One of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, Julius Caesar offers memorable characters and conflicts that will draw students into the drama. Driven by political intrigue, betrayal, and violence, the play will engage students’ interest, especially when they become more familiar with Shakespeare’s language and dramatic conventions. Including these instructional strategies in your lesson plans will help students more fully understand Julius Caesar and recognize its enduring universal themes.
1) Place Julius Caesar in historical context.
Before reading the play, explain how Caesar rose to power in Rome and how he threatened the existing political structure. Point out that the play is based on recorded historical accounts of Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, but that the play is a work of literature, not history. To familiarize students with the play’s setting, show them photos of ancient Rome or play a video that depicts the city as it existed in the days of Julius Caesar.
2) Listen to a recording of Julius Caesar while reading it in class.
Have students follow the text as they listen to actors dramatize the scenes. Hearing the dialogue interpreted by professional actors enhances students’ understanding of the plot and characters and familiarizes them with Shakespeare’s words and phrasing.
- After listening to each scene or act, record major plot points on a timeline displayed in the classroom.
Listening to the play, act by act or scene by scene, can also be helpful in pacing instruction.
3) Point out annotations to the text.
Besides defining words in the play, the annotations often explain Shakespeare’s figures of speech, colloquialisms, and allusions. Julius Caesar features many allusions, including references to ancient history, mythology, world geography, superstitions, and cultural beliefs and practices. These references may be difficult for modern students to understand, so annotations are a crucial tool. Annotations may also offer observations about the characters and identify literary devices used in passages.
4) Use a modern translation in scaffolding.
A modern translation of Julius Caesar clarifies Shakespeare’s language, sentence structure, and obscure references. When used as a resource alongside the original text, a modern translation helps students understand especially challenging passages as they become more familiar with Shakespeare’s blank verse and prose.
5) Employ cooperative learning through group research projects.
Julius Caesar becomes more meaningful to students when they can choose to investigate some aspect of the play that interests them, and working together on the project enhances their learning. Provide a list of topics to investigate.
Organize students into teams, and let each team choose a research project. Some possible topics could include the following:
- Brutus as a tragic hero
- Conflicts in the play
- How Shakespeare creates suspense in the plot
- A comparison or contrast of two characters
- Verbal, situational, and dramatic irony in the text
- An analysis of Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral
- Supernatural events in the plot
- Motifs in the text.
Have the teams share the results of their investigations with the class.
6) Encourage students’ creativity.
Give students an opportunity to interact with the text through a creative activity. Hand out a list of creative activities related to the play, and let them choose one they like. Design the activities so that some can be completed alone, some with a partner, and some with a small group. Activities could include the following:
- Perform a soliloquy or a scene from the play
- Create a collage, an album of original photos, or a video illustrating some aspect of the play
- Write and perform an original soliloquy or a conversation between two characters
- Make a Power Point presentation that includes illustrations and selected quotations from the text
- Create a Facebook page for one of the characters
- Draw or paint a scene from the play or write a poem that reflects a theme in the play
- Create a soundtrack for events in the plot
Have students share their activities with the class and explain what they have created and how it relates to Julius Caesar.
7) Watch a Julius Caesar movie.
Watching a movie version of Julius Caesar helps students understand the setting and atmosphere of each scene and how it can be performed, according to Shakespeare’s stage directions. Also, students can draw inferences about the characters from the actors’ body language and tone of voice as they interpret the dialogue. In pacing instruction, film clips can be used to direct students’ attention to specific acts or scenes.
8) Add to your knowledge of the play.
Reading literary analysis and criticism of Julius Caesar will often enhance your understanding of the play as an educator, which will allow you to present the material and guide discussions with confidence. Literary resources to review can be found at https://www.enotes.com/topics/julius-caesar on eNotes. Under “Study Guide,” click on “More,” and then select “Critical Essays” from the drop-down menu.
Because these instructional strategies address various multiple intelligences and learning styles, they will make reading Julius Caesar less difficult and more satisfying for your students as they dive into Shakespeare’s tragedy.