high school a couple of years ago, and the scene that absolutely CHILLED me was when the crowd murders the wrong poet who happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators. How on Earth did THAT much understanding of human nature get packed into one brain, as it did with Shakespeare?!

  2. mutecypher says:

    There is a high degree of randomness to the statement – a lack of actionable information – that makes it like something out of a D&D or Advent game.

    “A cleric states that chaos encompasses both danger and opportunity.”
    “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”
    “A troll makes suggestions regarding personal hygiene.”

    Which makes it both easy to ignore and impossible to forget.

  3. Syd says:

    “…the scene that absolutely CHILLED me was when the crowd murders the wrong poet who happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators.”

    Shakespeare didn’t have to invent that. He took it directly from Plutarch. That apparently really happened. From North’s translation of Plutarch:

    …Now Cinna hearing at that time, that they burnt Caesars body in the market place, …went into the market place to honor his funeralls. When he came thither, one of meane sorte asked what his name was? He was straight called by his name. The first man told it to an other, and that other unto an other, so that it ranne straight through them all, that he was one of them that murdered Caesar: (for in deede one of the traitors to Caesar, was also called Cinna as him selfe) wherefore taking him for Cinna the murderer, they fell upon him with such furie, that they presently dispatched him in the market place…

    Shakespeare does deserve credit for the line “tear him for his bad verses!” — which makes me laugh even as it makes me cringe.

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