Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"It Must Be By His Death . . . " -- Must It?

Rome is Brutus' first love. We read paragraph after paragraph of student writing supporting this thesis in my honors sophomore English class with Mr. Umansky. Frankly, writing and evaluating those paragraphs is all I remember about our Julius Caesar unit that year -- in fact, I wouldn't even remember that we read it except that thesis statement is seared into my brain: Rome is Brutus' first love.

But I've taught Julius Caesar several times since then, and I'm teaching it now, and I LO-O-OVE this play! And I am LOVING the discussions I'm having with this class.

The big debate yesterday: did Brutus have good reasons for joining the conspiracy to kill Caesar? Well, his reasons seem more noble than the others'. He loves Caesar, but he is afraid of what will happen to Rome if Caesar gains too much power, because he predicts power will corrupt him.

But how does he know power will corrupt him? He also predicts that Antony is but a limb of Caesar and won't be any danger. He predicts that the people will rule by their reason and appreciate what the conspirators have done for them. He predicts that letting Antony speak at Caesar's funeral will be to their advantage more than otherwise. And he was dead wrong about it all.

And is there ever a good reason, a noble reason to take a life? (Insert "American Sniper" discussion here.)

And what about Antony? He's noble for standing by Caesar . . . we think . . . but what are his motives? And what a two-faced sneak that man is! Making his peace with the conspirators, shaking their bloody hands, and then turning around and swearing vengeance. Is that noble or not?

How about that funeral oration of his? It's positively masterful. "Brutus is an honorable man" he tells them over and over, all the while proving definitively what a traitor Brutus is. Riling up the crowd with passion, denigrating himself humbly as "a plain, blunt man," -- "no orator, as Brutus is" -- oh, the irony!

And the crowd! The mob! It's laughable how changeable they are! "This Caesar was a tyrant!" One minute, and weeping for him the next. "Caesar's better parts shall be crowned in Brutus!" at one point, and then "Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!" just a few minutes later. So easily swayed by pretty words. (And when have we heard pretty words sway a changeable crowd into action unwise for the course of a country . . . ?)

Why, that mob actually murdered an innocent man in the streets just because he was unfortunate enough to have the same name as one of the conspirators. "I am Cinna, the poet!" he cried. "I am Cinna, the poet!!"

"Tear him for his bad verses!" the mob growls. Insert images of the Ferguson, Missouri, madness here.

Don't ever tell me that Shakespeare is not relevant to the modern reader. And don't ever tell me it isn't interesting to the modern teenager. They just need to know how to read it -- and to read it like it was meant to be read: with PASSION. Because as Antony tells us (long before Elizabeth Taylor did), "Passion, I see, is catching."

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