A New View of 'Julius Caesar' for High Schoolers
April 3, 2008 6:47 PM   Subscribe

Does anybody have ideas about how to teach 'Julius Caesar' to 10th graders?

I love teaching it, but it's my 7th year doing it and my kids are tired of the '53 and '70 video versions (I call the 1970 movie the 'disco porno' version; what garish colors! What flat acting!). I've drawn comparisons with Godfather, the Sopranos, etc. Anybody have an unknown resource, video of a local troupe performing, etc?
posted by flowerofhighrank to Education (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps throw it back into its time context- do a brief history review and what was going on. Get them to know the Roman Empire so they can appreciate the play. And.... TOGAS. Seriously. Once they understand that togas were part of the apparel, let the kids who are reading that day where the togas as they read.

this is third-hand advice from me who got it from my wife, a 10th grade history teacher, who's remembering how the best 10th grade English teacher in her school does it.
posted by Doohickie at 7:22 PM on April 3, 2008

I hated Julius Caesar in 8th grade.

But I remember it.

Is that so bad? Get the quarterback to read a page or so, then make everybody else read a page or so.

They don't have to like it.

I hate to remember this. Really. Recently I've seen video on A&E of prison inmates stabbing eachother to death. I've seen how ugly, bloody, prolonged, and grueling this process can be. It's not at all like how they show it in the theater. To me, this is a major theme of Julius Caesar: Blood. Lots of it.

The other major theme (to me, at least) was that Politics moves incredibly slowly even when events move quickly. Marc Antony's speech seems as specious and infuriating as the bullshit we hear from Politicians on the news every night.

That's my angle, for what it's worth. Hopefully smarter doods will disagreee.
posted by stubby phillips at 7:27 PM on April 3, 2008

What about the segments of I, Claudius involving Caligula? What kid could refuse to see Caligula? And I, Claudius is pretty tame, though the boobs when he gets fresh with his sister later during his rule may be an issue. Overall, Caligula hooks a lot of people into the world of the Roman Empire. Then you'll have a lot of students who can relate to how things were and will be wondering about the corruption of power, and you can work back to Julius. If something on the level of I, Claudius is considered dated, though, then maybe I'm getting too old.
posted by crapmatic at 7:28 PM on April 3, 2008

I read JC in 9th grade and there were no accompanying videos or TV shows or multimedia extravaganzas. And I seem to remember actually enjoying the play itself.
posted by rxrfrx at 7:33 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I loved it. We just read it. Can't you get the kids to take parts and read it? - maybe with two (popular) best mates as JC and Brutus, and some major nerd or social-climber as Cassius, to emphasise the betrayal and lack of normalcy when the 'true king' is murdered?

(or is that bad teaching? I'm not a teacher!!)
posted by pompomtom at 7:42 PM on April 3, 2008

As a sheepish English major who hasn't read Julius Caesar, how about an exploration of the different aspects of Caesar or Caesarian traits in modern media?

You could examine the '53 and '70 productions; the A&E video mentioned above; I, Claudius; HBO's Rome; any other characters that might be found in say, The Wire (or any other show that exemplifies Caesarian characteristics, whatever they may be) and how it compares to Shakespeare's portrayal - like where they fit/how they speak to the legacy of Shakespeare's Caesar, and other contrasts and similarities.

My high school English teacher did a similar thing for us by having us read King Lear at the top of the year and then notice Lear-like portrayals in the subsequent novels we read.

