Teaching Approaches

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Honor as Theme: Honor remains an important throughout the play, both before and after Caesar’s assassination. The theme is explored through the action and speech of various characters, primarily Brutus, Cassius, and Antony. The words “honor” and “honorable” appear frequently in the text, underscoring the importance of the theme throughout the play. 

  • For discussion: Establish that Brutus defines himself first and foremost as a man of honor. Point out his declaration to Cassius in act 1, scene 2: “If it be aught toward the general good, / Set honor in one eye and death i’ the other / And I will look on both indifferently. / For let the gods so speed me as I love / The name of honor more than I fear death.” Based on this, what does honor mean to Brutus? 
  • For discussion: Why does Brutus struggle with his decision to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar? How does his internal conflict relate to his sense of honor? Why does he decide that he is honor-bound to join the conspiracy and murder Caesar? Do you agree with his decision? Explain your reasoning. 
  • For discussion: When Brutus speaks at Caesar’s funeral in act 3, scene 2, how does he discuss honor in relation to Caesar and his assassination? How does the crowd of Romans respond? 
  • For discussion: When Antony addresses the crowd after Brutus in act 3, scene 2, how does he turn the concept of honor against Brutus and the conspirators? How do the Romans respond to Antony’s oration? Is his statement that Brutus is an “honorable man” entirely ironic? 
  • For discussion: In act 4, scene 3, why is Brutus so angry with Cassius? How has Cassius dishonored their assassination of Caesar? How does Cassius’s behavior sully Brutus’s idealization of Caesar’s murder? 
  • For discussion: In act 5, scene 5, why does Antony conclude that Brutus had been “the noblest Roman” among the conspirators? How do he and Octavius honor Brutus? 

Ambition as Theme: A primary theme in the play is ambition, which can be seen in various characters’ desire for power. Through Caesar, Cassius, and Antony, Shakespeare examines personal ambition and its consequences. 

  • For discussion: After defeating Pompey in a civil war, how powerful has Caesar become in Rome? What are some details in the text that indicate his desire to rule Rome as an emperor or king? How does his ambition bring about his assassination? 
  • For discussion: How does Cassius’s motivation in assassinating Caesar differ from Brutus’s? How does Cassius feel about Caesar? What does he hope to achieve by murdering Caesar? What are the consequences of Cassius’s ambition? 
  • For discussion: During Caesar’s funeral in act 3, scene 2, Antony discusses the theme of ambition before the Roman public. He cites Brutus’s claims that Caesar was ambitious before pointing to the benefits of Caesar’s supposed ambition. How is ambition appraised by Roman culture? In the context of Caesar’s life, is ambition a virtue or a vice?
  • For discussion: How does Antony initially respond to Caesar’s murder? What seems to motivate his desire to destroy the conspirators? In act 4, scene 1, how does Antony’s discussion with Octavius and Lepidus suggest that Antony has become ambitious and now pursues power for himself? How does ambition change Antony? 

Regicide as Theme: Although Julius Caesar was not a king, he effectively ruled Rome as a monarch prior to his assassination—a point not lost on Shakespeare and his audiences, all subjects of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Historically, regicide was considered the most heinous of crimes in English society, an act that upended the natural order, engendered political chaos and civil war, and offended God. The great consequences of murdering a head of state, crowned or not, are made evident in the play. 

  • For discussion: How is Caesar’s murder described in act 3, scene 1? In what ways is it especially violent and bloody? When Antony is left alone with Caesar’s body, how does he describe the civil war that he intends to wage against the conspirators? How will it affect Rome and the Roman people? 
  • For discussion: Which details in Antony’s funeral oration in act 3, scene 2, suggest that the Roman people benefited from having Caesar as a ruler? 
  • For discussion: What occurs immediately after Antony speaks at Caesar’s funeral? Does it indicate that Caesar’s assassination created social chaos and destruction? How? 

Motifs Underscoring Themes in the Play: Several motifs appear throughout the play emphasizing major themes in the text. Frequently the motifs are images or ideas that are repeated at key points in the plot. Examine how these motifs relate to the development of themes in the play: deceit, darkness and shadows, and omens. 

