June 28, 2022

How to Teach Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: Introducing the Play

If you are teaching Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare this year, here’s four ways to hook your students as you introduce the play.

Rarely are students excited for reading a drama, let alone one written almost 500 years ago. It is much more likely that you’ll hear groans and complaints when you announce that your upcoming unit is Julius Caesar written by William Shakespeare. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your students, as mine did, can learn to understand and even to enjoy the old bard’s messages about relationships, ambition, and betrayal.

In this series of blog posts, I'll describe how I teach each part of Julius Caesar, starting with how I introduce the tragedy to students. As with any new piece of literature, especially one you know will be challenging for students, hooking them from the get go is crucial.

Option 1: Hook Them With The Author

Many students are vaguely familiar with Shakespeare even before diving into any of his texts, but few know that Shakespeare had no formal training beyond Stratford Grammar School or that Shakespeare was the oldest known source for many words that we still use today. Shakespeare gave us the terms “swagger” and “fashionable” in his writing-- way before it was fashionable to do so– influenced the way we speak, and paved the way for literature around the world. To hook students into our Julius Caesar unit, I have students do a reading on Shakespeare’s life so they can better understand the man, the myth and the legend who brought us the language to equip us in debates today about which artists have the most swagger. The fact that Shakespeare possibly died on his birthday also intrigues students.

Option 2: Hook Them With The Language

To continue hooking students into our Julius Caesar unit and to give them the confidence they need to tackle Shakespearean language, I show students a translation of the Lord’s Prayer over time and ask them to read it aloud. We start by reading the prayer in Old English, then in Middle English, and lastly in Modern English so that students can witness the evolution of English in a prayer that is familiar to many. 

We discuss why language changes over time and discuss what changes have occurred in students’ lifetimes. Students can even peruse “new words recently added to the dictionary” to see what new words they may already be familiar with. Students become enticed to see that words their generation has coined are now being added to the dictionary. 

I also have students spin a wheel of Shakespearean language to engage them in their analysis and to be able to collaborate with their peers. Students spin a wheel and will take the word that the wheel lands on to write an original sentence using the word with context clues embedded in the sentence so that their classmates can make educated guesses as to the meaning of their word. 

Option 3: Hook Them With The Plot & Characters

How often do we get to know ahead of time that a character will die in a play, a book or a movie? While we may typically avoid revealing this type of information for fear of “spoiler alerts”, it was typical in Shakespeare’s day for audiences to know the general plot ahead of time. Besides, Julius Caesar is a historical figure who many students will have already learned about in History classes, and it is common knowledge that Julius Caesar died a tragic death. But how was he killed? And why was he killed? And what does “Beware the Ides of March” mean anyway?

I have students read Julius Caesar’s excerpted biography, and students are able to create a gravestone that reinforces the actions or events that led to his death. We discuss the elements of plot and the elements of the tragedy. I find giving students the general plot of Julius Caesar ahead of time allows them to dive into the text already intrigued, reading closely to find the nuances of Julius Caesar’s character and leadership, and to focus more on the meaning and impact of Shakespeare’s language. 

Even knowing ahead of time which people supported Caesar as their emperor and which people were for the Republic– and the reasons why– we still have to read closely to see how Shakespeare authors this story and what other tricks he throws our way. 

Option 4: Hook Them With The Themes

Students participate in a Jamboard collaborative discussion using anticipatory statements that connect to themes in Julius Caesar. Students are able to answer whether they agree or disagree to each statement, engage in collaborative discussion with their peers and make modern-day connections to the same themes Shakespeare was writing about in the 1500-1600’s. These statements can be revisited throughout the unit to spark class discussions, and sometimes students change their mind throughout the course of the play.

We discuss the pros and cons of ambition, and whether there are any causes worth dying for historically or present-day. Students brainstorm causes that are worthy of their support today. We discuss rhetoric and how and why language can be used to manipulate others. We discuss the concept of power and whether power can lead to corruption and, if so, does that mean all power leads to corruption? Was Julius Caesar in fact corrupt? Did he “deserve” to die?

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

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

If you are teaching Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare this year, here’s four ways to hook your students as you introduce the play.

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