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Grade: Senior
Subject: Literature

#2749. Discussion questions for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Literature, level: Senior
Posted Sun Dec 8 09:34:03 PST 2002 by Richard Bloom (richard.bloom@pgcps.org).
Central HS, School of Humanities and International Studies, Capitol Heights, Maryland USA
Materials Required: Questions are part of ongoing literature circle activity, meant to help future Discussion Directors
Activity Time: Cover entire play; 2 or 3 weeks minimum
Concepts Taught: Character analysis, interpretation, literary devices, literature in relation to history

Within a few weeks of beginning the current school year, it was clear to me that my students were not yet ready to take on the roles of Discussion Director, Passage Master, Word Master, Connector, et.al., associated with traditional Literature Circles. They needed to have the roles modelled by me. I put together the following Discussion Questions on Caesar to provide them a model of the range of concerns that touch even the most accessible and basic of Shakespeare's dramas. Reading of the play is part of a quarter-long unit on "Man and ideals" that is part of our tenth grade pre-International Baccalaureate program that focuses on "the ideal society in an ideal state". Many of the questions are designed to facilitate higher-level thinking about this particular subject.

I am also enclosing some ancillary materials and documents: vocabulary lists that supplement the text's own glossary (Caesar is such a standard of the U. S. high school curriculum that its unfamiliar words have become a staple of all SATs, and its accessibility guarantees that that situation will not likely change soon); a summary of the main characters that serves as a guide to character analysis that I found elsewhere on the net (source provided); and pictures of works of art and recent stage and film productions of Caesar and related plays. Some of these materials make suitable transparencies, and I urge you to do so, as (I needn't tell you) students at this and every other age are more visual than they are literary (text-bound).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR JULIUS CAESAR

Act I

1. What do the final 4 lines of scene I suggest about the status of the people under Caesar’s rule?

2. “Foreshadowing” is the technique of preparing a reader or audience for something to happen later in the narrative. “Beware the Ides of March” is an example of such a technique. Can you guess what event may be foreshadowed by the Soothsayer’s warnings in scene II? (I, 21)

3. Much of scene II is given over to Cassius’s speeches to Brutus, trying to persuade him that he should rule rather than Caesar. Given this fact, what was the purpose of scene I?

4. Does Brutus tell Cassius why he has been feeling “passions of some difference” of late? (II, 45) Could they relate to his feelings for Caesar as ruler?

5. Cassius tells Brutus that “many” wished Brutus saw himself the way they do. Why is it important that he tells Brutus that such people are “groaning underneath this age’s yoke”? (II, 66) What does that mean?

6. What does Cassius mean when he describes his role for Brutus as “your glass”? (II, 73)

7. What do you think Brutus means when he tells his friend that his advice will only be important “if it be aught toward the general good”? (II, 91)

8. How does “lov[ing] honor more than than [fearing] death” (II, 95) relate to Brutus’s becoming king?

9. Why does Brutus tell Cassius the story about Caesar and himself, swimming the Tiber River and fearing for their lives?

10. Summarize the meaning and intent of Cassius’s speech to Brutus in lines II, 144-167.

11. What is Caesar’s attitude toward Cassius (II, 205-219)?

12. After what you have heard about Caesar during his rule, do you believe he was genuine in his desire to refuse the crown of king, or not? (II, 269 ff.) Why?

13. Give evidence from scene II to explain why Cassius is plotting to overthrow Caesar.

14. “So every bondman in his own hand bears the power to cancel his captivity.” Explain Casca’s statement in the context of the Romans’ growing fears of Caesar’s “monstrosity”. (III, 106-107)

15. To what does Cassius ascribe Caesar’s feeling that his powers be exercised? (III, 110-111)

16. What “enterprise” is Cassius referring to in lines III, 129-136?

17. Casca and Cassius hope Brutus will change once he is in power. How do they describe this change? (III, 161-167).

Act II

1. Summarize, in a sentence or two, Brutus’s speech on pp. 21-22. Also—has Brutus decided to ally himself with Cassius and try to topple Caesar?

2. Do you think Brutus and Cassius have sufficient grounds to topple Caesar, even though much of their apprehension seems to be based on premonitions rather than Caesar’s bad deeds? Why?

3. What are Brutus’s deepest feelings about his plan to murder Caesar? (pp. 23-24)

4. “Oh, that we then could come by (influence) Caesar’s spirit/And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,/Caesar must bleed for it!” Brutus still has reservations about the murder. Why, then, must Caesar still “bleed for” his abuse—or potential abuse--of power? (I, 178-180)

5. Why do you think Caesar has grown “superstitious of late”? (I, 208)

6. Do you think Brutus is lying to his wife, Portia, when he tells her he is “not well in health”? (I, 272)

7. Calpurnia tells her husband, Caesar, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” Explain in reference to Caesar’s rule of Rome. (II, 31-32)

8. Caesar says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once.” Explain. (II, 33-34) [Note: This line is one of Shakespeare’s most famous.]