  • For discussion: Which characters deceive others? Describe how and why each of them chooses to engage in deception. Are there justifiable reasons for each character’s deceitful behavior? 
  • For discussion: Which scenes in the play are set in darkness and shadows? What is happening or about to happen in the plot when the scenes are thus staged? What are the connotations of darkness and shadows? What ideas do they suggest regarding the characters in the scenes and their activities? 
  • For discussion: What omens occur before and after Caesar’s assassination? Which of them seems to warn of Caesar’s impending death? Which of them seems to occur in response to Caesar’s murder? How might these omens be described? What atmosphere do they create in the scenes where they occur or are discussed? 
  • For discussion: How do these motifs relate to the themes of honor, ambition, or regicide? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Contrast Brutus’s speech at Caesar’s funeral with Antony’s. How does Brutus rely on logic to explain Caesar’s assassination? How does Antony appeal to emotion to turn the crowd against the conspirators? What other persuasive techniques does Antony employ in his oration? Why is Antony’s speech more persuasive than Brutus’s? 
  • Which scenes in the play depict the behavior of the commoners? How are they depicted as a social class? What are some details in the text that suggest commoners are not to be admired? 
  • Examine instances of psychological manipulation that advance the plot. Which characters use psychology to manipulate someone else to achieve a hidden objective? Whom do they manipulate, and how do they do it? 
  • How does Shakespeare infuse the play with irony? What are some examples of situational irony, dramatic irony, and verbal irony in various scenes? How do dramatic irony and verbal irony contribute to the creation of suspense in several scenes? 
  • Examine the role of women in the play. How are Calpurnia and Portia alike? How could each woman’s relationship with her husband be described? What do Calpurnia and Portia contribute to the play? 
  • The soothsayer and Artemidorus are both minor characters. In which scenes do they appear? How does each of them play a role in creating suspense as the plot unfolds? 
  • Consider Brutus as the play’s tragic hero. What is the fatal flaw in his character that leads to his own destruction? 
  • Define blank verse for students. Which parts of the text are written in blank verse? Which parts are not written in blank verse? Why does Shakespeare write passages of exposition as blank verse? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The History and Government of Ancient Rome Are Unfamiliar: Students may be unfamiliar with the setting of Julius Caesar and with the historical events antecedent action in the drama. Since the play is a dramatization of Caesar’s assassination in Rome in 44 BCE and the civil war that ensued, it is useful to know the history of Caesar’s rise to power and why it threatened the Roman republican government of the time. 

  • What to do: Before students read the play, teach a short unit on the Roman government prior to Julius Caesar’s rise to power. Examine the role of the Senate in governing Rome. 
  • What to do: Include in the unit a brief study of Caesar’s military and political career. Examine how he defeated Pompey, another Roman general, in a civil war prior to becoming all-powerful in Rome. 
  • What to do: Point out that Caesar’s victory over Pompey is an important antecedent action. It is referenced immediately in act 1, scene 1 through the tribunes’ confrontation with the commoners as Caesar makes his triumphant entrance into Rome. 

Shakespeare’s Diction and Syntax Are Unfamiliar: Julius Caesar includes vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar to students. Students also may be unfamiliar with the syntax in text written in blank verse. 

  • What to do: Before teaching each act, identify any archaic words in the text and define them in context. 

What to do: Regarding the more challenging standard English words, have students complete a vocabulary study for each act. Rather than giving students a list of vocabulary words, give them a handout with phrases from the text that contain the words, thus placing the words in context. Highlight or underline the vocabulary word in each phrase. 

  • What to do: Review the definition of blank verse, and examine several speeches in the play written in blank verse. Note the meter in the lines, and explain how it generally conforms to the pattern of iambic pentameter; point out that the lines do not rhyme. Review the syntax and end-of-line punctuation in the speeches, noting that one line often leads into the next line or lines in completing a sentence. 
  • What to do: Have students read Julius Caesar by following the text while listening to a recording of the play. Numerous audio performances of the play can be found on line. Listening to Shakespeare’s language as actors recite it enhances students’ understanding of Shakespeare’s diction and syntax. 

