LEARNING GUIDE TO:
SUBJECTS — Drama/England; World/Ancient Rome;Age:12+; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 1953; 121 minutes; B & W; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: Caesar is all-powerful in Rome. The Roman Republic is only a shell and the venerable Senate has ceased to act as an independent body. What is a patriotic Roman to do? This is an accessible and well presented version of Shakespeare's classic play of political intrigue, assassination, and civil war in Ancient Rome.
Benefits of the Movie: This film exposes children to Shakespeare and to a critical period in the history of Ancient Rome. It raises the important issue of how one determines when the right to resist tyranny justifies assassination.
Possible Problems: None.
Parenting Points: Chances are good that this play will be a part of your child's high school English course of study. He or she will benefit from seeing the film either before or after reading the play since Shakespeare's language is often difficult for young readers and the film helps them understand the themes. Plays were not intended to be read; they were to be seen and experienced through the skills of the actors. The Helpful Background information should be of use to your child in his or her efforts to complete assignments required by the teacher or simply to clarify the times and the conflicts about which Shakespeare wrote. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Questions.
Rome grew from a small village along the Tiber River into an empire that, at its height, ruled the civilized Western world. The Roman Empire included most of Europe, the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa. The Romans had a genius for organization, administration, construction and warfare. They were industrious and disciplined.
From approximately 500 B.C.E. to 31 B.C.E. Rome was a republic. Two administrators, called praetors and later consuls, were elected each year by the citizens. There was constant friction between the common people (the plebeians) and the wealthy aristocracy (the patricians). Gradually the Roman Senate became the province of the aristocracy and the most powerful arm of the government.
Roman farmers were increasingly dispossessed by the consolidation of smaller farms into large estates. They moved to the cities, many of them to Rome, where conditions began to deteriorate. In 87 B.C.E. Marius, a leader of the Plebeian party, massacred senators and other patricians. Sulla, a general who was a champion of the patricians, marched on Rome with 40,000 troops in 83 B.C.E. That was the first occasion on which Roman Legions entered Rome. Thereafter the city and the empire would be hostage to whichever general could muster the most troops. Sulla ruled as dictator for four years, until 79 B.C.E.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION #1: Is ambition necessarily a bad thing? When is it good and when is it harmful?
Suggested Response: Ambition results in benefits for everyone if it is channelled into activities that are good for society. Ambitious people need to look for socially beneficial ways to fulfill their ambitions. Society needs to provide ambitious people with beneficial avenues to obtain wealth or prestige.
Gaius Julius Caesar (100 - 44 B.C.E.) was a leader of the popular party. Originally he and Pompey were political allies and members of the First and Second Triumvirates, alliances of politicians which ruled Rome from 50 - 53 B.C.E. For his participation in the Triumvirates, Caesar was awarded the military command of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul (large portions of modern day Northern Italy, France, and Germany, as well as part of the Balkans). From these provinces Caesar could obtain loyal soldiers, attain military victories and still keep a watchful eye on politics in Rome.
In 52 B.C.E. Pompey was induced to become the champion of the aristocrats in the Senate against Caesar and the popular party. Caesar stood for the consulship in 49 B.C.E. The Senate insisted that Caesar be present in Rome for the election and give up his command of the army in Gaul. Caesar refused. Instead, he and his legions crossed the Rubicon River that divided Gaul from Italy, and marched on Rome. Pompey and the leading members of the aristocracy retreated to Greece as Caesar advanced. When he seized control of the City, Caesar didn't institute a reign of terror as other conquering generals had done. Instead he enacted reforms designed to eliminate corruption and restore prosperity. These confirmed and increased his popularity with the people.
Five years of civil war ended with Pompey killed and the aristocrats crushed. However, Caesar, as shown in the play, forgave many of Pompey's adherents. In 44 B.C.E. Caesar was made dictator of Rome for life. On the Ides of March he was assassinated by a group of senators seeking to restore republican rule.
Caesar was also a writer and reformer. While campaigning in Gaul he wrote histories of the wars he was fighting. He introduced the Julian Calendar which employed the concept of the "leap year" and is, in most respects, similar to the calendar we use today. It was modified in 1582 with the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar. See Learning Guide to The Pirates of Penzance.
