Shakespeare for Kids: Julius Caesar

posted in: pedagogical | 8

We’re in the midst of studying Julius Caesar this year.

The boys are happy to be doing a play that has nothing to do with marriage or love, but rather with stern and noble Romans.

Shakespeare doesn’t need to be intimidating or complicated. It’s really just about enjoying a good story together, as with any other read-aloud!

Here are the resources we’ve been using while enjoying Julius Caesar together.

Shakespeare for Kids: Julius Caesar » Simply Convivial

Step 1: Introduce Julius Caesar

I always begin a new play by reading aloud a picture book version, even with the 12-year-old. Personally, I am not fond of either Lamb’s or Nesbit’s retellings – Victorian & Shakespeare don’t mesh well – but there are still many other options out there that communicate Shakespeare in a compelling and clear manner.

This time we read the version presented in the collection The Best-Loved Plays of Shakespeare.

While they listened, they also colored a page from the Great Scenes from Shakespeare Dover Coloring Book.

Step 2: Memorize Julius Caesar Famous Lines

Which speech to memorize with Julius Caesar was a no-brainer.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

I printed the selection out in large font on several pages of paper in the way Ken Ludwig recommends in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare – I say a line and the children chorus it back. I speak it as if I am playing Mark Antony, dramatic and pathetic; sometimes they mimic my presentation, sometimes they dead-pan it, sometimes they create their own interpretation.

We open each Shakespeare time, twice a week, by reciting this speech. So in the 6-8 weeks that it takes us to study the whole play, we will all likely have memorized it. And, I believe Ludwig is right: memorization is a key to the heart.

Children who know Shakespeare grow to love him.

Download the lesson plans and memory sheets:

Step 3: Watch a Play Movie or Production

Before we read the full, real, unabridged text, we watch a movie production. It helps us all keep characters straight and follow the action better. After all, Shakespeare was written to be played and seen, not read. It is drama, and drama is best performed. We watched the version with Charleston Heston.

Step 4: Listen to Julius Caesar

We do read Shakespeare, but it is good to remember it is drama. I find it most effective to listen to an audio performance of the play, complete with different voice actors and some music transitions between scenes. We follow along in our own paperback copies (we get some from the library and some cheap Dover copies and some have been collected from thrift stores and library sales), but it is so much easier to understand what is being said when the person reading it aloud knows what it means and how to express it well.
Shakespeare doesn't need to be intimidating or complicated. It's really just about enjoying a good story together, as with any other read-aloud!

Step 5: Play Julius Caesar

In the past we have used the Masterpuppet Theatre set to act out favorite scenes. This time when we are finished listening to the play, my plan is to have them draw their own comic strip version of the story and share their favorite scenes or talk about mistakes people made throughout the play.
Shakespeare for Kids: Julius Caesar » Simply Convivial
Remember that prior to high school, our goal is simply to introduce the stories and Shakespeare as something to enjoy together. There will be no fear or intimidation when they’ve grown up with the assumption that Shakespeare is fun and normal rather than difficult and enigmatic.

Download the lesson plans and memory sheets:

Learn more about reading Shakespeare with kids.

8 Responses

  1. Melissa
    |

    Thanks for the post Mystie. You’ve made studying Shakespeare look doable :)

  2. Amber Vanderpol
    |

    I’m gearing up to do a study of Caesar in March and April with a group of kids and I really appreciate your post, Mystie! I was trying to decide what retelling to use – I will take a look at the one you mentioned. The last time I led a study of Julius Caesar (with just my kids about four years ago) I think I mostly used a history text (I can’t remember which one – something from the Baldwin Classics site) but that definitely wasn’t ideal.

    How was the Heston version of Caesar in terms of staying close to the text and language of the play?

    I’m planning on reading through an abridged version and drawing character maps as we do so. Then I want to listen/watch/narrate the play. I only have four 1.5 hr sessions, so I want to mix up how we’re working with the play to make it feel like we’re having short lessons… even though it is a longer chunk of time to focus on the play. I plan to have all the kids memorize the funeral oration as well, but I’m also going to help them to choose a scene or speech to present on our family presentation night/dinner.

    In the fall we studied The Tempest together (with 6 sessions that time), first with an introduction and character maps, then working through and rehearsing an abridged version of the play. We performed this abridged version of the play to family members and then had a dinner together. It was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to doing something similar again.

    • Mystie Winckler
      |

      Sounds great, Amber! We’re doing The Tempest next – did you find a child-appropriate movie version at all?

      The Heston version was not very abridged and well-performed, straight from the text. It included a statue of Caesar actually spouting blood as Calpurnia told her dream, and showed the senators stabbing Caesar multiple times, but with no gore and all simple stage tricks; one of the kids said he saw Caesar’s eye twitch when he was supposed to be dead. :)

      • Kate
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        For what it’s worth, my kids and I watched the Kultur video version (with Efrem Zimbalist) last year. It was fine, but a little dull. My kids were fascinated by how they portrayed Ariel, though–it was a great play for taking about stagecraft as they tried to portray Ariel as invisible.

      • Amber Vanderpol
        |

        That’s good to know about the Heston version, thanks. I did not end up watching The Tempest with the kids. I surveyed the options a bit but nothing jumped out at me. It is something we generally do though, but since they were rehearsing the play and performing it, they had a pretty good grasp of the play and how the characters interacted so I didn’t try and figure something out.

  3. Libby Jane
    |

    This is awesome!
    I picked up some old LPs of his plays, read dramatically by a whole cast of actors somewhere, and will add them in to our next play.
    I like the Leon Garfield retellings. The kids always want to keep reading!

  4. Kate
    |

    I’ve been trying to decide which play to do this year, and I was leaning towards one of the historical plays. You’ve sealed the deal for Julius Caesar–thanks!

  5. Jessica
    |

    We’re about to start a reading of Julius Caesar with a few other families as well.. I chose it for the boys too. Our girls greatly outnumber the boys (9 girls and 3 boys!) but I wanted the boys to get to appreciate Shakespeare and not think he only wrote romances. I’m looking forward to it. Last time we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was a huge success. Hopefully we’ll do as well with it this time.