As You Read the Play

As You Read Act 1

What News?

Whenever we try to figure out why Shakespeare made a particular choice, we’re engaged in a highly speculative process—though some hypotheses prove easier to substantiate than others! Scholars have written entire books on the subject of Shakespeare’s use of “the report"—when we learn something through a character’s report as opposed to seeing it staged. In 1.2, Casca reports to Brutus and Cassius a scene in which Caesar refused the crown three times. As a class, discuss why Shakespeare might have decided to have Casca tell us about this scene rather than letting the audience see Caesar in action. There’s no right answer, so the more ideas, the bet­ter! CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS SL1, R1, R8

Borrowed Words
Caesar sat to behold that sport upon the pulpit for orations, in a chair of gold, apparelled in triumphing manner. Antonius, who was consul at that time, was one of them that ran this holy course. So, when he came into the market-place, the people made a lane for him to run at lib­erty; and he came to Caesar and presented him a diadem wreathed about with laurel. Where­upon there arose a certain cry of rejoicing, not very great, done only by a few appointed for the purpose. But when Caesar refused the diadem, then all the people together made an outcry of joy. Then, Antonius offering it him again, there was a second shout of joy, but yet of a few. But when Caesar refused it again the second time, then all the whole people shouted. Caesar, hav­ing made this proof, found the people did not like of it, and thereupon rose out of his chair, and commanded the crown to be carried into Jupiter in the Capitol.


When writing Julius Caesar, Shakespeare used a translation of the Greek historian Plutarch. Together, one of you using Plutarch, and the other reading the scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, identify as many of Shake­speare’s alterations, additions and rearrangements as you can. Imagine one of you is an experienced dramatist and the other a trainee dramatist eager to learn. Through questions and answers come to some conclusions about why Shakespeare wrote it as he did. For example: why have Casca reporting the refusal of the crown? Why didn’t Shakespeare just show it happening right on stage? CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L1, R9

Love, Hate and Popularity
You have not met Julius Caesar. In the opening scene, it is obvious that the characters possess different views of this leader. Marullus and Flavius consider him a threat. But many citizens think he is a great ruler. Think of reasons why people hold different views about the same person. What factors might influence their opinions? Choose a well-known person who has lived during the past 50 years—one who is admired by some people and hated by others. You may choose a politician, musician, actor, business leader, sports star, etc. Give two differing opinions of this person and tell why they vary so. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS SL1, SL4

As You’re Reading Act 2

Justify the Assassination
In 2.1, Metellus sees that the conspirators have a public image problem (“...his silver hairs will purchase us a good opinion...”), and so does Brutus (“Our course will seem too bloody...”). Brutus shows the conspirators how to think of their task in a high-minded way. But he doesn’t explain how to help the general public think of the assassina­tion in the same way. Spin! In groups of four or five, form a public relations firm sympathetic to the conspirators’ cause. You have secretly been asked to prepare a ’package,’ using all modern forms of media at your disposal, to give an immediate explanation and justification of the assassination. Outline a PR campaign that will convince everybody that Caesar’s death is the best thing for Rome. Provide such detail (posters, slogans, etc.) as you think necessary. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L3, R2, R7, W4

Third Person
Caesar often refers to himself not as ’I’ or ’me,’ but as ’Caesar.’ In groups of four, try holding a conversation where you always refer to yourself by your last name. Topics can range from what you had for breakfast to your grand­est personal ambitions. Afterwards, talk together about the effect it had on your conversation; then discuss why you think Caesar does it. Create a tableau (a wordless picture using your bodies as statues to convey the image you have in mind) dramatizing how Caesar sees himself. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L3, R4

Brutus versus Hamlet
Brutus is often seen as a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s other vacillating intellectual, Hamlet. Working in pairs, one of you will study Brutus’ s monologues in 2.1.10-85 (“It must be by his death…” to “…to hide thee from prevention.” Cut Lucius from the scene.) The other takes Hamlet’s “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” speech in 2.2.502-605. Like Brutus, Hamlet must make a choice to act against a man he considers a tyrant; in his case, it is his uncle, Claudius (who also murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother).

How do Brutus and Hamlet work themselves up to taking action? Go through your part, underlining all the phrases which you think show your character’s indecision. Circle phrases which show your character working toward or making a decision to act. Be on the lookout for words which may indicate a change in feeling or logic-like “but” or “and.” When specifically in the text does each character make his decision?—mark it with an asterisk. Now perform the soliloquies for each other. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L1, R3, R9

  • What are their dominant feelings?
  • What similarities do you see between them? What differences?
  • Can you guess, based on these two speeches, how each play will end?

As You’re Reading Act 3

Objection, Your Honor!
Imagine that the conspirators are going to be tried for Caesar’s murder. Prepare a mock trial for your class. First, divide up roles. Choose who will play the conspirators, the prosecution and defense lawyers. Select witnesses for each side, and name a judge. The rest of the class will act as the jury. Before the courtroom drama takes place, participants should prepare for their roles in the trial. Give each participant a brief description of his character and role. The description should explain what will happen in the trial and explain the characters’ involvement in the tragic events. The defense attorney should list the arguments that the Conspirators might use to justify or excuse their actions. The prosecuting attorney should also have reasons that prove their actions cannot be justified. At the end of the trial, have the jury vote. Finally, the judge should deliver the appropriate sentence. CONSIDER COM­MON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS R1, R8, SL3

