The Role of Fate in the Shakespearean Tragedy Julius Ceasar

Shakespearean drama often dealt with the eternal conflict between fate and free will. Whether it was Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers destined to die in their struggle to become united or Macbeth, whose blind ambition made him preordained for evil, fate has a significant presence in most of Shakespeare’s dramas. Through his characters, Shakespeare addressed the universal human struggle between succumbing to fate and exercising free will to overcome your fate. Like in his other works, the characters of Julius Caesar wrestle with this dilemma as well: Does man have the power to change his destiny? Each of the main characters of this play struggle with the important question of whether or not their actions can change the course of fate, and by the end of the play, this conflict is resolved in different ways.

The presence of fate is felt right from the beginning of the play. First of all, there is the fact that the play is based upon historical facts, which means that the audience is aware, even before reading or watching it, what will happen. This knowledge inspires in the audience a feeling of inevitability and encourages them to think about fate and to what extent our actions are free. In terms of the play itself, Shakespeare uses devices such as soothsayers, omens and dreams to indicate the role that fate is playing over the events. Almost as soon as the play starts, a soothsayer warns Caesar of his fate, saying “Beware the ides of March,” (I, ii, 17). Caesar is given hints of what is in store for him multiple times, including through his wife, Calphurnia, who dreams about Caesar’s murder. Calphurnia dreams that Caesar’s statue is bleeding, and Romans are bathing their hands in it (II, ii, 75-79) – a dream that proves to be quite prophetic, not only metaphorically but also literally, as the conspirators do actually bathe in Caesar’s blood, upon killing him. Therefore, Shakespeare makes it clear that the workings of fate play a significant part in the events that consequently unfold.

The characters’ belief about the extent to which their actions can stand against the workings of fate is as distinct as their personalities. Caesar, having so long embodied an almost superhuman figure, brushes aside the warnings that might have saved him from his fate at the Senate. It is indicated, through his conversation with Calphurnia, that he thinks that being the demigod he believes himself to be, he would be protected from whatever fate has in store. He states, “The things that threatened me/ Ne’er looked but on my back; when they shall see/ The face of Caesar, they are vanished,” (II, ii, 10-13). He acknowledges the strange omens witnessed by everyone in the days following up to his assassination, but he attributes these omens to the world at large and not necessarily to himself. “…For these predictions are to the world in general as to Caesar,” he tells Calphurnia (II, ii, 28-29). However, despite his brushing off of the significance of fate, Caesar holds an implicitly fatalistic view of the world and human life. He says, “What can be avoided/ Whose end is purposed by the gods?” (II, ii, 26-27), indicating his belief that fate eventually wins, despite man’s efforts. His most famous lines also lend support to his fatalism:

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 was come. (II, ii, 34-37)

According to Derek Traversi, in his book “Shakespeare: The Roman Plays,” the above lines reflect, “that sense of fatality…which is present as a factor limiting human choices and decisions in all Shakespeare’s plays of this period,” (41-42). In the end, however, Caesar’s decision to go to the Senate, despite the many warnings he receives, can be indicative of his conviction that he would remain untouched by the hand of fate. Had he listened to the warnings and stayed home that day, he might have been able to prevent his unfortunate end. Therefore, in Caesar’s case, it was his own actions and arrogant nature that led to his fate.

Brutus’s way of looking at fate is different. Before the assassination of Caesar, he is not concerned with his own personal fate, but he thinks he has a certain power to change the fate he believes Rome has in store for itself. The whole reason that Brutus decides to join the conspiracy against Caesar is that he is sure that with Caesar as its ruler, Rome’s fate will be destruction. Brutus is adamant that he will do anything in his power to change the course of this fate. He says, “Brutus had rather be a villager/ Than to repute himself a son of Rome/ Under these hard conditions as this time/ Is like to lay upon us,” (I, ii, 172-175). He honestly thinks that by killing Caesar, he can save Rome from its fate. Where Caesar believed himself to be immune from fate, Brutus feels that he can control fate. However, this belief in his power over fate is markedly altered after Caesar has been killed. As civil war rages in Rome, Brutus begins to admit that circumstances are moving along paths which cannot be controlled. He says:

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. (IV, iii, 217)

Traversi says about these lines, that they show, “…recognition of man’s limited capacity to impose his will upon the course of reality,” (69). Brutus is now aware that the only freedom he has is to ‘take the current when it serves.’ Therefore, eventually he finds himself subjecting to fate and by the time he commits suicide, he sees this end as something inevitable – something that had to happen because he killed Caesar. According to L. C. Knights, in “Personality and Politics in ‘Julius Caesar’”, by this time Brutus, “senses that this is no accident of defeat but the working of the destiny to which he committed himself long before,” (137). Thus, Brutus’ journey becomes one of eventually submitting to the fate he feels he has brought upon himself.

Cassius complete conviction is man’s ability to alter his own fate is apparent right from the beginning. In the speech where he convinces Brutus to join the conspiracy, he dismisses the idea of blaming fate or destiny for what happens in your life. He says:

Men at some time are masters of their fate:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (I, ii, 139-141)

This affirmation of his freedom from the workings of fate does not change even after the assassination of Caesar. Unlike Brutus, who sees suicide as a subjection to fate, Cassius views this act of self-annihilation as exerting control over his fate. Cassius tells Casca that ‘no stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass’ can withstand the strength of spirit. Traversi calls this, “[Cassius’s] assertion of man’s power to affirm his freedom, if only through self-destruction,” (31). Cassius does, however, begin to acknowledge fate as more influential than he used to believe it to be. But this is only half true, as he says, “I but believe it partly/ For I am full of spirit and resolved/ To meet all perils very constantly,” (V, I, 90-93). Therefore, Cassius, unlike Brutus, does not end his life convinced of man’s powerlessness against fate.

Evidently Shakespeare, through the journeys of his characters, explores the complex issue of ‘fate VS free will’ from many different angles. However, in the play, as in life, there is no completely satisfying resolution of the question of whether or not fate can be controlled by free will. The events which occurred can be due as much to the actions of the characters as to fate itself.  Maybe the actions of the characters were what defined their own respective destinies. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the idea of fate had a significant impact on the characters’ internal journeys as well as their actions, and consequently, the events that conspired were substantially influenced by fate.

Works Cited

  1. Knights, L. C. Personality and Politics in ‘Julius Caesar’. 1964
  2. Rabkin, Norman. Structure, convention and meaning in Julius Caesar. 1964
  3. Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.  London: Edward Blount and William Jaggard Publications, 1599.
  4. Stirling, Brents. Ritual in Julius Caesar. 1956.
  5. Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford University Press, 1963.


  1. Knights, L. C. Personality and Politics in ‘Julius Caesar’. 1964.
  2. Knight, Wilson, G. The Eroticism of ‘Julius Caesar’.1968.
  3. Paolucci, Anne. The Tragic Hero in ‘Julius Caesar’. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 11, No 3. Summer, 1960. Pp 329-333.
  4. Rabkin, Norman. Structure, Convention and Meaning in ‘Julius Caesar’. 1964.
  5. Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.  London: Edward Blount and William Jaggard Publications, 1599.
  6. Stirling, Brents. Ritual in ‘Julius Caesar’. 1956.
  7. Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford University Press, 1963.


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