What Does “The Ides of March” Mean And Where Does It Come From?

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You may have heard the phrase “Beware the ides of March” before. Where does this phrase come from, and how else have its origins influenced today’s arts and culture?

The ides of March refers to the date March 15th. The roots of this subtly omnipresent phrase can be traced back to the one and only William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s legendary play Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator after whom the play is named dismisses warning calls about the ides of March, the date Caesar is assassinated in the play, as early as the first act.

The assassination is a brutal one, perhaps explaining why “Beware the ides of March” has lingered so long in the public memory. Caesar’s very closest friend, Brutus, and many other members of Rome’s Senate viciously stabbed Ceasar to death on the Roman Capitol’s steps, and Julius Caesar dramatically captures this moment. In this assassination scene, another famous Shakespeare line is immortalized: if you’ve heard someone say “Et tu, Brute?” then you’ve heard the play’s other infamous quote.

Nowadays, thanks to Julius Caesar, the ides of March is associated with ominous events and bad occurrences. However, Shakespeare’s contributions to modern language and culture far outweigh that of superstitions, weird beliefs, and the like. In his lifetime, Shakespeare coined more than 2,000 entirely new words across his immense collection of works. Many of them are now words we use every day, as though they’ve been in the English language since Day One. These words include ones as innocuous as “addiction,” “eyeball,” and “manager,” which Shakespeare created in Othello, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, respectively.

In Othello, Shakespeare uses the word “addiction” to describe a sincere passion; although the word is now used to describe a compulsive reliance on a substance or activity, its early use to depict an intense enjoyment gives the word’s modern usage an interesting perspective. Likewise, “manager,” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is used differently than the very many ways in which it’s used today.

Language and phrases aren’t the only contributions Shakespeare made to modern culture. Many popular films of the last half-century are modernizations of Shakespeare plays, such as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 box-office hit Romeo and Juliet, the titular characters of which are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes respectively. As well, Justin Kurzel’s less-successful 2015 update of Macbeth is a stone-cold Shakespeare adaptation starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Even films not named directly after Shakespeare’s films have been inspired by him; Gus Van Sant cites Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy as the main inspiration for his beloved New Queer Cinema film My Own Private Idaho.

Shakespeare’s fingerprints can be found not just in film, but in music as well. The famed opera composer Verdi, for example, penned three operas unsubtly influenced by Shakespeare: Othello, Macbeth, and Falstaff. Other legendary composers including Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky have all created widely celebrated works based on Shakespeare’s plays.

So, beware the ides of March — but beware of Shakespeare’s influence too, because it’s everywhere, even if you can’t see it.

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