The Teaching of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: How the Caesar and the Brutus of Shakespeare Differed from the Caesar and the Brutus of History?


 Teachers of English should be on intimate terms with the masterpieces they are expected to teach. They ought to have a clear idea of the action of the play, and mental pictures of the various scenes and characters. They should be familiar with the fine lines; should be able to quote what is worthwhile; and should appreciate the diction, the wealth of allusion, and the various other literary qualities that combine to produce style. These things come through careful and loving study of a masterpiece and this is also true for the teaching of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In fact, since its first production, Julius Caesar has enjoyed immense and enduring popularity. The play forms part of the repertoire of most Shakespearean stock companies. A notable production, with the actors in modern dress, was directed by Orson Welles for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in 1937. There have been several motion picture productions of Julius Caesar as well as a number of television presentations. Teaching of such a classic really needs a scholastic approach from a teacher’s perspective.

Introduction to the Drama:

Julius Caesar, a history play by William Shakespeare, was written about 1599 and performed at the Globe Theatre by William Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The play’s full title is The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. It was probably one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be performed at the Globe Theatre by his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, following their move to the theater in 1599. The main source used by Shakespeare was Sir Thomas North’s translation of Lives by the Roman author Plutarch. The piece is an extract from a simplified prose version of the play. The incident described in the extract took place in 42 B.C. Here Brutus, the ‘noblest’ of the Romans is won over to the side of the conspirators against Julius Caesar. Brutus was a trusted friend of Julius Caesar, but he came to share the fears of the other conspirators, Cassius and Casca, that after his victory in Spain, Caesar had ambitions of being crowned king of Rome. Rome was a republic and Brutus was an ardent republican. He joined the conspirators only to save Rome from the tyrannical ambitions of Caesar. Caesar, who had been warned by different people about the impending danger, decided none-the-less to go to the Senate House on the 1des of March’. There the conspirators, including Brutus, gathered round him under the pretext of presenting petitions and then stabbed him to death.

Briefing the Shakespearean Storyline:

 Julius Caesar opens on the eve of Caesar’s assassination. Caesar is already one of Rome’s highest officials and is about to be crowned king. Jealous of Caesar for personal reasons, Roman senator Cassius convinces another senator, Brutus, that Caesar must die. The lofty-minded, idealistic Brutus fears that Caesar will destroy the Roman republic by having himself crowned king. After Brutus joins the conspiracy against Caesar, Cassius, despite his sounder judgment, defers to Brutus’s wishes and makes the mistake of sparing the life of Mark Antony, Caesar's protégé.

As Caesar walks to the Senate forum the next morning, a soothsayer attempts to alert him, warning “Beware the Ides of March.” Caesar ignores the message. At the forum the conspirators stab Caesar to death. A dying Caesar sees Brutus among the killers and delivers the famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” (thou too, Brutus?).

At Caesar’s funeral, the conspirators try to rationalize their reasons for slaying Caesar. Brutus addresses the populace in a fine, reasoned tone, giving a sound but uninspired explanation of his reasons for killing Caesar. He says that it is not that he “loved Caesar less,” but that he “loved Rome more.” The crowd is swayed by the obvious purity and sincerity of Brutus's motives, but unfortunately for the conspirators, his restrained prose is followed by Mark Antony's impassioned speech.

Over the objections of Cassius, Mark Antony has gained permission from Brutus to speak at Caesar's funeral.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,”
he exclaims. With mounting sarcasm Mark Antony gradually turns Caesar’s faults into attributes and belittles the motives of the conspirators by repeatedly referring to them as honorable men, until the epithet becomes a curse. He sentimentalizes Caesar's blood-soaked cloak until he has the multitude weeping with sorrow. With masterful ease and without offering a single rational argument against Brutus's calm statement, Mark Antony turns the populace into a raging mob, howling for revenge against the conspirators.

The citizens chase the conspirators out of Rome. Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar (Caesar’s nephew and adopted son), and Lepidus are selected as the new leaders, known as a triumvirate. The remainder of the play traces the battles between the triumvirate and the former conspirators, especially Cassius and Brutus, who meet their enemies on the plains of Philippi. There, when the battle turns against them, both Brutus and Cassius—the first with an expected nobility and the latter with a nobility that makes one forget his earlier opportunism—commit suicide.

Is It A History Class Or Literature Class?

 This had been a revenge play; for it had been a tremendous struggle of forces. The class had discussed the events leading up to the first triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey; they had seen the three-man world crumble to a two-man world, and then to a world with Caesar supreme. They had followed the plot against Caesar, had seen Brutus beguiled by Cassius, and had seen his struggle to be true to friend and country. They had watched the finesse with which Antony, the "limb of Caesar," became his avenger, and with Octavius and Lepidus the former of another three-man world. They knew that an old law forbade crowning a king in Italy; they were familiar with the duties of tribune, consul, praetor, and other great officials. They had seen pictures of the Roman Forum, the Senate, Capitoline Hill, the Roman dress, augurs, etc. They were ready to show how the Caesar and the Brutus of Shakespeare differed from the Caesar and the Brutus of history. They had read Plutarch. They knew Froude. A study of Julius Caesar demands familiarity with the historical background. This should be acquired before the play is read in class. The events of the play begin February, 44 B.C., with the feast of the Lupercal and run to the battle of Philippi, in September, 42 B.C. The dramatist has taken certain liberties with history; but he is more concerned with the play as a tragedy than as a historical drama. Then, there is Roman official life. Brutus was praetor. By questions bring out the facts in these political details.
For instance:
What were Brutus's duties as praetor?
How was he under special obligation to Caesar?
Why did the tribunes cling to the Pompey party, and resist Caesar?
What had Caesar done to deserve a triumph?
How was a triumph conducted?
 Who was Lupercus, in whose honor the festival of the Lupercal was held?
Why did the Romans revere the memory of Junius Brutus? How had Caesar reformed the calendar?
What part did auguries play in public life?