He was also really into the production of King Lear featuring Diana Rigg as Goneril, and inadvertently let us into a private reverie when he dreamily described that his boyhood memory that the leather catsuit she wore as Emma Peel in The Avengers was "wonderful"
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 7:51 PM on April 3, 2008

No idea if this will actually help, but there's Shatner rapping from "Julius Caesar." They might get a good laugh out of it, at least.
posted by champthom at 7:52 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In 10th grade, we read it during class with assigned parts. After we finished reading it, the teacher had gotten 2 local attorneys (and maybe a judge? Memory fails me.) to give Brutus a proper trial, with the people who had read the relevant parts also being called into the witness chair for those parts. The trial was held in the school theater, and took a full 72-min. class period. I imagine there was a bit of staging involved, but it was kind of a great thing. "Was killing a man justified?" is kind of a big question for a 10th-grader, and that context has always stuck with me.
posted by nicething at 7:52 PM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would recommend having them read out loud. Make sure you pick students who can read fluently; fairness be damned, it sucks listened to a classmate laboriously trying to parse what he's reading and massacring punctuation and pronunciation.

Also: Have a mock trial of Brutus/conspirators. Have prosecutor(s), defense attorney(s), witnesses of all major characters, jury, bailiffs, the works. I can give you more detailed info on how my class did it if you're interested; mail me.
posted by Hargrimm at 7:53 PM on April 3, 2008

I don't know if you have this kind of flexibility, but how about having them read Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" first? Then they can compare and contrast how Caesar is portrayed in the two. Shaw will be much more accessible to a modern reader. Plus this has the added benefit that in story terms, Shakespeare's play is a sequel to Shaw's.

Or perhaps if time is a problem, you could show them the movie. It's pretty true to the play.
posted by Class Goat at 8:10 PM on April 3, 2008

This was pre-Columbine P.C., but an emphasis on fake blood and gore made our Julius Caesar "Et Tu" presentation memorable.
posted by johngoren at 8:10 PM on April 3, 2008

Read it in 10th grade, and taught it a number of times to 10th graders. Never saw a movie of it; as others have suggested, reading it aloud is profound and clear, and makes the kid able to keep some of those great phrases in their language forever.

Love the idea of having lawyers come in!
posted by Riverine at 8:14 PM on April 3, 2008

Oooh! Oooh! I know this one! It really is the togas!
My excellent, dignified ninth-grade English teacher brought a white sheet to class on the day that we were scheduled to begin Julius Caesar, which he wore as a toga throughout the unit. We were rapt, seriously.
He read the hard parts, and he really nailed them, too, which helped our comprehension considerably, and we rotated around the class for the easier lines. He made all of us read, regardless of proficiency--I think playing favorites based on fluency when you assign the readings is an awful idea, by the way.

If you're reading this, Mr. Cambisios, that rocked.
posted by pullayup at 8:16 PM on April 3, 2008

My pet peeve about high-school Shakespeare (and maybe this doesn't apply to your class, but just in case...) is when the kids are told (or shown) the whole plot and then made to read the play -- all that's left to discover is the difficult language, etc.

The joy of reading is discovery. If you don't want to find out what happens next, then getting through any book is going to be difficult (even in contemporary language). If you're going to use a video, read the whole play first (e.g. out loud in class, assign parts for each scene, discuss what happened after each scene -- this will only take a few classes. I think the playing time for JC is about 2.5 hours) and then use the video for reinforcement after the fact.

In any case, I think the key is to do what you can to get them wanting to know what happens next as they are reading the play (and if they already know the historical facts that doesn't necessarily mean they know how Shakespeare's play runs).
posted by winston at 8:24 PM on April 3, 2008

The best Shakespeare class I ever took featured groups performing pre-chosen scenes. We were required to pick a theme and setting for them outside of their typical staging. This helped to de-emphasize Shakespeare as a purely classical dramatist.

My group performed the Banquo's Ghost appearance scene at dinner from Macbeth dressed as glow in the dark playing cards. It was amazing.
posted by rabbitsnake at 8:28 PM on April 3, 2008

This may not be what you are looking for, but the movie Crimson Tide, starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, rehash much of the plot and characters of Julius Caesar updated to an American nuclear submarine. It maybe amusing to tell the student to check out the movie on the side.
posted by Pantalaimon at 8:41 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it was 9th grade when I read that in school. The grade was fairly small (~30 guys, split into two sections) and each section was assigned to produce a scene from the play. It was left up to us to decide which scene to do, who would act, direct, etc. I remember really enjoying it, and as the scene wasn't chosen for us there was an extra incentive to get into the whole thing.

