Heather Newsam, Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Julius Caesar 4.1.317-332
What's On for Today and Why
Students will travel back in time today and become compositors at the local printing house that is about to publish Shakespeare's First Folio collection after his death. While working on the layout for 4.1 of Julius Caesar, they misplaced the section of the manuscript for the ghost scene. They know Shakespeare's source for the play was Plutarch's Lives, so they consult the print shop's copy. To their horror they discover there are two versions of this scene. Will they use the version from Brutus's Life or Caesar's Life? Which one did Shakespeare use?
Today in groups students will choose which chapter to use and will write a scene they will try to pass off as Shakespeare's original when his actor friends arrive tomorrow to review the final copy. After the students present their scenes, you (the teacher) find the original manuscript under yesterday's fish. Now the student compositors must decide which scene is the best and why. Which Brutus do they think best represents the original source? Which Brutus best matches his character to the rest of the play? Which ghost? Why?
Students will experience adaptation of a text for the stage, as Shakespeare did many times in his career. In doing so, they must make choices about characterization and staging, taking care to understand and mimic Shakespeare's style so their error is not discovered.
This lesson will take two class periods and can be used as a prompt for subsequent writing projects.
What You Need
Folger edition of Julius Caesar
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Plutarch's Lives: excerpt from Brutus's Life
Plutarch's Lives: excerpt from Caesar's Life, part 1
Plutarch's Lives: excerpt from Caesar's Life, part 2
Shakespeare's First Folio excerpt
What To Do
1. Divide students into groups of four and distribute the attached excerpts from Caesar's Life and Brutus's Life from Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Let the groups choose which account(s) of the ghostly encounter they wish to use for the activity.
2. From these different versions, students should write a script that they will attempt to pass off as Shakespeare's scene. They should include lines and stage directions that describe:
a. What Brutus is doing before the ghost's entrance
b. How Brutus reacts to the ghost's entrance
c. An exchange between Brutus and the ghost
d. How Brutus reacts to the ghost's message
3. Once they have written the scene, students should distribute the parts, block the scene, and rehearse it to be performed during the next class period.
4. In small groups or as whole-group discussion, identify the differences between the ghost of Plutarch's Caesar and the ghost of Plutarch's Brutus. You may wish to have this discussion in between each student performance, based on the details of those performances.
5. After the performances are complete, ask students which of the scenes they have seen is most likely to pass for Shakespeare's scene, and why. What choices and devices make it the most Shakespearean? Which best represents Plutarch? Which Brutus best matches the Brutus of the rest of Shakespeare's play, and why?
6. After the group has drawn some conclusions, announce the discovery of the manuscript and distribute Shakespeare's scene from the First Folio, below. Complete the discussion of differences between the scenes with reference to Shakespeare's scene. How well did the students anticipate Shakespeare's choices?
7. As a follow-up writing assignment, have students imagine that all of these scenes, Shakespeare's and the ones presented by the class, were discovered in the printing-house, and they must argue that one of them is the best choice for printing in the final play. For homework, have the students write a 1-2 page persuasive essay arguing for inclusion of each student's favored scene.
For more teaching ideas for use with Plutarch's Lives, click here .
How Did It Go?
Were students able to write scenes that used Plutarch accurately, included a variety of Shakespearean devices, and act those scenes with enthusiasm and creativity? Were they able to anticipate the kinds of choices Shakespeare made in his own script for the play? Were their papers clear and well-argued?
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.