Shakespeare’s Allusions Are Unfamiliar: Julius Caesar features dozens of allusions— historical, geographical, mythological, and contemporaneous—that may be unfamiliar to students, even to those who have read other Shakespeare plays or have some understanding of the history of ancient Roman and Elizabethan age. 

  • What to do: Define “allusion” for students. Point out that an allusion is not explained; its power lies in the deeply implicit idea it communicates. Explain that Shakespeare’s allusions, especially the contemporaneous allusions to English society, would have been familiar to his audiences. 
  • What to do: Before teaching each act, identify the allusions in the text. Explain the references, point out how they are used in context, and discuss what they contribute to the passages in which they appear. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Julius Caesar

To have students consider this frequently taught play from an alternative perspective, consider focusing on the following approaches: 

Focus on the characters’ personal relationships. Since friendship is a motif in the play, examine the friendships between Brutus and Caesar, between Caesar and Antony, and between Brutus and Cassius.

  • For discussion: How does Brutus’s friendship with Caesar contribute to Brutus’s intense internal conflict prior to joining the conspiracy? How does it contextualize Caesar’s dying words in act 3, scene 1? 
  • For discussion: How is Antony’s relationship to Caesar depicted early in the play? How does Antony’s friendship with Caesar determine his immediate response to Caesar’s brutal murder? 
  • For discussion: How does Cassius betray his friendship with Brutus prior to Caesar’s assassination? When does Cassius defer to Brutus’s judgment on matters they disagree on, and why does he continue to defer, even though Brutus’s decisions consistently prove to be wrong? How is Brutus and Cassius’s friendship affected by waging war together against Antony after Caesar’s murder? 
  • For discussion: In what ways is friendship a major motivation and source of conflict for the characters?

Focus on other motifs in the play.

  • For discussion: Identify images and references to blood, and interpret what they suggest. Contrast Brutus’s description of Caesar’s bloody corpse with Antony’s description. 
  • For discussion: Identify references to fate, courage, and suicide. Interpret what they suggest about the characters and their culture. 
  • For discussion: Identify examples of letters playing a role in the plot. Interpret how they create suspense. 

Focus on static vs. dynamic characters. Explain the difference between a static character and a dynamic character. Examine the major characters in the play to determine whether they change in substantial ways as the plot unfolds. Interpret the significance of each character’s being either static or dynamic.

  • For discussion: How is Caesar portrayed from the beginning of the play until his death at the beginning of act 3? What seem to be Caesar’s primary character traits? How do his speeches earlier in the play compare to his final speech to the Senate before his assassination? What traits do his speeches reveal? Which of Caesar’s character traits remain constant? Is Caesar more static or dynamic? 
  • For discussion: How is Brutus portrayed from the beginning of the play until his death in act 5? What seem to be his primary character traits early in the play? By the play’s conclusion, in what ways has he remained the same? In what ways has Brutus changed? Is Brutus more static or dynamic? 
  • For discussion: How is Cassius portrayed from the beginning of the play until his death in act 5? What seem to be his primary character traits early in the play? By the play’s conclusion, how has he changed? Is Cassius more static or dynamic? 
  • For discussion: How is Antony portrayed from the beginning of the play until his final speech in act 5? What seem to be his primary character traits prior to Caesar’s assassination? What traits in Antony’s character are revealed after Caesar’s murder? How has Antony’s character changed by the conclusion of the play? Is Antony more static or dynamic? 
  • For discussion: What does Caesar’s being a static character seem to suggest about Brutus’s decision to join the conspiracy? What do the changes in Brutus, Cassius, and Antony suggest about the effects of assassinating a head of state? 

Focus on the play as poetry. Examine Shakespeare’s use of poetic devices in various passages from the text. For discussion: What are some examples of imagery? What do they describe? How do they contribute to tone or atmosphere in the passages? 

  • For discussion: What are some examples of simile and metaphor? What gets described through simile or metaphor? What ideas are communicated through these comparisons? 
  • For discussion: What are some examples of personification? What is being personified? What ideas are suggested through the personification? 

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