Beware the Ides of March! Get up to your elbows in the language of Julius Caesar
Today is the Ides of March, a day made infamous by the prophetic soothsayer from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With a “Tongue shriller then all the Musicke,” he warns the skeptical emperor to “Beware the Ides of March” at the top of Act One. Eight scenes later, the Ides arrives and (spoiler alert) Caesar is slain on the floor of the Senate.
As a concept, there is nothing particularly inauspicious about the Ides of March or of any other month. It was a perfectly ordinary element of the Roman calendar, intended to mark the occurrence of the full moon. For a Protestant audience like Shakespeare’s though, the invocation of a “Romish” means of telling time, especially with its rather pagan dependence on the lunar cycle, would have sounded more than a little ominous. Mix in a mysterious stranger, a lion wandering the Capitol, and a “Statue spouting blood,” all with just a dash of political assassination, and it’s no surprise that the Ides has become the most memorable date in all of Shakespeare’s canon.
This is hardly the only contribution that the play has made to modern English though. At the time of writing, Julius Caesar provides the Oxford English Dictionary’s first written occurrence for ninety different senses. While this doesn’t guarantee that any of these were truly Shakespearean “coinages” (as groupies of the Bard have been only too happy to attest for centuries now), appearing in such a well-known early text undoubtedly played a role in their continued relevance to the language that we speak today. Here are a few of the highlights:
- the dogs of war: Standing contrite before the body of the emperor he has just betrayed, Brutus vows to avenge Caesar: “Cæsars Spirit ranging for Reuenge..Shall..Cry hauocke, and let slip the Dogges of Warre.” The phrase has come to refer to the general chaos and brutality of all armed conflict, inspiring the titles for myriad books, songs, and films. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has even found its way into the titles of at least four different video games.
- apparition: While this word was already in use to mean an appearance of something, even an illusion or semblance, its supernatural connotation was made explicit when Caesar’s ghost visits a weary and embattled Brutus alone in his war tent. “I think it is the weakenesse of mine eyes That shapes this monstrous Apparition,” he mutters to himself. Today, an apparition is almost invariably ghostly or spectral in nature.
- up to one’s elbows: “Stoope Romans, stoope,” Brutus cries to the other conspirators, moments after the murder, “And let vs bathe our hands in Cæsars blood Vp to the Elbowes.” Such is the morbid beginning of this perfectly mundane phrase, meaning simply to be very busy.
- exalted: Interestingly, “exaltation” began life as a chemistry term, referring to processes that modern chemists would more likely call “refinement” or “sublimation.” Both in the opening scene of this play (“the most exalted Shores of all”) and in the second act of Twelfth Night (believed to have been written about the same time), Shakespeare seems to have used ”exalted” as a direct synonym for “sublime,” thus ushering in the word’s primary meaning today.
- to stand on ceremony: On the eve of the Ides, having awoken from a foreboding nightmare, the empress Calpurnia tries to convince her husband not to visit the Capitol come morning: “I neuer stood on Ceremonies,” she explains, “Yet now they fright me.” To be overly (if not superstitiously) beholden to customs or protocol, this phrase is still in wide use today.