Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Killing the Poet in your Classroom

Folger Library Exterior: Bas relief: Julius Caesar

by Gina Voskov

One of the courses I teach at my school is 6th grade Humanities, and next up in our year’s curriculum plan is learning about Ancient Greece and Rome. I’m excited about getting the kids up and out of their seats for this class, and the best way I can do that is by getting them to interact with Shakespeare.

For this unit, I’ll be giving them some Julius Caesar, the Cinna the Poet scene in particular. This scene never fails to get all kids speaking, thinking, and moving. It’s also just about the easiest scene in the books with respect to language–there’s none of that stuff that turns so many kids away–the thee‘s and thine‘s and whatnot. I love giving this scene to groups of kids at the start of the year because it’s a great way to build community. But now that we are 3/4ths of the way through the year, I’m going to open our unit with performance. This scene will definitely have them asking questions about history, which is what we teachers hope for, right?

What I love about the scene is that it’s so open to interpretation. Just because there are only 5 characters written into the scene doesn’t mean there has to be only 5 people in each group of students. I often make larger groups and let kids shape the text and the scene however they want. Many kids choose to say the lines chorally–for safety. Others are happy memorizing (they do that naturally because the scene is so short, I never require it) single lines.

And then I always pair the scene with a few performance add-ons, asking kids to put as many of them into their scene as they can. These add-ons are things like:


  • 10 seconds of silence
  • a moment of laughter
  • a moment of crying
  • a contemporary prop
  • an unexpected entrance and exit
  • a line spoken in a whisper.

Because kids are in control of both the scene and the placement of the add-ons, no two scenes are ever the same, and they are so much fun to watch. After performances, we talk about the history behind the scene: did this really happen? Who was the real Cinna? How did Caesar die? And these are all excellent questions that open us up to research and learning.

By the way, the story of Cinna, the Poet appeared in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, published in the first century. Having students look at Plutarch and then seeing what Shakespeare did with this material is also a great activity. Here’s what Plutarch wrote in Greek:

There was a certain Cinna, however, one of the friends of Caesar, who chanced, as they say, to have seen during the previous night a strange vision. He dreamed, that is, that he was invited to supper by Caesar, and that when he excused himself, Caesar led him along by the hand, although he did not wish to go, but resisted. Now, when he heard that they were burning the body of Caesar in the forum, he rose up and went thither out of respect, although he had misgivings arising from his vision, and was at the same time in a fever.  At sight of him, one of the multitude told his name to another who asked him what it was, and he to another, and at once word ran through the whole throng that this man was one of the murderers of Caesar. For there was among the conspirators a man who bore this same name of Cinna, and assuming this man was he, the crowd rushed upon him and tore him in pieces among them.

For my Humanities class, I may just leave it at that single scene. One of the great truths about teaching Shakespeare is that a little goes a long way and there’s nothing that says you have to teach the whole play. For the other course I teach, 7th grade English, my colleagues and I will introduce students to a variety of scenes in a variety of Shakespeare’s plays, and not settle on a single text. For that grade, we will focus on language, focusing on the ideas of stress and tone as the creators of subtext. From there, we will use techniques I learned at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute from teachers Calleen Jennings and Michael Tolaydo, techniques about physicalizing words and reading (and rereading and rereading) scenes to build knowledge of scenes and characters.

At the end of the unit, we’ll give our students a challenge: to perform any scene(s) from any Shakespeare play, from memory. It was the same performance task my cohort and I had, and I figured that if I could do it (a 34 year old teacher who hadn’t ever taken a drama class) my 12 year-old students could. They are far more brave than we are.

Here’s where I need your help. Because we’re doing just a sampling of scenes from a variety of plays, I’d like to take the framework of the Cinna the Poet scene and use it to look at others–also so that the kids can learn about the plots of different plays. If you study the Cinna the Poet scene, it can tell you a lot about the rest of the play. Go back and read Act 1 scene 1 and you see a lot of similarities. What other scenes in other plays function the same way? Can you think of–and share here–other short scenes that reveal a lot about what the whole play is about? Or how about some bits of longer scenes that might be great for groups of kids to act out? If so, add them in the comments below.

Gina Voskov has been teaching English and Humanities for ten years in public and private schools, in Connecticut, Brazil, and now in New York City. She attended the Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 2012.

[If you like these activities, you might want to look at this lesson by Daina Lieberman, “Tear him for his bad verses:” Cinna the poet and Shakespeare’s Sonnets]