Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

What Julius Caesar Taught Me

by Sam Sherman
Folger High School Fellow, Class of 2014

Folger High School Fellows, Class of 2014
Folger High School Fellows, Class of 2014

I don’t think I just speak for myself when I say that Shakespeare makes all the more sense when it is performed as opposed to it being examined from text. After all, Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels.

Shakespeare wanted actors to play out his work on the stage in a way that communicated a powerful message that is relevant to the present state of the human condition. I think that a lot of us – teachers and students alike – forget that. Sifting through lexicons, examining centuries-old texts, and trying to understand Early Modern England, we as human beings lose sight of the relevance that Shakespeare has on other areas of history, and even our present. That’s what Folger Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar helped me realize.

The production of Julius Caesar at the Folger carried excellent thematic detail. The show began when actors dressed in ragged, hooded cloaks walked out on stage. These wraiths (very fitting considering Halloween was only about a week and a half ago) spoke in haunting whispers about the Ides of March, foreshadowing what was to come in the play. The whole picture gave me goose-bumps and it was all the more frightening as the red glow from the soothsayer’s bowl illuminated the stage.

Nafeesa Monroe (Soothsayer), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Nafeesa Monroe (Soothsayer), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The first half of the play was pretty consistent with incorporating these wraiths throughout that portion of the performance.

The second half took an interesting turn when the ensemble seemed to switch out the wraith cloaks for soldier’s attire. The uniforms looked like they could’ve been from around the WWI or WWII eras.

I thought the switch from the leather bound medieval garb of the first half to the trench-coat, gas mask-wearing, rifle bearing look of the second half was a peculiar choice, but talking to the actors after the performance allowed me to understand why that decision had been made.

JaBen Early (Octavius Caesar), Julius Caesar, director by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.
JaBen Early (Octavius Caesar), Julius Caesar, director by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

As it happens, British director Robert Richmond was inspired by the WWI memorial in England, and as it is the 100th anniversary of that conflict, he borrowed themes from the memorial and incorporated them into his rendition of the play.

The actor Michael Sharon (who played the title role) expressed that much of what Caesar’s death was about involved fighting to sustain the freedom of the Roman Republic, whereas WWI had a lot to with protecting the freedom of nations like Great Britain from the imperialism of countries such as Germany. I thought it was brilliant to put Julius Caesar in a context that was modern and relatable to the contemporary audience.

Michael Sharon (Julius Caesar), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Michael Sharon (Julius Caesar), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

We often lose sight of the fact that Shakespeare wrote plays that utilized what the theater had to offer for that time period specifically. His plays are in no way limited by new conceptualizations. If anything, they’re enhanced. I often find that Shakespeare is performed at its best when interpreted in new formats.

We can try to decipher as meticulously as possible whatever we can about how Shakespeare’s plays were performed back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It’s something that is important to grasp, that’s for sure.

Yet, at the same time, when directors put plays into contemporary settings, be it Julius Caesar placed in WWI or maybe even A Midsummer Night’s Dream purposed as a late night rave – students and teachers alike will be able to grasp Shakespeare’s reasons for writing his works, maybe more so than they would in a traditional Elizabethan environment. This way, Shakespeare remains alive and relevant just as much as a play by Tom Stoppard or August Wilson would be and not just fade into something from “way back when.”

Continuing the conversation about Shakespeare as a living piece of theater is not only an exciting mission for any educator, but must be something they constantly try to achieve, not just for themselves, but for their students.

Folger Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar performs through December 7, 2014. Learn more at www.folger.edu/theatre.

Learn more about Folger Education’s High School Fellows program.

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