Cassius, a Roman nobleman, uttered this when he was talking to his friend, Brutus, in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. The phrase goes, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141). He is, in fact, trying to persuade Brutus to stop Caesar from becoming a monarch – an act he thinks is in the best interest of the country. He is arguing that it is not fate, but their weak position, which is exploiting them to act against their will. However, history does not support the credibility of this persuasive sentence as spoken by him.
In literal sense, the phrase means that it is not fate, but weakness of the character that forces a person to act against his will. Figuratively, it puts fate and one’s character or position side by side, stressing on the second as a dominant force. However, it dismisses the presence of some divine elements often deemed active in controlling human existence. For some critics, nevertheless, it is present in the word “underlings” means there is something above in the heaven, which plays its role in shaping the circumstances, though it might not be in the ‘stars’ that is ‘preordained fate.’
Its usage mostly depends on the circumstances. On the one hand, it is used to encourage people when they suffer from frustration when meeting failures; while on the other hand, it is used when a person moves from one workplace to another, expecting better financial rewards. Sports coaches at fields, bosses at offices and friends at home use this phrase encourage them to have faith in their abilities. However, it best used by those, who fail to overthrown dictators or political opponents.
These words appear in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar’s Act I, Scene II, Lines 135-141. In this sentence, Cassius addresses Brutus to persuade him to take part in the overthrow of the tyrant, Julius Caesar, because he is reluctant due to his friendship with Caesar. The phrase goes thus;
Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
(Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 135–141)
In its literary context, Cassius means that sometimes people have to take steps they think they cannot. He does not mean to present fate and human efforts as opposite to each other. He simply urges that one should act when it is time to act. If a person gets a chance to change his circumstances, he should go for it. The phrase links the concept of human dignity with efforts a person makes and not the status he enjoys.
In literature, concepts of ‘fate’ and ‘effort’ have invited inconclusive debates. On the one hand, it seems logical to say that there is nothing in ‘our stars’ but simultaneously, it also is difficult to leave everything to fate. John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars, published in 2012, describes the story of two cancer patients who can be independent to act on their will, yet they are bound to face the eventual death. It shows that there is ‘something’ already existed in our fate, but we are ‘independent’ to do certain things to change it.
Following are the literary devices used in this phrase.
- Imagery: “Fault” and “Stars” are parts of figurative speech.
- Metaphor: “Stars” are presented as active objects affecting our lives.
- Personification: “Stars” have been personified as something affecting lives of human beings.