Shakespeare – Julius Caesar lesson

Level: advanced.
Ages: older teens; adults.
Type: encouraging imaginative responses to and engagement with two speeches from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Skills: listening; speaking; reading; writing; pronunciation (individual words, sentence stress & chunking, conveying emotion through pauses and intonation patterns).
Language focus: grammar and vocab as it arises.

Preparation:
copies of these pictures of Mark Antony, Julius Caesar and Brutus (one per 2 or 3 students);
copies of these speeches from Julius Caesar (one per student);
copies of these vocabulary tasks (one per student).

Note: The lesson before, I usually get permission to do this lesson – usually, advanced students are keen to look at some Shakespeare, but some are a bit intimidated and need reassurance that it won’t be too obscure.

Biographical note: The texts above come from Act III, Scene II of Julius Caesar; it is 44BC and Brutus, together with some other illustrious Romans, has just murdered Caesar, fearing that he was gaining too much power and the Roman Republic was under threat. Brutus stands outside the Forum, covered with Caesar’s blood, and must convince the Roman citizens that Caesar had to die. Mark Antony then enters the stage, carrying Caesar’s corpse; this is his chance to subtly convince the crowd that Caesar’s death was wicked and must be avenged (and to gain power for himself).

Procedure:

  1. A good way to start this lesson is with a quiz: I tell the students that I’ll board some words to do with what we are about to study and invite them to guess what the topic might be. I will then board, in turn:
    44BC
    Rome
    “Beware the Ides of March”
    Pompey’s Forum
    a bloody murder

    …at each stage, asking students if they can guess the topic. (44BC is the date of Caesar’s assassination, which took place in Pompey’s forum [or theatre] in Rome; the Ides of March was a Roman feast day dedicated to Mars [the god of war], which took place on March 15th – the date of Caesar’s assassination; “beware the Ides…” was a prophesy given to Caesar in the play [Act I, Scene II] before his murder)
  2. Once the topic has been guessed or given, and the items on the board explained, ask the class what they know about Caesar’s death: who murdered him and why (see the note above for the reasons given in the play). After some elicitation, board “Brutus”, “Julius Caesar” and “Mark Antony”, with a line separating each one.
  3. Put the students into groups of three or four and hand out the pictures (above). Ask them to work together to look at the busts and decide what the personalities of these people were. After a few minutes, elicit answers and board them under each character’s name.
  4. Now it’s time to set the scene (see the notes above for details), emphasising that Brutus loved Caesar and killed him to save Rome, and that Brutus appears before the crowd covered in blood; and also that Mark Antony was Caesar’s close friend, and appears carrying Caesar’s body and seeking revenge (it sometimes helps to cover Julius Caesar’s portion of the board in red pen to symbolise all the blood!).
  5. Divide the class in two (assuming no more than 12 students per class – in which case, you could have two or more “teams” on each side) and explain that one half will be Brutus and the other Mark Antony.
  6. Ask the students to think about their characters, their situation (standing before the citizens of Rome covered in blood, or holding Caesar’s bloody corpse) and what they want to say. Then allow the students about 15 or 20 minutes to write their speech to the Roman citizens.
  7. Once the speech is written, it’s time to practise it. I usually take one group out of the classroom, leaving the other inside, so that neither group can hear or be distracted by the other. Ask each group of students to imagine how they are feeling at each particular moment of their speech, and how this affects the way they say their words. Ask the group to divide up their speech equally and practise saying their lines to each other. I normally allow about 5 to 10 minutes for this.
  8. After the students have practised their speeches, ask them to sit in two lines facing each other. Board:
    intonation
    arguments
    overall effect
    …and ask students to copy this as a table, drawing vertical columns for each member of the opposite group. Ask them to listen carefully and make note of these things for feedback later.
  9. Elicit the situation and that Brutus speaks first. Each group takes it in turn to deliver their speech. The teacher should also make notes on each student’s delivery, and possibly the main arguments they make, as they speak, and then on the overall effect of the speech at the end.
  10. Each group delivers its feedback on the other, and the teacher also gives feedback here. Which speech was the most effective and why?
  11. Introduce Shakespeare’s speeches and give copies of Mark Antony’s to the Mark Antony group, and Brutus’ to the Brutus group. Ask them to read these speeches fairly quickly (perhaps 4 minutes) to see if the arguments used are the same as theirs. Ask students not to worry about any vocabulary they may not understand, but be available for any serious problems here.
  12. Give out the vocabulary quiz (see “materials” above) and ask students to work in pairs to choose the correct answers by looking at the context in which the words appear, and by deciding what part of speech the word is (i.e., is it a verb? A noun? etc.). Go through the answers with the class (Mark Antony: 1(b), 2(d), 3(b), 4(a), 5(c); Brutus: 1(b); 2(a); 3(d); 4(c); 5(c)).
  13. Now pair the students, one from each group working with one from the other, and ask them to compare their speeches and the main arguments used. Ask them which speech is written in verse, and which in prose (Brutus’ speech is in prose), and which they think is the more emotional speech (Mark Antony’s), which the more rational (Brutus’). Ask the students to compare the first few words of each speech: why does Mark Antony echo Brutus? What difference does the first word of Mark Antony’s speech (“Friends” instead of “Romans”) make? Finally, ask students to look at the repetition of “as” in Brutus’ speech – what effect does this have? – and the repetition of “honor” and “ambition” in Mark Antony’s speech: how does this change the meaning of what he’s saying? How do students think he would deliver these lines? What is he trying to say by repeating these words? Discuss the irony of his speech with your students and ask if they know of any politicians who use the same rhetorical devices as Brutus and Mark Antony (if the students have been paying attention, the answer should be a resounding “yes!”).
  14. Lastly, ask students what they think will happen next in the play and how the story will be resolved (in Shakespeare’s play, Mark Antony’s speech divides the crowd; his supporters and those of Brutus each assemble armies, and Brutus and his followers are killed in the following battles; Mark Antony then assumes power in Rome with two of his allies, Octavian and Lepidus, and the Republic is dead).

This is quite a long lesson, but it is a rewarding one, and students have invariably enjoyed it when I’ve taught it to them.

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare – Julius Caesar lesson

  1. I cheated ;) I essentially took the Shakespeare out of it and left it as more of a production/debate task, leaving out the more detailed reading of the text and concentrating on getting them to debate the issues which went really well.

    That said, the video would be a great idea, I thought of that today myself.

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