9. Why is it significant that Caesar tells one of his murderers, Decius, “I love you”? (II, 78) [Note the play on Decius’s name: To die is to become “deceased”.]

10. Do you think the conspirators are motivated by “emulation” (envy) as Artemidorus says they are? Why or why not? (III, 14)

11. To whom does the Soothsayer owe allegiance? Why, do you think? (III, 32)

Act III

1. “Et tu (you, too?), Brute? Then fall, Caesar!” says Caesar, dying. What do his dying words say about Caesar’s regard for Brutus’s opinion? Might he have meant anything else by the question, do you think? (scene I, line 84)

2. “Ambition’s debt is paid.” Explain the meaning of this statement, uttered by Brutus on Caesar’s demise. (I, 90)

3. Lines III, 121-123 proved prescient less than 150 years after Shakespeare’s death with the mutiny of the British during the English Revolution against their king, Charles I, and his murder on January 30, 1649. To what other historical events does Caesar’s murder relate?

4. Summarize Antony’s sentiments toward Caesar after the murder is committed? (Consult both III, 217-224 and III, 275-296 for this question.)

5. Why does Antony befriend Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators? (III, 235)

6. When is “death” a suitable punishment for “ambition”? (III, 29)

7. “I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus,” says Brutus in his funeral speech. Explain in reference to question 1, above. (III, 36-37) Does Brutus expect to be murdered, too? (III, 45-47)

8. “And Brutus is an honorable man,” is the refrain of Mark Antony’s famous eulogy of Caesar on page 56. Given his expressed love for the fallen leader, this refrain conveys Antony’s anger at the murderers through irony—saying one thing but meaning something quite the opposite. But Antony admits, credibly, that he “does not know” the whole story of Caesar’s so-called “ambition” and thus leaves himself—and Brutus and the conspirators—the option to celebrate the murderous act once he knows more. Practice saying this complex oration aloud and try to provide this refrain with an inflection that conveys Antony’s hostility.

9. Perceiving that he has raised the ire of the crowd to bloodthirstyness, Antony’s sarcasm turns mellow; when, at III, 225, he reiterates that the conspirators “are wise and honorable”, he seems to mean it and urges the people to listen carefully to the reasons given by the conspirators for the murder. What was Antony’s true purpose in the eulogy? Did he achieve it or not, given the fact that the crowd does, in fact, go off to kill Brutus?


Act IV

1. What is the thematic significance of Portia’s death? That is, why do you think the playwright thought it just that the lead conspirator and usurper, Brutus, should lose his wife as a result of his having participated in the conspiracy? (II, III)

2. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.” [This is another of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.] Explain the meaning and significance of this statement to the war between the legions of Antony and Brutus by referring to III, 250-252.

3. Summarize, in a sentence or two, Act IV’s importance to the play.

Act V

1. “O Julius Caesar! Thou art mighty yet. Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords in our own proper entrails.” What truth about wars might this speech by Brutus be said to acknowledge? (III, 101-102)

2. What event does this speech (“O Julius Caesar …”) presage? (V, 57)

3. Mark Antony’s speech establishes, once and for all, that Brutus’s intentions were honorable, and his sincerity in working for the ultimate good of the Roman people genuine. What, then, does Octavius mean when he suggests that the victorious forces of Antony “use” his memory by staging a “respectful” burial? What significance might such a funeral have for the Roman state? (V, 82-83)

4. Now that you have read the play in its entirety, decide for yourself whether or not Shakespeare believed that the murder of Caesar was in the best interests of the Roman people? To answer this question, reflect upon the facts of the play: who lives? (were their acts just?), who dies? (were their acts unjust?), and how do the speeches associated with their deaths shed light on the way “God” (in the case of a fictitious story, the playwright himself) would judge them and their actions?

5. Since Brutus himself is said to have been “the noblest Roman of all” (V, 74), why do you think Shakespeare kills him off before the play’s conclusion? That is, is Shakespeare conveying any message, moral or practical, by killing him off? [Remember: The reader must assume that nothing in such a play is included by accident.]

VOCABULARY WORDS FOR JULIUS CAESAR


1. beseech—verb—to plead with; beg of.

2. concave—adj—hollow inside, like a makeup mirror or the inside of a tennis ball that has been cut in half.

3. exalt—verb—to celebrate. (exalted—adj—celebrated; praised; lauded.)

