As has become traditional in March, I’m using the excuse of the upcoming Ides to expound my feelings on (and love for) Julius Caesar.
This year, I want to riff off of a really excellent post about the play from what might seem like an odd source: The Tor Blog. Tor, for those who don’t know, is a sci-fi fantasy publisher, an imprint of Macmillan (one of the Big 5 Publishers). The author of the piece is Chris Lough, who usually blogs about superheroes. If that all strikes you as strange, it really shouldn’t. I’ve long suspected a large overlap between fans of Shakespeare and fans of genre fiction. If you love language, great storytelling, and captivating characters, you’ll rarely find better than you find in sci-fi and fantasy novels, so it’s quite natural to me that many people who love one also love the other.
What delights me so much about this post is the unbridled enthusiasm Lough expresses for Caesar. It’s just so refreshing! I usually hear about people approaching this play with great trepidation or with weary resignation, and that so depresses me, because, as long-time readers of this blog know, I think there’s so much there to unpack and rejoice in. And Lough hits on so much of it. He calls Caesar “a visceral and fast-paced epic,” “tightly plotted,” and, most tellingly, “a blockbuster.”
These are the things I’ve always loved about Caesar. I’ve long said it should share renown with Macbeth as a high-octane thriller. I know teachers struggle to get students to see that awesome energy, though. Many educators have trouble feeling the love themselves. So why? What is it that gets in the way?
Well, for one thing, it’s about the most Dead White Guys Making Speeches you can get, and that can be off-putting from a distance. Of all the famous Dead White Guys Making Speeches in history, these are about the most famous. Not without reason! The men are culturally important and the speeches are fantastic. But it can cause a not-unreasonable knee jerk reaction for students who are tired of being buried under such viewpoints. For female students, particularly, there are few immediately apparent avatars. The women in the play are scarcely better than non-existent. Calpurnia mostly exists to have her (perfectly rational) fears brushed off and ridiculed, and while Portia gets some great language, her apparent instability and desperation don’t make her the best of role models. (And then she disappears after 2.4). So there are some instinctive barriers to get past when it comes to encouraging students to empathize with the characters.
The other, I suspect, is that it’s given as a tonic. It’s a mandatory part of most high school curriculi, where it looms like a precariously placed boulder over the syllabus. Dr. Ralph talks about this in the opening of the Caesar chapter of ShakesFear and How to Cure It, envisioning a Shakespeare who dreams of the future industry built up around him and is bitter about it:
…[Will] woke up grumpy. His work, his words, his ideas were going to be a major industry and make strangers rich. It was more than he could stand. How could he stop or at least limit the damage? He thought all day, and then he had a brilliant idea. He would write a play without comedy and without sex, full of long and serious speeches, and he would make that play about an historical event and famous personalities so pivotal to western history that every public school in the English-speaking world would put it into the curriculum. Students would first be introduced to his work with this play, and the result would be that they would never want to read or see another work by William Shakespeare in their lives. In this way, he would assure that a large majority of the modern world hated him and thus reduce to a fraction the profit others would make off his works. That evening he started writing Julius Caesar.
Actually Julius Caesar is a wonderful play; it’s just the wrong one to use for teaching teenagers a delight in Shakespeare. Like you, however, I have to teach it, and the first time I stood in front of a class trying to get them interested in hubris, tragic flaws, and dramatic irony, I felt more and more as if the class was looking at me through soundproof glass. At the end of the hour, I told them I wanted a rematch.
The challenge, then, is for teachers to find the joy in the play themselves and then to communicate to students. I’ve had great luck in classrooms by exploring the embedded stage directions around killing Caesar and the fun you can have with blood. Once you hook them with that, you can get them excited about the gorgeously manipulative rhetoric, the really warped sense of ego all of these guys seem to have, and the conversations about personal and political power we’re still having today. That’s when you can start seeing Julius Caesar as the tightly-plotted blockbuster we ought to consider it.
Academic Resources Manager
I admit to having to read Julius Caesar in high school and feeling utterly stultified by it! Luckily we also read Romeo and Juliet that same year – which I loved, even though I knew it was being taught badly, even at the time. I still don’t quite know what to do with Julius Caesar, especially the early parts.
Although I loved Mark Antony right away, so it wasn’t all bad…