The Clash of Ideologies:

The great tragic figure is Brutus, whose will is faced by two avenues of action, either of which will mean death: the one, death to his patriotic sense; the other, death to his friend. Technically, Caesar is the main character, for he gives his name to the title; but emotionally, the hero is Brutus.

 The power of the great Caesar, however, lives on through the ghost and Antony, until death reaches the conspirators, and Caesar is avenged. Julius Caesar is filled with issues of absorbing interest to boys and girls.

There is the mob, for instance.
What qualities does a mob usually reflect?
How do such people behave?
What part do they play in this drama?
How do they talk?
How do they regard government?

Verse And Prose Are Herewith Deliberate Purpose:

Prose comes from the commons, from Casca; Brutus in his great speech uses plain prose to convince the minds of his hearers.

Antony, on the other hand, plunges into verse that, by its rhythmical appeal, stirs the heart and arouses the passions.

Funning, so popular among the Elizabethans, is abundantly found. The play offers splendid opportunity to discover little leads that result in big things, veiled remarks that have a double meaning, moments of suspense, character-revealing words and incidents. Intense appreciation can be stirred in a responsive class, if the teacher opens their minds to these things. Sensitiveness to fine lines should be cultivated in study of the drama. No masterpiece studied gives better material for memory work. Boys can be swayed by the orations of Antony and Brutus. There is a fire in these speeches that will inflame the imaginations of the class, and glow in their hearts long after school is forgotten.

The Summing Up Of Each Act:

Act I. General Discontent:
Sc. 1. ( Rome. A street.) Feeling of the rabble toward Caesar.
Sc. 2. (A public place.) Stirring up the leaders against Caesar.
Sc. 3. (The same. A street.) Revealing the plot to Casca.
Act II. The Conspiracy:
Sc. 1. (Rome. BRUTUS's orchard.)Winning Brutus.
Sc. 2. (CAESAR's house.)Prevailing over omens.
Sc. 3. (A street near the Capitol.) Artemidorus' attempt to save Caesar.
Sc. 4' (Another part of the same street, before the house of BRUTUS.)Portia's forebodings.
Act III. The Assassination:
Sc. 1. (Rome. Before the Capitol; the Senate sitting above.)The murder of Caesar.
Sc. 2. (The Forum.)The funeral scene.
Sc. 3. (A street.) The fury of the mob.
Act IV. Civil War:
Sc. 1. (A house in Rome.)Proscriptions. Getting rid of Lepidus.
Sc. t. (Camp near Sardis. Before BRUTUS's tent.)Brutus and Cassius in camp.
Sc. 3. (Brutus's tent.)Their quarrel and reconciliation. Plan for Philippi. Brutus's
vision of the ghost.
Act V. Punishment:
Sc. 1. (The plains of Philippi.) Parley between the generals.
Sc. 2. (The same. The field of battle.)Battle.
Sc. 3. (Another part of the field.) Battle. Deaths of Cassius and Titinius.
Sc. 4. (Another part of the field.)Death of Cato.
Sc. 6. (Another part of the field.)Death of Brutus. Recognition of Brutus's character by Antony.

Life Lessons in Julius Caesar in Modern Context:

There is splendid chance here for the teacher to talk intimately about such subjects as civic duties, real patriotism, conflict of duties, standards by which to judge, the value of high ideals, the contemptible side of conspiracies, a man's honor, the dangers of associating below one's level, politician versus statesman, the highest type of government, boss rule, modern conditions versus conditions of ancient Rome, the fallacy of thinking that assassination cures, the only cure for poor government etc.

Relate the problems of the play to modern life, even to events in the lives of the boys and girls. How to choose when duties conflict, in a question that may confront young as well as old. How the gang organization, or spirit, maybe misused, is a subject that the boy may have to face in his own life. George Herbert Palmer, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard , says : “The boy as soon as born is adopted unconsciously into some kind of moral world. While he is growing up and thinking of other things, habits of character are seizing him. By the time he comes to school he is encrusted with customs. The idea that his moral education can be fashioned in the same way as his geography is fantastic. The only possible effect that can come from instruction about morals is ethical enlightenment, which is not likely to improve performance at all. On the other hand, a course in ethical instruction for a young person is much more likely to be deleterious. Only instructive action is swift, sure, and firm. This "instructive action," whereby great moral lessons are taught in concrete form, is particularly striking in the play Julius Caesar.”

There are two primary themes in Julius Caesar. The first explores the idea of political tyranny, as evidenced in the elevation of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare obviously felt scorn for the pompous and vainglorious Caesar. Yet, as in all of his political plays, Shakespeare is opposed to the assassination of rulers because of the ruinous political disorder that inevitably follows. At the same time, Shakespeare's distrust of unjust or unscrupulous leaders is matched by his cynicism about the mob's ability to act wisely.

The second theme is the use of rhetorical persuasion to influence action. This theme is demonstrated especially in the use of speeches throughout the play. Mark Antony's funeral oration is the emotional high point of the play. Filled with insinuation and lacking logic, it is a chilling example of the power of demagoguery—divorced from any consideration of right and wrong, truth and falsehood—to sway people's minds.

Ardhendu De


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