In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches Julius Caesar. Youll go over the complete background of the play, the setting, and the characters. Rebekah explains each character in detail, including Julius Caesar, Calpurnia, Octavius, Cicero, Brutus, Portia, and everyone in between. Youll learn each element of the plot from Caesars Triumph to the tribute to Brutus. Themes, major passages, and essay topic jumping-off points are also discussed. With Rebekah youll discuss topics such as the use of fate and prophecy in the play, applying the text to different moments in history, and whether Brutus is really the hero. The lesson concludes with a few secrets to make understanding Shakespeare a lot easier.
This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
Taken from Roman history, especially Plutarch
Possibly a commentary on English succession
Both a history play and a tragedy
Full of anachronisms (doublets, a clock)
Not published in Shakespeare’s lifetime (First Folio, 1623)
Rome, 44 B.C.E.
Caesar’s triumph over Pompey’s sons
Caesar to be named king
Julius Caesar—Roman general, about to be named dictator
Calpurnia—Wife of Caesar
Octavius, Mark Antony, Lepidus—Triumvirs after Caesar’s death
Cicero, Publius, Popilius Lena—Senators
Brutus—Friend of Caesar and one of his murderers; possibly the protagonist of the play
Cassius—Conspirator against Caesar, whisperer in Brutus’ ear.
“Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, And Brutus is an honourable man …”
-Act III, Scene 2, 82-96
“We at the height are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures …”
-Act IV Scene 2, 269-276
Examine the use of fate and prophecy in this play. Who delivers warnings? Who heeds them? How do different characters interpret signs like the lion in the Capitol? How do these responses reflect character?
This play has frequently been performed as a political statement (perhaps because it shows a republic turning into a monarchy). How can the text be applied to different moments in history?
Read Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar. Where does Shakespeare deviate from his source? Which of these deviations is for dramatic effect (e.g. combining events) and which speaks to his reason for writing?
Consider the role of reputation in this play—Caesar’s public image as opposed to his private life, for example, or Antony’s use of “Brutus is an honourable man”. How does reputation govern characters’ actions? How do the reputations of Caesar and Brutus extend their influence after their deaths?
Is Brutus truly the hero of the play? Does he choose to join the conspiracy, or does Cassius trick him? Are his motives truly noble, or merely foolish?
This play contains many friendships. Consider one or more pairings (Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Octavian, etc.). Are they true friendships? Alliances of convenience? Something else?
Who is the protagonist—Brutus or Caesar?
The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
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