We used a stage with lighting effects, etc. but this could certainly be done in a classroom.
posted by sanko at 9:35 PM on April 3, 2008

You might want to check out a free audio book "Great Moments in History" . The second eprisode is on the assassination of Julius Caesar. You will have to register. It is free.

"Far from causing the fall of the Roman Republic as his enemies charged, it was Caesar's genius to attempt a solution to Rome's problems: poverty, unemployment, ignorance. It is all here, Caesar's program, his treacherous assassination, and the solemn speculation of shocked newsmen about the impact on Rome of Caesar's death."

You might get your students to recount the other scenes in the form of news report and interviews , some breaking news, some followup stories. That should be fun.
posted by kryptos at 9:37 PM on April 3, 2008

Gangs. Cliques. We rule the school. But get back to the text. Or, what the heck, show Carry On Cleo: 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me' deserves to be read in class 400 years from now.
posted by holgate at 9:50 PM on April 3, 2008

I don't know how this would go over today, especially outside Canada, but my high school teacher showed us Wayne & Schuster's comedy skit. It was pretty funny. (Although I thought it was called a Hassle in the Castle, not Rinse the Blood off my toga. Perhaps they mention the other line in the skit. It's been a long time.)
posted by acoutu at 10:05 PM on April 3, 2008

acoutu, that was great. Apparently it was a sketch they did for Ed Sullivan. The kids may not have heard of them, but their parents probably have.

Although I thought it was called a Hassle in the Castle

That's a Three Stooges title, since referenced by everything from Scooby Doo to Pokemon.
posted by dhartung at 10:58 PM on April 3, 2008

Forget I, Claudius, it isn't even the right era, as I'm sure you're aware -- the recent HBO series Rome (though drenched in blood and sex and other fun things) was spectacular, and dealt with the period in question -- Julius Ceasar's rise, rule, and death. There are certainly a few episodes that you could tie into sections of the play, or portions thereof (prescreened so there's not too much naughtiness) that young'uns would love.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:14 PM on April 3, 2008

In my 10th grade English class, after we read the play in class, our teacher had us form small groups to do a group project on the play. I think she gave us some suggestions, but we could basically do whatever we wanted. So we did the whole of Act III with stop-motion video and Star Wars action figures. We filmed it, then did the voiceovers (not every line, we paraphrased a lot) and had a blast doing it. And this was in the ancient days of *gasp* big clunky VHS camcorders! End result, the video fucking rocked, and our teacher loved us forever after that. So let friends be with friends and have them be creative.

Act III has the most blood, so maybe focus on that.
posted by zardoz at 11:45 PM on April 3, 2008

divide it up among groups and have them perform parts of it. either on video or live. no rules. you'd be surprised what they come up with. let them choose their own groups and i guarantee they'll remember at least the part they were performing. tell them to make it memorable and they'll probably remember the other parts too. at the end you can compile their interpretations into a movie or whatever, and then discuss themes or something. good luck!
posted by ncc1701d at 12:16 AM on April 4, 2008

Best answer: My students like to do "dueling funeral speeches," alternating sides and seeing who can out-insinuate the others. It helps if you rile half or so of them up into thinking that maybe the play really ought to be called Brutus. You can then manipulate that rivalry into good discussion/acting right on through the end of the play.

Last year I handed out blank comic strip panels and we would pause periodically to draw what we were reading.

We often set aside time to talk about modern politicians: Who has too much power (but uses it well)? Who does bad things for the best reasons? Who is a manipulator that we might accidentally ignore? Who chooses the wrong time to be focused on one goal? The kids follow the news, looking for politicians they think might fit a JC role, then bring it up in class as they find examples.

