Discussing JULIUS CAESAR in a Community of Learners

Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar

Last night was the third time I participated in a Great Books book club.  Our group was a bit bigger this time around with two new members and a third member who rejoined the group after missing out on Sophist and the Henriad. This evening we discussed Julius Caesar on the roof deck of The Porch, an Atlanta bar with a decent if not extraordinary beer selection and a waitress who managed to separate seven checks with rare ease.

Julius Caesar is a play I have read several times but never taught, and in truth I have not held it in the same esteem I hold some of Shakespeare’s other plays.   Currently my junior English students and I are reading Hamlet, the play Shakespeare wrote immediately after Julius Caesar, and it remains endlessly engaging for me even though I have taught it more than ten times. Absent from Julius Caesar are the philosophical soliloquies, the integral female characters, any sustained sense of human loss that we find in Hamlet. We get instead a play with “manley” action as opposed to the twists and turns, delays and tension occasioned by what Claudius asserts is Hamlet’s “unmanly grief.”

I do not have unique insight into the play after our discussion though others at the table provided all sorts of context and insight I could never have accessed without them. I feel like I came to see the play more fully and that I pushed aside my previous tendency to dismiss it.

We talk often in schools about creating a community of learners.  This can sound like fairly, and perhaps unnecessarily, esoteric language, but in fact it is exactly accurate for to describe the environment where I believe learning can best take place. The book club I have participated in now three times operates in small scale the way I would like a learning community to operate on a large scale.

Last night one member of the group had read a great deal regarding the history of Julius Caesar, as well as his assassination. Another member brought a wealth of knowledge of Shakespeare’s other plays and how this particular play fit into the scope and sweep of his work, while one more member brought a background in philosophy that added an additional layer to our conversation. Indeed each participant brought both knowledge of our shared reading, as well as personal experience and varied research to the table. It was intellectually engaging, demanding, and fun.

The dynamic of the book club scaled up to school size is an attractive way of seeing what we want in the best learning environments. Relationships based on shared interest and individual contribution create a recognition of an important truth—that is, we can learn more and learn better together.

Just in case we haven’t had enough blood in our recent reading…next up in the book club: Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have written about previous meetings of the book club before:

Discussing SOPHIST and Making Connections and

Twelfth Night, The Henriad, and Hamlet: My Shakespeare Week

Twelfth Night, the Henriad, and Hamlet: My Shakespeare Week

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:R_Staines_Malvolio_Shakespeare_Twelfth_Night.jpg (This image is in public domain because it is more than 100 years old. It is the image of an engraving by Victorian engraver R. Staines after a painting by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) relating to a scene from William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night)

It is Shakespeare Week here at “Ross All Over the Map.”

Last night my wife and I went to The New American Shakespeare Tavern to see a great performance of Twelfth Night with new Atlanta friends. Today I am finishing up the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, part one, Henry IV, part two, and Henry V) in preparation for a reading group gathering, and I am beginning to prepare to teach Hamlet to High School juniors this year after not teaching the play for five years or so.

Apparently established and sustained by some of the most talented Shakespeare geeks in the world, The Shakespeare Tavern (founded in 1984) was a revelation to me. Since completing the entire canon (including those where the authorship is in question), they are now near completion of a cycle of performing all the comedies in the order they were written. Next they will stage the tragedies in the order of they were written. First up, Titus Andronicus—complete with liberal doses of blood and gore, I am certain. The Tavern webpage characterizes components of this tragedy of blood this way: “Human sacrifice. Murder. Rape. Mutilation. Cannibalism and suicide.” Get your tickets early!

It has been awhile since I have seen a professional group of actors perform Shakespeare, and last night’s performance reinforced an old understanding in me that a play can only come fully alive when one sees it on stage.

I have not always been the most generous of playgoers. I have been too quick to play critic, to stare through the hyper-analytical microscope. While last night’s production could easily stand up to such scrutiny, I find the act of surrendering to a play more and more attractive. It is far enjoyable to be open to the play put on the stage in front of us, so that we don’t mute its color and diminish its immediacy. When taking the surrendering approach, I find it possible to identify what is authentic about a performance, what is true about it, unclouded by the distraction of seeking first what may be slightly askew or broken.

