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

In the current climate in the United States, which … you honestly have to be here to get the full effect of … the time is ripe for a wandering doom-predicting soothsayer, and whispering cabals of frightened men, and rumors flying through the streets … things are getting pretty surreal. To the European folks I’ve seen whiny-bitching on Twitter that all US news-outlet are covering Name-of-Presidential-Candidate (not on my site), instead of covering … I guess what’s going on in their countries? … I don’t know, take a look at The New York Times’ international section: chock-full of articles about what’s going on with you all there. But the front page … yeah. We’re talking about US now. Do you have any idea what’s going on here right now? We’re dealing with some pretty heavy shit that has to do with our shit, and our problems, and a build-up of shit that has been going on for a couple of years now, and besides: they’re OUR newspapers, and we’re covering US, just like YOU cover YOU in YOUR newspapers. We get accused of being self-centered by self-centered people who can’t even see how self-centered they’re being. It reminds me of the infamous moment on my site (my friend Emily still references it) when I live-blogged an awards show and made a comment about Drew Barrymore’s bra-less breasts (they were fabulous). A sneering European showed up and said, “You Americans are all so shallow.” I did a quick check and saw that he had found my site by Googling “Drew Barrymore’s boobs.” Uh-huh. WE’RE the ones who are shallow. Europe, I love you. And just because YOU assume that all Americans are the same way, doesn’t mean I do the same thing to you in return. My European friends don’t act this way, because … they’re smart and not condescending assholes. And believe me, we wish the news would change, too. We’re sick of it too, we’ve been drenched in it for months. And there are major issues with the media and how they have chosen to cover what is happening. Yup. But it’s a serious moment in our history and we’re talking about it. So to be pissed that America is covering American news … especially news of this nature … Grow up. Not everything is about you.

So. In the midst of what is happening – which, yes, is getting distinctly spooky – here comes the Ides of March.

death_of_caesar.GIF

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 nutty people constantly? What, Caesar’s gonna be like, “OMG, tell me more”? No. And therein lies his ruin.

It is also hard to listen to anything anyone says when you are constantly bombarded by “flourishes”, as Caesar is.

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 some years ago that I would meet my future husband the following year, and he would be blonde. Although I did end up dating someone that following year who happened to be blonde, it ended … not really poorly … but weirdly. In fact, I refer to him as Jackass McGee. Caesar writing The Soothsayer off as a nutter is understandable.

I just re-read Julius Caesar, in my ongoing Shakespeare Chronological Reading project. The conspiracy scene is one of my favorites in the play: Act II Scene 1.

The conspirators go 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. First of all, all of their names have “s”s in them. There’s an “s” sound in almost every sentence. So when you hear the language, just the sound of it, never mind what the words that they’re actually saying, it sounds like a bunch of snakes hissing. It SOUNDS like gossip. “Psst.” “Psst.” “Whissssper …” “Whisssper” “Psst …”

“S” is a sound that carries. If people are whispering over the water cooler about the layoffs coming down, they’re pretty safe in not being overheard if they say vowel sounds: “o” or “e” doesn’t really carry, but an “S” will ricochet across an office as though there is a megaphone attached to it.

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.

zpage184

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. Say, do you know that Google will substitute “your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving” for “Name-of-Presidential-Candidate (not on my site)”? My blood pressure has lowered significantly since I’ve started using this extension.

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