Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Friends, Romans, Teachers: Send Me Your Speeches

by Chris Lavold

A speech or communications class can be the perfect setting for a small dose of Shakespeare to get the students comfortable with being in front of their peers and completing a close reading of a text.  When my class begins persuasive speaking, I try to make time to spend a day or two with Shakespeare’s language.  There is a great lesson plan on the ReadWriteThink  that challenges the students to analyze famous speeches using the rhetorical triangle. As I read the objectives for this lesson, my mind began racing towards Act 3, scene 2 of Julius Caesar.  Here they are straight from the lesson plan:


Students will:

  • analyze a speech for rhetorical devices and their purpose.
  • identify an author’s purposeful manipulation of language.
  • identify elements of argument within a speech.
  • write an analysis of a speech with in-text documentation.

Is there a better speech in the world than Mark Antony’s funeral oration?  I have been teaching this play for 17 years, and I still get goose bumps from some of the great lines Antony uses to destroy the conspirators while still following their rules to perfection.  My personal favorite is when Antony uses reverse psychology to manipulate the crowd:

O masters, if I were disposed to stir                                                                                                        –  Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,                                                                                              I should do Brutus wrong and Cassius wrong,                                                                                  Who, you all know, are honorable men.                                                                                                    I will not do them wrong. I rather choose                                                                                              To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,                                                                                          Than I will wrong such honorable men. 3.2.133-139

So how does this pertain to communications class?  My students all have a working knowledge of the play as they studied it earlier in the year.  First, I tell them to use Folger Digital texts to copy/paste Antony’s entire speech into a Google Doc. It is basically lines 82-266 including all of the Plebeians’ comments.  They should scroll through the document and bold lines that stand out to them for the purpose of the rest of the assignment.

The students need to determine the speaker, message, and audience of Antony’s speech which just so happens to be the Rhetorical Triangle.

rhetoricAfter they have spent time with the speech, I ask them how Antony manipulated the crowd.  I ask them to identify Antony’s arguments to demonstrate that Caesar was not nearly as ambitious and tyrannical as the conspirators say.  Students always identify examples of how Antony demonstrates ethos, logos, and pathos throughout the speech.

Next, I tell them they are to go through the text and identify words and lines that are necessary to get Antony’s message across. They should then make a conscious effort to cut some of the lines that are redundant or that they feel can be omitted.  I suggest that they reduce his speech by one half.  Finally, they are to prepare a well-rehearsed version of the speech and perform it in front of the class.  I would say a solid speaking time that the students should strive for would be between two to three minutes. For variety, I sometimes suggest ave some of the class study and perform Brutus’ speech.  They could analyze it the same way and then discuss why his speech isn’t quite as effective.

My final suggestion would be to have some of the students take their knowledge of the text and prepare Antony’s speech in modern language with the same ideals.  Some critics may say that is taking Shakespeare’s language out of it.  I respectfully disagree.  The students have spent a day analyzing the original language; if they can write a clever modern interpretation of it, I would argue that they have demonstrated true understanding and learning.  Obviously, I would not be in favor of them going to a text such as No Fear Shakespeare that does the work for them, and may I add, the translation can be very poor while losing the true meaning and beauty of Shakespeare’s words.  Do you have any suggestions for other great speeches from Shakespeare that could be used in this lesson?  I would love to hear your suggestions!


Chris Lavold teaches high school English and coaches varsity baseball in Mauston, WI. He is a member of the Folger Teachers Corp and can be reached at chris.lavold@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @shakehitch.