Playing Shakespeare in Classics 101

ShakespeareFor a long time, I hated Shakespeare.  I found him too derivative of ancient stories. It wasn’t until the last few years that I have begun to appreciate his plays because I had learned about the ancient idea of imitatio: the idea of showing off one’s skill by showing how closely one keeps to the original text, and how one artfully diverges from it.

Recently, imitatio has been on my mind, and I have recently had more exposure to and interaction with the ideas of reception studies–seeing how the ancient world has been understood and interpreted since antiquity.  Not least of which was this excellent blog post by Colin Burrow, author of Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity, about how the Bard learned about Greece and Rome and how he used this knowledge.  So, I want to use this post to explore some possible benefits of using Shakespeare’s plays and knowledge of antiquity in our teaching about antiquity.  I will focus on his Julius Caesar because it is a play that I know better, but Burrow’s post may inspire fun ideas for classes on ancient drama, mythology, or many other classes.

The Emperor’s Club

In the movie The Emperor’s Club, Mr. Hundert uses Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to teach students about the assassination of Julius Caesar.  One of his students, Sedgewick Bell, who is Mr. Hundert’s antagonist throughout the movie, reads Brutus’s lines, but Mr. Hundert dislikes the performance:

Hundert: Yes, your Brutus lacks conviction, Mr. Bell.  You do realize what you’re saying? The fate of the Republic is at stake!
Bell: Not for me.
Hundert: No. I realize that. But try to imagine the significance of the moment. You, Brutus, are at the center of a conspiracy… to kill Julius Caesar, you believe, for the good of Rome. Yet you’re struggling profoundly with the moral implications of murdering Mark Antony as well.

The play can help students better understand the motivations, the dilemmas, and the ethos of the Romans.  It helps bridge the gap.  Here, Hundert also mentions morality, and he believes it is his job to mold students’ character and morals. Helping students see another person’s perspective, by acting out the play, or reading it dramatically, may help mold their character and morals and encourage those students to be more tolerant of diversity.  Whether or not that is your goal, it is surely an important historical lesson for a student to better understand Brutus’s dilemma and the arguments for and against Caesar’s assassination.

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me Your Ears!”

Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar was so stirring that the slain dictator was straightaway cremated by the Roman people in the Forum Romanum.  The people’s anger and the changing politics even drove Brutus and Cassius from Rome.  We don’t have the text of Antony’s oration, but we have Shakespeare’s version of it.  A YouTube clip of this speech can show the power of Roman oratory, and we can use it to drive home how powerful good, skilled Roman orators like Antony and Cicero were.

I include here Charlton Heston’s rendition of this speech, not because it is necessarily the best version, but because it includes a great deal of the speech and the crowd’s reaction.  In addition to the power of oratory, we can use this speech to address the debate between Fergus Millar and Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp about whether the actions of the Roman Republic were driven by the people or by the aristocracy.

There’s also the nicety of introducing our students to one of the more famous parts of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and helping them understand that cultural reference.

Et tu, Brute?”

One of the other most famous lines–et tu, Brute?–brings me to another possible discussion we can have with Shakespeare: imitatio.  According to Suetonius, Caesar’s dying words to Brutus were the Greek, kai su, teknon?, “Even you, child?” (Jul. 82).  Why does Shakespeare change it from Suetonius’s text? Was it based on his English source about Caesar’s death? Is a dramatic effect the reason? If so, what effect? Why did the Bard stay so faithful to the idea of Suetonius’s quotation?  Did it relate to Shakespeare’s audience and times? There can be plenty of discussion about this quotation, like that on this Guardian website.  This discussion would essentially be about reception and imitatio.

Such a discussion is valuable for another reason: it highlights the fact that there is a Classical Tradition and how important Greco-Roman Antiquity has been to European and American cultures.  The fact that we might use Shakespeare to teach about ancient Rome is a subtle reminder of this, but why not make it more explicit?


Finally, Julius Caesar is a play, a drama, a spectacle.  It’s something to hear and watch, for students to be entertained and drawn in.  It is not a lecture about Roman history; it is dynamic and engaging.  The plays may pique students’ interest and make them want to learn more about the Classics.  They may re-energize your class midway through the term or provide a nice, new perspective for discussion.

2 thoughts on “Playing Shakespeare in Classics 101

  1. I have since become of this cool new resource: that contains audiorecordings, intralinear glosses to clarify older words, notes on literary devices, videos exploring the characters and play, and performances of the plays. The site has editions of Julius Caesar, Rome & Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet.


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