June 28, 2022

How to Teach Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: Act I

Here's how I plan out Act I of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: the scenes I focus on and the activities I use to extend learning and make connections.

When teaching one of William Shakespeare’s dramas to secondary students, it is all about digging in and having fun. I begin building engagement during the week I spend introducing the play Julius Caesar. Here's my approach to Act I.

Planning Out The Reading

In each act of Julius Caesar, I generally choose to read the scenes with the events most important to developing the plot. I provide short summaries for any scenes we skip to fill students in on the less important events. In addition to providing summaries of less important scenes, I also edit down (cut out lines) the scenes we do read. I like to spend about a week on each act of the play, so the days we don't spend reading are spent on after reading activities, writing, and a short assessment. 

Julius Caesar is a play that is meant to be seen and heard, but before assigning parts and having my students act, we do one or two read throughs together as a class. In the first read through, we number the lines of the scene up to the number of students in the class and then repeat until each line of the scene is numbered. Then, students count off and read “their” lines regardless of the character speaking. If I feel like a second read through is necessary, we number the parts rather than individual lines. Each time a different character speaks, so does a new student.

Finally, I have students get up and act out the scene. I usually let students choose their parts, but if necessary I will assign them. Some students don't mind reading but don't want to get up out of their seats, so I will sometimes have someone assigned as the reader for a part and someone else as the silent actor or actress for the part. I can get twice the number of students involved that way and draw on students’ strengths. Students who are uncomfortable getting up in front of the class can still participate and students who enjoy acting won't be hindered by having to hold a script.

Act I, Scene I

In total, Act I is divided into three scenes, Scenes II and III being the most important in developing the characters as well as the conflict and the conspiracy against Julius Caesar. At the start of the play, I introduce students to key terms they will need throughout the play such as dialogue, monologue, soliloquy, aside, character foil, and tragic flaw. 

Act I, Scene I is very short but is also pivotal in setting the exposition of the play. Teachers can assign this entire scene to give students an opportunity to “get their feet wet” with Shakespearean language and understand several characters’ sentiments about Julius Caesar’s appointment, or provide a summary of Scene I instead so that more time is prioritized for Scenes II and III. By the end of Scene I, students will understand the setting and what the common people are celebrating.

Act I, Scene II

Scene II is the bulk of Act I and is where readers first meet Julius Caesar and his wife Calphurnia, and Caesar is warned (for the first time) by the Soothsayer to “Beware the Ides of March.” I divide this scene into two parts with both the original text as well as the modern translation. Students can highlight textual evidence as they read to assist them in answering word identification and short answer responses. At the end of Scene II, I have students analyze the characters by looking at their comments to see how they feel about other characters in the play as well as how they feel about Caesar ruling Rome. Students should be sure to notice how carefully Cassius manipulates Brutus in Scene II.

Act I, Scene III

We continue doing a close read of the significant parts of Scene III, collecting textual evidence as we read and more of the plot is revealed to us. Students engage in continued word identification and written responses using their textual evidence as well as a creative writing opportunity in which students write a letter that Cassius throws in Brutus’ window to convince him to join the conspiracy. By the end of Act I, students know who the conspirators are, where Cassius and Casca are going and what they are planning to do.

After Reading Activities

The Romans took their superstitions so seriously that they would not start the work of government without taking into account the omens of that day. After learning a little bit about Roman superstitions, students classify omens as good, bad, or foreshadowing death and make predictions about Roman superstitions. Students watch a video on the origin of 5 common superstitions and are able to discuss whether they believe certain modern symbols are omens of good luck, bad luck or foreshadowing death. They then look at more obscure symbols from Roman times to make predictions about these superstitions.

In a second part of this superstition activity, students take on the role of a soothsayer living in a community that is far from Rome. They imagine they have been sought out to interpret an omen as they are gifted with having an understanding of what to do to erase bad luck. Students look over the information they are given from the “messenger” and decide if it is a good omen or bad one. They  describe how this belief came to be by creating a story about it, explain what someone should do in that situation, and write a one-sentence piece of advice that is easily memorable. Students set their story in Roman times so that it is applicable to what life may have been like in the times of Julius Caesar. To engage in this activity, students spin the “Wheel of Superstitions” to see which of the 13 possible superstitions they will be writing about. 


At the end of the week, I assign a text-based assessment, which covers Act I of Julius Caesar. The assessment includes ten multiple-choice questions and a choice of two short answer questions which require a written response and an opportunity for students to use textual evidence to support their answer. The multiple choice questions include general comprehension questions, including the key terms students were provided at the start of the play, as well as questions which challenge students to interpret the text, including analyzing characters’ words and actions and paraphrasing important lines.

To assess students’ understanding throughout Act I, I also assign a four-part homework which focuses on Shakespeare’s language. Students match quotes from Act I with the proper modern day translations, rewrite the inverted sentences to the way we would say them today, determine the meanings of words used in Shakespeare’s day, and rewrite sentences to replace archaic words with their modern day equivalents.

You can find all of my resources for teaching Julius Caesar, including the materials described above that I use to teach Act I, here.

Read on for my approach to teaching Act II of Julius Caesar.

Here's how I plan out Act I of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: the scenes I focus on and the activities I use to extend learning and make connections.

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