Spring is almost here and for theater fans that can mean only one thing: jokes about the ides of March. Yes, we are definitely a wild and crazy bunch of people when spring is sprung, but the Ides and subsequent feast of Lupercal that feature prominently in Julius Caesar were somber affairs for ancient Romans.
Every month has Ides, it simply means the middle of the month. Romans wouldn’t count the days of the month in order as we do now, they referenced their days back to three fixed points: Nones, or the beginning of the month, Ides, or the middle of the month, and Kalends, or the beginning of the next month. The Ides of every month were a feast for Jupiter and a day of ritual sacrifice. In March, the Ides were especially significant, celebrated almost as a New Year’s celebration and the last chance to clear up last year’s debts.
To recap, the Ides of March were a sort of New Year celebration, where people paid off past debts, and a scape goat, or sheep in this case, symbolically took on everyone’s sins and was sacrificed. This confluence of events was not lost on Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar, framing the act as a cancelling of old debts and sacrifice of the old ways.
Shakespeare takes this even further by adding a scene between Caesar and a soothsayer telling him to “beware the Ides of March.” His wife Calpurnia takes the warning seriously and begs Caesar not to go out that day. For his own part, Julius refuses to give into mysticism and superstition and we all know what happens next.
A lot of Shakespeare’s tragic works present a tension between the natural and the supernatural. I’m thinking of MacBeth and Hamlet, which both have actual supernatural characters in them, and King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, in which people impersonate spirits or see ghosts respectively. Are they real? Are people playing at them for fun or to unduly influence others?
Shakespeare does not present a consistent answer to that question. Instead, he uses the ambiguity to his advantage in different ways in his plays. In Caesar, the audience can see both a very earthly manipulation of the supernatural for political purposes in the assassination on the Ides and a supernatural occurrence in the ghostly vision of Caesar at the end of the piece.
As with most things Shakespearean, the Bard takes an almost religious adherence to the idea that things are rarely completely one thing or another. Everything is a mix of contradictions, which is what makes his work as compelling as it is. With Julius Caesar, there’s a mix of the personal, political, philosophical, and mystical rolled into a compelling drama. Directors have taken the opportunity to emphasize different aspects of the play depending on their particular interests. Most recently, very political productions have been mounted, with Caesar depicted as both Obama-like and Trump-like in controversial productions.
The fact that a 500 year old play still keeps us on our toes is pretty remarkable, and March is as good a time as any to celebrate that, so gather up your friends for an Ides party! You can roast a rack of scapegoat lamb if you’d like and dive into a world of political intrigue and supernatural portent.
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