Last year I also bought a bunch of cheap uncleaned Roman coins off eBay, shared them with the class at the start of the unit, then gave them away at the end to everyone who turned in their essay. (Where I teach, students actually turning in work is a big deal. We have parades in the teacher's lounge and weep openly. Later, the cupcakes come.) I had a record number of thoughtful, non-plagiarized essays turned in. Yay bribery!
posted by Liffey at 12:22 AM on April 4, 2008

I have shown the Julius Caesar segment from Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. It's a BBC production, so the quality is good. A clip so you can get an idea of what it is like.

There's also the Classics Illustrated version, which I haven't seen but can help mix things up a little if you integrate it into a handout or a powerpoint presentation. There's also the manga version, which is very different from the Classics Illustrated version and is fairly new, so I also haven't seen it.

Definitely do some acting if you can. That will really make for a memorable class.
posted by Locative at 1:00 AM on April 4, 2008

Oops -- forgot link to the manga Julius Caesar.
posted by Locative at 1:01 AM on April 4, 2008

I have a background in theatre and here are my suggestions.

Although they're not considered the most scholarly versions, I would suggest using the Folger editions as they provide little synopsis for each Act and lots of explanations/definitions of the more difficult language. Understanding what people are saying and what they mean will unlock the play for your students.

Also recommend looking at Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. These are classic, well written and accessible synopsis of the plays and the background. Reading them before delving into the actual play may help your students understand what they are reading.

Having a reasonably good idea of what is going on will go a long way towards having your students understand the play as they read it. I might also suggest, either on your own, or as an assignment, do short character studies. These are all historical figures: who were they? what did they look like? what do people think they looked like? What were the political times like? What was going on in Roman History during the period that Shakespeare dramatizes? What was war like in Roman times?

Most importantly, I would urge you to investigate these plays not from a literary theory angle, but from a dramaturgical/theatrical angle. Get your students to ask the kinds of questions that an actor or director would have to ask of the play.

What does Brutus want? What does Cassius want? What is Marc Antony trying to do in his famous "friends, romans, countryman speech"? How are they trying to get what they want? Why do they want the things they want? Power? Revenge? I taught some an acting for non-majors class years ago and when my students analyzed Much Ado About Nothing from an actors perspective they told me, "wow, I did know how easy Shakespeare was to understand." Starting here can lead you to the more literary theory/thematic questions. I actually think Julius Caesar is one of easier plays to understand (it's definitely one of the shorter).

I would recommend acting out some scenes or having students dramatize or adapt key speeches. I wouldn't have them do it extemporaneously, but make it an assignment that groups can work on outside of class and then present. Another poster mentioned that and I had a high school teacher do something similar with other classic literature. Student were given sections of the play to adapt in any way they want - we ended up with short films, animations, radio plays, all kinds of fun stuff. But I would have them do this after reading through the whole play.
posted by brookeb at 3:48 AM on April 4, 2008

Hundreds of thousands of HS students have survived reading JC (as I did) without ill effect; many of them even enjoyed it (as I did). Look, it's one of the great works of the English language, and it stands on its own- trying to gussy up the experience with gimmicks dilutes the value of the text.

To me, this is a major theme of Julius Caesar: Blood. Lots of it.

I think you misread the play. JC has many themes; blood is not one of them.

What about the segments of I, Claudius involving Caligula?

Completely wrong time period.
posted by mkultra at 7:06 AM on April 4, 2008

What's the goal?

Is it to teach the kids some history? Is it to acquaint them with a great work of literature? Is it to help them enjoy a great work of literature? (Those last two are very different.) Is it to introduce them to Shakespeare?

Your answer might be "all of the above," but I'd pick something as the main goal. Otherwise, it's pretty hard to develop a coherent teaching style.