4. sterile—adj—without

5. countenance—noun—face.

6. neglect—verb—to ignore or overlook.

7. lament—verb—to mourn.

8. yoke—noun—pole on which objects such as buckets are carried on one’s shoulders.

9. impart—verb—to tell or convey.

10. chafe—verb—to refuse or be hesitant (to do something); to develop skin irritation, such as a rash, in response to a stimulus.

11. underling—noun—subordinates.

12. exeunt—verb—archaic, plural form of the verb “to exit”.

MORE VOCABULARY WORDS FOR JULIUS CAESAR

1. exalt—verb—to celebrate or praise.

2. sterile—adj—uncontaminated or unable to conceive a child.

3. countenance—noun—face.

4. vex—verb—to make anxious; to worry (about something), used with preposition “by”.

5. neglect—verb—to overlook.

6. lament—verb—to mourn.

7. cogitate—verb—to ponder; to think about.

8. chafe—verb—to be hesitant about something; to refuse to do something. Used with preposition “against”.

9. impart—verb—to give over or convey (something).

10. infirmity—noun—illness. Infirm—adj—to be ill or disabled

STILL MORE VOCABULARY WORDS FOR JULIUS CAESAR

1. prevail—verb—to be victorious over (used with the preposition “over”); to cause (used with the preposition “upon”).

2. suffer—verb—to endure; sufferance—noun—endurance.

3. commend—verb—to praise.

4. cognizance—noun—recognition.

5. enterprise—noun—undertaking; business.

6. ordinance—noun—rule; law.

7. enfranchise—verb—state of being able to vote; empower.

8. prostrate—adj and verb—lying flat on the floor; figuratively, subordinated to someone or something.

9. vouchsafe—verb—to grant; to give over; to admit.

10. extenuate—verb—to weaken.

11. carrion—noun—dead meat of an animal.

12. censure—verb—to judge; to blame.

YET MORE VOCABULARY WORDS FOR JULIUS CAESAR

1. puissant—adj—powerful.

2. redress—vt—to ameliorate; to improve; to make right.

3. cynic—noun—an unbeliever; a skeptic.

4. enfranchise—vt—to empower; to give permission (to someone) to vote.

5. assail—vt—attack.

6. firmament—noun—heavens; sky.

7. chastise—verb—scold.

8. proscription—noun—draft; summons to someone to be somewhere.

9. legacy—noun—something inherited from someone else.

10. provender—noun—supplies.

11. niggardly—adj—being cheap; derogatory word for someone who is overly frugal.

12. wrangle—vi—fight; wrestle; argue. Used with preposition “with”.

FINAL VOCABULARY WORDS FOR JULIUS CAESAR

1. apparition—noun—ghost.

2. exigent—adj—urgent; exigency—noun—imperative; something that is urgent.

3. parley—verb—to talk; noun—a talk held by a group, like negotiations for a treaty between two countries.

4. avenge—vt—to pay back or get revenge for something.

5. billow—vi—to fill with wind, like a sail in a breeze.

6. compel—vt or vi—to cause something (vt), or to cause someone to do something (vi).

7. presage—vt—to portend something that will happen in the future; be a harbinger of something.

8. consort (KAHN sort)—noun—someone who accompanies someone else.

9. providence--noun—fate; that is, what God or the gods provide for humans.

10. demeanor—noun—behavior; combination of appearance and behavior; mien.

11. disconsolate—adj—not consoled; sad.

12. engender—vt—to produce; to cause something to be created; to give birth to something.

13. entrails—noun—guts; innards; organs inside a body.