The Ides of March is the 15th day of March. "Ides" is a term used in the ancient Roman calendar. For some months the "Ides" fall on the 15th of the month and for other months it falls on the 13th.
Marcus Junius Brutus was a Roman aristocrat and a descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus who led the insurrection that threw out the Roman king and established the republic in about 500 B.C.E. Marcus Brutus supported Pompey but Caesar pardoned Brutus and favored him after the defeat of Pompey. With Caesar's help, Brutus became governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 46 B.C.E. and praetor of Rome in 44 B.C.E. Brutus' support was essential for the conspirators.
Tradition required that when a Roman General was defeated he would fall on his sword. True to honor, Brutus meets his end in this manner.
Often quoted phrases from this play:
Caesar: Who is it in the press [of the crowd] that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry, 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.
Soothsayer: Beware the Ides of March.
--- Act One, Scene II, Line 15.
Cassius: ... groaning underneath this age's yoke.
--- Act One, Scene II, line 61.
Cassius: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
--- Act One, Scene II, line 135.
Cassius: Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?
--- Act One, Scene II, line 149.
Caesar: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o'nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
--- Act One, Scene II, line 192.
Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
--- Act Two, Scene II, line 32.
Caesar: Et tu Brute, Then fall, Caesar!
--- Act Three, Scene I, line 76
Brutus: That we shall die, we know: 'tis but the time,
And drawing days out, that men stand upon.
--- Act Three, Scene I, line 100.
Cassius: How, many ages hence,
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
--- Act Three, Scene I, line 112.
Antony: O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure?
---Act Three, Scene I, line 149.
Antony: 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:
--- Act Three, Scene II, line 78.
Antony: For Brutus, as you know was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquished him. Then burst his mighty heart;
--- Act Three, Scene II, line 187.
Brutus: 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 in miseries.
--- Act Four, Scene III, line 217.
Text and line numbers are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare Hardin Craig, editor, Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Ill. 1961.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION #2: Rome had been a republic dominated by an aristocracy represented by the Senate but also with some strong democratic institutions. Caesar was destroying all of that and taking power for himself. Was assassination a good response?
Suggested Response: First, it didn't work. After the assassination Augustus became the first Roman Emperor. Second, many people believe that assassination simply breeds social instability. The United States suffered terribly in the last half of the 20th century from assassinations of President John Kennedy, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
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BUILDING VOCABULARY: Ides, tide, "taken at the flood," vanquish, republic, democracy, burst, interred, "Et tu Brute," lofty.
1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film.
2. Why did Brutus oppose Caesar?
3. How did Mark Antony gain the trust of the conspirators?
4. Why was Brutus' participation so important to the conspiracy?
5. What are the similarities and the differences between the assassinations of Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln?
6. Was the Roman republic anything like a modern day representative democracy?
7. Shakespeare wrote during a time when absolute rule by a monarch was thought to be necessary. He didn't come from our traditions of democratic values. Can you see evidence of this in the play?
8. For each of the major characters in the play describe what was motivating him or her.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don't threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
1. Those living in democracies will necessarily have sympathies with the conspirators who sought to save the Roman republic. (Note that the Roman republic was not "democratic" but instead had become dominated by the aristocracy. Note also that the installation of Augustus as the first Roman emperor initiated a golden age for Rome.) From the standpoint of Shakespeare's time analyze the decision to assassinate Caesar using the Ethical Decision-Making Model suggested by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. See Making Ethical Decisions. How do you come out?
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
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Bridges to Reading: If a child really loves this play sit with him or her, before bed or on a rainy day. Let them read scenes with you. See who can read it better or just enjoy the beautiful words. After you have read several scenes with them, let them see the movie again. Suggested readings are: Act Three, Scenes I and II.
Another excellent idea is to assign parts to several people and to read the scenes, or the whole play if you can. When you have done this, let a little time go by and show them the movie again.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: There are Learning Guides to movie versions of the following Shakespearian plays: Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing ,Twelfth Night, Richard III, and Romeo and Juliet.
Assignments, Projects and Activities: Assignments, Projects and Activities Suitable for Any Film
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: James Mason, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, Louis Calhern, Edmond O'Brien, George Macready, John Hoyt, Michael Pate.
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Bibliography: In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated August 11, 2010.
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