Do You Copy?
We all use repetition in everyday life to make our words more emphatic. “I’m really, really mad at you,” carries stronger meaning than “I’m mad at you.” Shakespeare uses repetition in all of his plays to emphasize the point, or draw special attention to a word or phrase. In Antony’s funeral oration, you will find five or six key words and phrases (such as “honorable”) repeated frequently. In pairs find some of Antony’s repetitions. Why might Shake­speare have chosen to repeat these words or phrases? Does the repetition tell us anything about the character of Antony and/or what he is communicating in this speech? CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L5, W9

What’s in a Mob?
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the scene in which Cinna the Poet is murdered was often omitted in performance. But in Julius Caesar the general populace plays a more significant part than in any other Shake­speare play. Discuss the qualities of a mob. What is true of mobs that might not be true of individuals? Imagine you are an actor in the show, prepare your argument on why this particular scene should or should not be in­cluded in your performance. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS R2, W1

As You’re Reading Act 4

Leveling Powers
As Act 4 opens, the three members of the Triumvirate are jockeying for position, but some are more successful than others! On stage, power and status are communicated by nonverbal cues, as well as verbal ones. We know that the opening of Act 4 is dripping with verbal insinuations, but what about the possibilities of the nonverbal messages these men dish out? In your class, place three chairs around a table or desk, and another three (ones sturdy enough to stand on, please!) a bit apart. The floor, desk and chair represent different symbolic levels of status for this activity. With three volunteers taking the roles of Antony, Lepidus and Octavius, read through 4.1, lines 1-40 once, standing but not moving.

On the second reading, keep your voices controlled, and really focus on your character’s nonverbal messages. Using levels, posture and body movements, communicate to one another as you read through the passage again—and again. Specifically where in the text does your character have to move? When you speak? In re­sponse to someone else? Remember that this isn’t meant to be a realistic performance: if someone stands up on a chair, it’s not the character climbing on a chair; it’s the character taking a place of superiority. Be extreme in your cues and try a lot of different choices before pulling them back and applying your favorite newfound interpretation to the way you now read the passage. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L1, R3, R4

Basic Text Work
Some (including director Jonathan Munby) look at the fight between Cassius and Brutus as Julius Caesar’s most deeply personal and raw moment. The argument seems to start in the realm of politics, but it leads to a very personal place about the friendship between these two men. In pairs, prepare to read aloud 4.3, lines 63-108 (“Do not presume too much upon my love” to “Be angry as you will, it shall have scope”). First, go through and score the text as actors do: mark any repetitions (words or phrases you see repeated) and any antitheses (words or phrases with opposite meanings to one another). Also, note where your characters share lines: between both of your characters, you share the beats of a ten- (sometimes eleven-) syllable line. Shared lines tell actors not to pause because, between the two of them, they are really speaking one line. They’re easy to see on the page: the second line is deeply indented, starting in the middle of the page! Shakespeare uses shared lines when his characters are feeling intensely and speaking very fast—maybe because they’re angry, or because they’re in love, or because they’re scared. Having “scored” your text, you’re ready to take a first stab at reading it aloud with your partner. When you get to repetitions and antitheses, try emphasizing the words. When you see a shared line, take up your cue FAST. All of these are clues the actors use to help them begin to break apart the text. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS R1, R5

As You’re Reading Act 5

Make the Cut
Act 5 is not the easiest act to stage in the theater. It jumps from place to place, and it’s filled with armies, horses, plus characters we hardly know. Almost never is a Shakespeare play staged or filmed without a number of cuts to the script. (Apparently, according to scholars of Renaissance theater practice, this was also true in Shake­speare’s own day.) So, if you’re a director staging Julius Caesar, you may really think about cutting out chunks of Act 5. If you choose to cut out the short Scene 2, do you lose information essential to the story? Or is there a way that your audience will pick up that information even without Scene 2? You’ll have to read further into the scene to make a good argument either way! And what do you do about that hill that Titinius needs? (In the ab­stract, symbolic 2001 Italian production, Giulio Cesare, Titinius took one step up to a four-inch mound of dirt on the stage.) And assuming you won’t have horses on your stage, what do you do with all the equine language? Cut it? Change it? Keep it and deal with it representationally? (And you’ll soon be able to compare your deci­sions with those made by Director Jonathan Munby in CST’s production.) CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS R5, SL4

This Is My Birthday
In the heat of battle, Cassius turns to one of the soldiers and tells him that it’s his birthday. It’s an odd, rather personal bit of information, given the circumstances. Birthdays are important days loaded with meaning—and apparently that’s not a new phenomenon unique to us in modern times. So why does Shakespeare put these words in Cassius’s mouth? What’s the character feeling? What is the playwright saying about the character? Why Cassius and not, say, Brutus? (No fair taking into account historical accuracy into this discussion!) If you’re the actor playing Cassius, what might this one small statement tell you about the way you might approach your character from the very start? CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS R3, W9

“Error’s” Personality
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had a way of representing an idea or concept as a person (“personifica­tion”). In Henry IV Part 2, he actually creates a character called “Rumor” and gives it lines; in The Winter’s Tale, he does the same for “Time.” Here in Julius Caesar, he doesn’t make “Error” into a speaking part, but he definitely paints a vivid picture through Messala’s reference in 5.3. In lines 69-71, he says “O error, soon conceived, Thou never com’st unto a happy birth But kill’st the mother that engendered thee.” If you had to create a character that looked like Error, what would it look like? What would Error wear? Write a story about Error meeting someone along the road—perhaps the ghost of Cassius or Caesar, perhaps Truth, perhaps Antony. CONSIDER COMMON CORE ANCHOR STANDARDS L5, W3, W9



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