In reading Shakespeare for a class or reading group, I find the first thing that falls away is the ability to feel the humor which is woven into so many corners of Shakespeare’s canon. I use the word “feel” because though I am able to note something as humorous when I read it, I rarely laugh. Seeing a good production of one of the plays gives us license to laugh without having to name first whether it was situational, dramatic or verbal irony (or some other device likely to show up on the Literature GRE).

As I head into this school year, I will keep in mind that hearing and seeing the lines performed is not simply an add-on to academic study, it is essential.

So it is all Shakespeare all the time around here right now, and I am enjoying it tremendously. …now back to Agincourt!

The Comfort of Poetry during the Move to Atlanta

We have to wait for just the right day, and unfortunately for an English teacher trying to work with some sort of course plan, I cannot identify that day until it arrives on the lawn, buried in an assortment of leaves.
In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare asks us to look out into autumn, a particular moment in autumn, mind you, in order to see inside the heart of his speaker—a neat trick, particularly in iambic pentameter. The speaker begins matter-of-factly: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
Among the reasons I love Sonnet 73 is that I remember reading it at different stages in my life. Indeed, we must bring the context of our own lives to poems we read: we cannot avoid it. Edward Hirsh notes in his bestselling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that, “reading poetry is an act of reciprocity,” meaning the relationship of poet and reader is, “a highly concentrated and passionate exchange… .” Just as Shakespeare uses this “exchange” to challenge us to look outside to the natural world in order to see inside his speaker, so too does great poetry challenge us to look out into the world in order to see inside ourselves or, perhaps even better, inside something greater than ourselves. The truth is both simple and profound: I am different than I was when I first encountered these fourteen lines; however, the lines will be the same as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (Sonnet 18).
John Fleming, who is Louis W. Fairchild Professor Emeritus at Princeton, echoed this point in a recent blog post, in which he reviewed this summer’s production of King Lear in New York: “The reason you cannot step into the same river twice is because the river is always changing. The reason you cannot read the same book twice is because you are always changing.” (http://gladlylernegladlyteche.blogspot.com/2011/07/ripeness-is-most-of-it.html ) Fleming and I share an Alma Mater, Sewanee-The University of the South. A Rhodes Scholar, Fleming spent his career at Princeton where for many years he was English Department Chair. A couple of years ago he spent a day at Hawken School where I was Upper School Director, and I had the pleasure of seeing him not only as a scholar but also a master classroom teacher working with our ninth grade Humanities students. In his most recent post, entitled “Grace Abounding to the Least of Bloguistes,” Fleming reflects on Charles Grovsner Osgood’s Poetry as a Means of Grace. That post can be found at http://gladlylernegladlyteche.blogspot.com/2011/07/grace-abounding-to-least-of-bloguistes.html . Reading his blog leaves me envious of the students who for decades populated his classroom.
Hirsch argues, “perhaps poetry exists because it carries necessary information that cannot be communicated in any other way.” Here, Hirsch makes a statement not only about the relevance of poetry, but more importantly, about the necessity of poetry—it can reveal what no other form of communication can. To place this statement in the context of our sonnet, we understand some things about the speaker in Sonnet 73 that we cannot come to understand about another human being in any other way, or even more notable, we can understand something about ourselves or others that we could not apprehend without this poem.
A number of years ago now, Rick Chess, Literature Professor at UNC-Asheville and recipient of the 2002 North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence, led leading a reading and discussion series at the West Asheville Library as a complement to Edward Hirsch’s visit to Asheville to discuss his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. Chess, a fine poet himself, expertly guided discussions of poems, including a number by Hirsch. Often at the heart of the discussion of an individual poem was the idea that poetry can provide us a kind of insight that no other means of communication can. Hirsch quotes Percy Shelley to emphasize this point; Shelley states in his Defense of Poetry that the language of poetry “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.” In my course, Sonnet 73 provides an apt platform upon which my students can discover that truth for themselves.
It is a confluence of reasons that brings me back to Sonnet 73 today not the least of which are the entries I referenced to John Fleming’s blog. Interestingly, my wife will be teaching King Lear this fall at Oglethorpe University, and she has asked me to stand in for her one day and provide a lecture on the play, so Fleming’s blog about Lear arrived at the right time. There are other reasons as well, ones that are harder to articulate. Recently, I attended a funeral service at Sewanee, and during the service in All Saints Chapel and later at the graveside, I glimpsed a number of the professors I had when I was a student in the 80s. For me Sonnet 73 was a natural resting place for my reflections about that day even though the weather was steamy mid-July not that of “yellow leaves, or few, or none.”
The final reason I have stumbled back to Sonnet 73 is that I am making a transition to a new school and new town this summer. The boxes are still largely waiting to be unpacked, as my wife, my daughter and I stand in this strange middle place not having fully arrived in the new place though we have definitely left the old one. When we are between one stage of life and another, it somehow makes sense that we would reflect on things that are outside of time, such as Sonnet 73. The poem remains even though so much else seems to be moving, vanishing or appearing before our eyes. As a result, there is comfort in Sonnet 73 even though the poem itself captures the transience of our lives.
One day (many years into the future, I hope), in a moment as brief as late Fall, I will be the perfect speaker for Sonnet 73. I will be the embodiment of autumn, and my students might just see “that time of year…in me”—but not yet. Hirsch reminds all of us that the poem will forever be what Osip Mandelstam calls “the message in the bottle,” waiting to provide the solace of sound and meaning even when at last “that time of year” is beheld in us.

