Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar
By: William Shakespeare
Publication Date: c. 1600
Page Count: 304
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Genre: Drama
Free via Project Gutenberg 

 When I found out I had to teach Julius Caesar as part of my 10th grade curriculum, to say I wasn’t pleased is an understatement. Why am I stuck with a boring history about a bunch of dead Romans? Why couldn’t I have gotten something GOOD like Macbeth or Hamlet or The Tempest? Why does the lucky freshman teacher get to teach Romeo and Juliet and I’m stuck with dumb old Julius Caesar? Little did I know, I was the lucky one.

First of all, I was wrong. Julius Caesar isn’t one of Shakespeare’s histories, it’s one of his tragedies, which makes a world of difference. Julius Caesar is enthralling, inventive, interesting, and above all, entertaining. From the first act, the reader is invested in Brutus’s tragic story. That’s right, Brutus. Turns out Julius Caesar isn’t really about Julius Caesar despite its misleading title. At its heart, the play is the story of the selfless and na├»ve Brutus; the jealous and conniving Cassuis; and the loyal and cunning Marc Antony (of Cleopatra fame). And the absolute power of words.

Here’s the basic plot, modernized and simplified, I think you’ll be able to tell I teach 16 year olds all day. Caesar and Brutus are BFF’s, but when Caesar returns from defeating Pompey, Brutus worries that he’s getting a big head. Enter Cassius. Cassius wants Caesar’s power, so he exploits the fear that Caesar might be crowned king, and turns his closest friends against him, except Brutus and the loyal yes-man Marc Antony. Antony is blindly loyal and Brutus, you see, is a tougher sell. He loves Caesar, but, ultimately, he loves the people of Rome more and he agrees to assist in the assassination of his closet friend in order to save the country he loves. Once (spoiler alert) Caesar falls, Anthony fears for his safety and flees Rome. He is allowed to return and given permission to speak at his friend’s funeral. All that happens before the middle of Act III and that’s when the plot really takes off.

 I won’t give anything else away, but I will tell you that my classes designed Team Antony and Team Brutus shirts after a particularly heated discussion of the later part of Act III in class one day. Antony is an intelligent orator and Brutus is a tragic hero, and you root for both of them. But Julius Caesar is a Shakespearean tragedy, so not everyone can survive in end.

 Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s best. His signature puns and word manipulation are there, along with incredible rhetoric and strong characters. The plot has twists and turns, mystery and intrigue. His characters are dynamic and interesting and Act V is both satisfying and thought provoking (though, if you ask me, his craft as a writer really shines in Acts III and IV). And for the record, I’m Team Switzerland, but if you make me choose, I’ll pick Antony over Brutus

 Final Word: If you consider yourself a Shakespeare fan, read (or re-read) this. The conspiracy storyline is still relevant hundreds of years later and someone dies by eating fire for Pete’s sake! It’s fantastic.

In this striking tragedy of political conflict, Shakespeare turns to the ancient Roman world and to the famous assassination of Julius Caesar by his republican opponents. The play is one of tumultuous rivalry, of prophetic warnings -- "Beware the ides of March" -- and of moving public oratory "Friends, Romans, countrymen!" Ironies abound and most of all for Brutus, whose fate it is to learn that his idealistic motives for joining the conspiracy against a would-be dictator are not enough to sustain the movement once Caesar is dead.


  1. English has always been one of my favorite subjects in secondary school. I was so thrilled when we were reading and talking about Shakespeare's work and Julius Caesar was one of the titles. Such an exciting story. We also listened to a very old tape of a musical, that was a lot of fun, haha.


  2. I didn't enjoy Caesar when I taught it- I was focused on other pieces of literature, and concentrated my Shakespeare time on Hamlet (which I still miss teaching, 9 years later.) You've convinced me I need to do a re-read of Caesar.

  3. Oh Paula, you MUST! It starts slow, but by the end my students absolutely love it (we're getting the shirts done professionally and they are so excited about them!). I focus on the speeches in Act III and a handful of rhetorical devices and the appeals to logic, emotion, and authority. I love the puns that start in Act I with the cobbler razzing one of the jerky senators about being a mender of bad soles. Antony comes out of NOWHERE with his funeral speech and his manipulation of language to achieve an end (one that isn't entirely noble, I might add) is fantastic. The two important death scenes near the end are so stark in contrast and say so much about each man... *sigh* I really should have given it four and a half birdies. lol


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