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Lesson 06: The Adder and the Ladder: Figurative Language as Persuasion in Julius Caesar

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  29 ratings

Quotation from Julius Caesar in the hand of John Adams. Manuscript, 18th or 19th century

February 2007
Tim Clark, Contoocook Valley Regional High School, Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Julius Caesar 2.1.10-36
What's On for Today and Why

Students will read, speak, and analyze Brutus's soliloquy of 2.1.10-36, where he uses figurative language to associate ambition (the "ladder") and poison (the "adder.") In doing so, they will gain a deeper understanding of Brutus as a character and, perhaps, a new sense of skepticism about persuasive language and oratory.


This lesson can be completed in one class period.

What You Need

Folger edition of Julius Caesar
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

What To Do

1. Clear classroom desks to the sides of the room so that the students can stand in a circle. Begin with a choral reading of the soliloquy: ask one student to begin reading the soliloquy out loud until she or he encounters a period, exclamation point, question mark, colon, or semicolon. At that point, the next student should continue to the next major punctuation mark, and so on until the soliloquy is over. Check for comprehension of vocabulary.


2. Now divide the class into two lines, facing each other. Have the two sides alternate reading the soliloquy out loud, stopping at major punctuation marks as before, but increasing the volume as they go, until they are shouting by the last line.


3. Ask the students to discuss what Brutus is saying. Does he have conflicting feelings about assassinating Caesar? If so, what evidence of conflict is in the lines? For example, does he consider any arguments against the murder? Where are they?


4. Have students return to their desks and, in small groups (no more than four) look for figurative language  in the soliloquy. Give them no more than two minutes to find one example of Brutus comparing Caesar to someone or something else.


5. Have one student from each group report on findings. There may be some surprises (which would be good!), but the findings will probably come down to the man on the ladder, and the poisonous adder "that craves wary walking." Give the groups another two minutes to answer this question: which of the two images (the adder or the ladder) best describes Caesar's actions as we know them from the first act of the play?


6. Have a different member of each group report on its findings. The teacher or a student facilitator might record the findings in four columns on the board: the adder, the man on the ladder, both, or neither.


7. As a class, discuss each of the four columns. How does the use of two images, the adder and the ladder, affect the way each is seen by the reader or heard by the listener? Does a "climber-upper" seem threatening by himself? What happens when you link him to a poisonous serpent? If the class has read or discussed the story of Adam and Eve, you might ask if there's anything interesting about the fact that Brutus is walking in his orchard, talking about serpents and thinking about breaking an oath. The class might also consider the question of how to recognize a future threat ("a serpent's egg") and eliminate it before it becomes dangerous. What are the risks in such an approach?

How Did It Go?
Listen in on the small group work and review the class discussion. Did students see or hear the way Brutus was using figurative language to build a case for killing Caesar, in spite of the lack of hard evidence? Were they able to apply the lesson to their own lives and times?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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