I've encountered two different philosophies about teaching (and producing) Shakespeare:

1. Shakespeare is painful but necessary. So find some spoons full of sugar to help the medicine go down. (Many people don't admit this is their approach, but it sure seems to be what they're aiming for, judging from the gratuitous candy they throw in -- and the small bits of Shakespeare that they let in, in between big doses of candy.)

2. Shakespeare is fantastic and beautiful, but difficult, so find a way to help neophytes enjoy the same things that Shakespearean scholars and true-fans enjoy.

My only comment about number one is that life's short. If you don't like something (and it's not crucial), don't do it. People shouldn't be forced to read or watch Shakespeare. If they are, they'll wind up like one of the commenters upthread...

I hated Julius Caesar in 8th grade.

But I remember it.

Is that so bad?

To me? Yes. It's about as bad as it gets. I'd rather you forgot or never encountered it. To know is not as good as to enjoy. Shakespeare is for pleasure. It shouldn't be force-fed. That's a great way to make someone hate it for life.

As for my number two, why do scholars, actors, directors and fans love Shakespeare? For all sorts of reasons: the great plots, the fascinating characters, the history and so much more. But primarily it's for the language. The genius and beauty of the poetry. If you take away the language (or don't focus on it), why even bother with Shakespeare. Just watch "I, Claudius" or "Rome." They're really exciting, they're well-crafted, and they're much easier to understand.

Most of the suggestions above -- cartoon versions, etc. -- ignore the language. Yet it's the REASON Shakespeare lovers love Shakespeare. I realize that complex Elizabethan verse might not seem like a great fit with high schoolers (though I don't really buy that), but that IS the subject. You wouldn't teach Calculus by not teaching Calculus. So shouldn't teach Shakespeare without focusing on the language. Teach the subject!

It took me years to get into Shakespeare's language, but that wasn't because when I was younger, I was too immature. It was because no one helped me understand it. All I saw were a bunch of words I didn't understand. And the most help I got was "look it up in the dictionary."

Well, you do have to look stuff up in the dictionary, but there's so much more to it than that. And a lot of it is really fun -- and would have been fun for me as a kid, had I understood how much of it was like figuring out a secret code.

I would spend some time teaching them about the mechanics. Teach them about iambic pentameter, feminine endings, etc. Give them assignments where they write their own verse, using these forms.

Also, teach some rhetoric. Sounds dry, I know, but if you approach it the right way, kids will eat it up.

A key rhetorical device in Shakespeare is thesis/antitheses...

To be (thesis) or not to be (antithesis)...

I come to bury Ceasar (thesis), not to praise him (antithesis)...

Have students create their own examples. Have them look for examples in political speeches (M.L. King was a master of rhetoric!), TV shows, movies. Have them search out examples in the play itself.

Invite a classical director (or actor) to come work with the kids. People always recommend that classes act scenes from the plays, and that's a good notion as-far-as it goes. But in my school, that just meant hamming it up. That was fun, I guess, but it's far removed from what real theatre professionals do. And it has little to do with what's really going on with Brutus or Cassius. They're not hamming it up. They have real problems to solve.

I'm a director, and in a real rehearsal, we spend a long time discussing (and trying out) motivations. What is Brutus trying to do? What tactics is he using to do it? What obstacles lie in his way? These questions specifically tie in with the script this way: why does Brutus use the words he uses? How do they help him achieve his goals? How do they hinder him? What should he have said instead?

I highly recommend you read "Thinking Shakespeare." It's an easy-to-understand, exciting tutorial on how Shakespeare's language informs his character's motivations. It's the best book on acting Shakespeare I've ever read, but it's also an amazing resource for scholars, too. It's by Barry Edelstein, who is one of America's leading Shakespearean directors. The book will give you dozens of ideas for lessons!

I wrote a review of his book, here.

And here's another post, about a fun subject (for you to discuss with the kids) and a key insight Edelstein gave me.
posted by grumblebee at 9:29 AM on April 4, 2008

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