Julius Caesar is one of the most iconic figures in history. Shakespeare’s rendition of the story of his death is just as iconic. Both the man and the play have been culture shaping.
I have noticed something, though. As a classic work, Shakespeare’s play has become, in some circles, just another required reading. It has taken its place among the other must-reads in school curriculum and they are all read about the same way. There is a difference between just reading a book and really reading a book. Mortimer Adler has written so thoughtfully, there are many ways to read a book.
For a historical and tragic drama such as Julius Caesar, reading takes on a different form. You can’t just read it like a novel or other history book. The language is much too subtle (and sometimes obscure).
Slowly but surely I’ve been learning to read a work like this. But my purpose here is not to propose a good way to read Shakespeare. Even if you did read Julius Caesar properly, or any other classic work for that matter, how do you keep from letting the work stay in the realm of fact?
Modern Readers Search for Facts
In my own journey of education, I’ve noticed that the majority of the time, our modern English tests required writing down facts about the book: Could we identify main characters, plot lines, and other details? Would we be able to identify themes and patterns? I realize that the purpose was to introduce us to the content of the book, but that’s where it always ended. These essential facts were all essentially facts, and, as such, kept the work within this realm.
Julius Caesar was one of those works, kept in a bubble of sorts. If you never really let him out of the factual bubble, he never truly becomes real. The story never has any real life, and it never truly makes any mark on your soul.
Julius Caesar isn’t in a Bubble
The fact is, Julius Caesar isn’t in a bubble. The man was intimately connected with both his preceding history and the events that would follow him. There were many political – geographical connections and anyone doing research on the man would find these things.
However, Julius Caesar might still be in a kind of historical bubble, unconnected to life in the here-and-now. How do you learn from what you study? I don’t mean how do you learn facts about him. I mean what kinds of decisions did he make that are the same kinds of decisions we make? What did he do that you could emulate? What did he do that you would not want to emulate?
Facts Pave the Way to Decisions
Facts are not the problem. In part, we learn facts to create a context for decisions.
Here are some questions related to facts that might help us understand why Julius Caesar decided to attack Pompey (a former friend):
- Where was Pompey a general? Did they work together?
- What kind of man was Caesar during the time of the first triumvirate? Did anything change between them during their civil war(s)?
- Who had more support from the Roman senate? Whom did the people seem to admire most?
These questions simply help create a kind of factual context for why Caesar decided to attack a former friend.
Seeing Yourself in Julius Caesar
We must somehow connect the Julius Caesar bubble with our own. Julius Caesar isn’t in a bubble when we can see ourselves in him. For instance, he isn’t in a bubble when we wonder why he used his oratory and observation skills to motivate others to do what he wanted. He was just a man – a man who thrived on power. Have you ever used your skills to get what you wanted?
Likewise, Shakespeare’s play isn’t in a bubble when we begin to wonder why Cassius persuaded his friend Brutus to rebel, or why Brutus would allow Antony to speak to a mourning crowd after he leaves. Put another way, you begin to wonder why, in the first case, you persuaded your friend to work with you to harm someone to protect an ideal. You begin to wonder why, in your overconfidence, you underestimated and overlooked the skill of another in your attempts to cover yourself before others.
Julius Caesar is an “Everyman”
Julius Caesar isn’t in a bubble when he becomes an “everyman,” a powerful example of manifest choices made out of his very nature. Is there something true to life about him? Is there something true to life we see in the tragic play found in many must-read lists for school?
Even now, I hear a student saying under his breath, “who cares?”
Well, maybe Alex Trebek – if it stays in the realm of facts. But maybe a book is more than something you study before you play Jeopardy…or take a literature final. Maybe, when you study the choices of key characters, helpful and beautiful truths would emerge.
Help your student care. Help them get out of their bubble by asking questions about the decisions characters made, even if it’s as simple as, “Why would he do that?”
Right. Now it matters: we make the same kind of decisions.