Main Characters in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Brutus
· Of Noble Heritage Brutus is a Roman nobleman, as was his father (Act 1, Sc. 2, lines 169-171).
· Sincere: Brutus truly believes that his role in the assassination is for the good of Rome ( Act 2, Sc. 1, lines 10-34); (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 178-186).
· Honest: He refuses to take bribes (Act 4, Sc. 3, lines 72-89).
· Naive: He believes in the essential goodness of those around him (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 178-190); (Act 5, Sc. 5, lines 38-42).
· Philosophical: His philosophies guide his actions and decisions. Finally, his decisions--refusing to agree to the death of Marc Antony (Act 2, scene 1, lines 161-197), allowing Marc Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral and to speak last (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 254-261), and deciding to risk all in one battle at Philippi (Act 4, Sc. 3, lines 228-237)--prove disastrous to the conspirators' cause.
Cassius
· Envious: Cassius has contempt for Caesar and envies Caesar's position (Act 1, Sc. 2).
· Fearful: Cassius is afraid that Caesar has ambitions to be king. He fears what might become of Rome in such an instance.(Act 1, Sc. 2).
· Politically Astute: He advises Brutus to assassinate Antony along with Caesar (Act 2, scene 1, lines 161-168). Understanding what can happen, he advises Brutus not to allow Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 250-253).
· Corrupt: Prior to the battle at Philippi, he is accused by Brutus of taking bribes (Act 4, Sc. 3, lines 9-12).
· Military Strategist: His battle plan for Philippi is well thought out and based on sound military principles (Act 4, Sc. 3, lines 219-227).
Marc Antony
· Loyal to Caesar: Antony loved and admired Caesar (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 209-225; 274-295; 302-305).
· Clever: Antony pretends to befriend the conspirators and asks that he be allowed to speak at Caesar's funeral (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 198-247).
· A skilled orator: Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral sways the crowd (Act 3, Sc. 2, lines 80-260).
· Hard: Antony's role in condemning men to death shows he can be as cold hearted as he is passionate (Act 4, Sc. 1, lines 1-7).
· A skilled military leader: Antony has an equal voice in planning the war against the legions of Brutus and Cassius (Act 4, Sc. 1, lines 43-50).

Julius Caesar
· Physically weak: Caesar has several infirmities (Act 1, Sc. 2, lines 110-125; 225-226; 258-264).
· A tyrant: Caesar has had Marullus and Flavius arrested (Act 1, Sc. 2, lines 293-295).
· Superstitious: Caesar believes in portents and dreams (Act 2, Sc. 2, lines 6-7; 88-96).
· Indecisive: Caesar cannot make up his mind whether or not to go to the senate (Act 2, Sc. 2, lines 11, 51, 60, and 112).
· Inflexible: Caesar thinks himself perfect and decisive (Act 3, Sc. 1, lines 51-52; 63-75).

About Julius Caesar, the Man

Julius Caesar was born on the 13th day of Quintilis (now July) in the year we refer to as 100 B.C. His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar, the same as his father's. Gaius was his given name, Julius was his surname. Caesar was the name of one branch of the Julian family—its original meaning was "hairy. Caesar's family was not prominent, but they claimed to be descended from Venus (once also said to be "hairy" by some peoples, apparently including Romans). Caesar was well connected through his relatives and received some important government assignments during his youth. Among other projects, he was sent to bring back a fleet of ships from Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. He was also honored for bravery at the siege of Mytilene when he was only twenty years of age. Several years later he left Rome to study in Rhodes but was captured by pirates while en route. His relatives paid a ransom and Caesar was released. He then recruited private troops, captured the pirates, and had them executed. Going on to Rhodes, his studies were soon interrupted by the outbreak of war with Mithradates VI of Pontus in 74. Caesar again gathered a force and participated in that war. Caesar held a series of lesser political offices before becoming a Roman consul in 59 B.C. He then made an alliance now known as the "First Triumvirate" with two powerful military leaders, Pompey and Crassus. This First Triumvirate was very important in Rome's history. When Crassus died the two remaining triumvirs were at loggerheads. Pompey had an army in the southern part of the Italian penninsula, including Rome. Caesar was in charge of an army in the north. He took his army across the Rubicon River (the dividing line between their regions) and thereby started a civil war. Pompey was defeated. This left Caesar in charge of the military in Rome. It also signaled the end of the Roman Republic. Caesar was appointed dictator for a year starting in 49 B.C., for two years in 48 B.C., for ten years in 46 B.C. and finally dictator for life in 44 B.C. In that same year he was assassinated. Several years later his grand nephew Octavion became the first Roman Emperor. This account was intended to be merely a brief sketch of Caesar's life. That's why there's no mention of his campaigns in Gaul, his arch-enemy Marcus Porcius Cato nor the battle of Pharsalus among other important items. For detailed data about Caesar and/or Rome, you should visit both N.S. Gill's Julius Caesar and Bill Thayer's RomanSites.


From: The Julius Caesar Web Guide, at: http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/resources/shakespeare/caesarwebguide.html

Bust of Julius Caesar

Mark Antony mourns his friend, Julius Caesar.
Marlon Brando plays Antony in a 1953 MGM film production.



Mark Antony and his allies read off the scroll that names those to be executed for the murder of Julius Caesar.
From a 1961 Canadian Players production, Canada.


Brutus shows Romans gathered for the funeral of Caesar why it had been necessary to kill him. “Let’s all cry peace, freedom, and liberty.”
James Mason plays Brutus in the 1953 MGM film.



Caesar and Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra said of their liaison, “My salad days, when I was green in judgment and cold in blood.”
Genevieve Bujold as Cleopatra and Sir Alec Guiness as Caesar in a 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame television production.