Sonnet 73
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
[Some portions of this post are reused from a piece I wrote for the Asheville Citizen Times around 2003].

Thankful not to be the Prince of Denmark

A final one today from the archives…
[What follows is a Vespers talk from Asheville School]
December 5, 2004
Readings: Psalm 23
Hamlet 2.2.318-333
That Hamlet is a pretty smart guy, and in the audience we know it from the first moment he speaks to us. Indeed his first line of the play is directed not to his uncle-slash-step-father-slash-King, Claudius, and not to his mother Gertrude, but rather to us, out in the audience, sitting in row E, seat 12, nervously wondering if we forgot to turn off our cell phone. Claudius, after dealing with the business of the court, turns finally to Hamlet and says, “And now to my cousin Hamlet and my son.” Hamlet, leaving Claudius’ attentions hanging awkwardly in the air, turns to us…US, who are now fidgeting uncomfortably under his stare, and, while pointing his thumb back over his shoulder at Claudius says, knowing that we’ll understand: “A little more than kin and less than kind.” English IV students, I will leave it to you to analyze all this for your ignorant lower former friends, but know this—I’ll say it again—that Hamlet is a pretty smart guy. And with that thought, now also hanging awkwardly in the air here in beautiful Boyd Chapel, I say to you GOOD EVENING!
Thought number One: Hamlet is a pretty smart guy, but all his wit, savage intelligence, and stichomythic repartee is not enough to save him. By the time we first meet him his clock is already ticking: he does not have long to live—3-4 hours tops… and his death will be painful—certainly for him, and, if not acted well, painful for us as well. Intelligence is not enough, not by a long shot—intelligence is not enough for Hamlet and not enough for us. Friends, people who must live by their wits alone rarely have long to live. We need more. Alas, this is bad news for you all because you are a smart crowd, and if intelligence was all you needed, you would be set.
Thought number Two: Hamlet’s intelligence is not enough to save him, and he is missing things that he must have to survive: A) support from people who truly care about him, B) sustainable and guiding faith in something greater than himself. He is the definition of alone. The young man is so alone he has no one to talk to honestly but us, and as much as Hamlet intrigues us, many of us in the audience are possibly more focused on whether the bathroom will be too crowded during the intermission to get out of there in time to get a coke-cola before the curtain rises again than we are the fate of our protagonist. On stage, everyone, even the lovely Ophelia, has an ulterior motive. And to be honest, no matter how much Hamlet talks to us (he has more than 200 lines in the play directed to us and us alone), no matter how much he talks to us, we can’t do a thing for him. He is desperate, and we are frozen in our seats. We can’t get to him, and he can’t quite see us though it seems, particularly in the lines that Mr. Kussrow read to us this evening, that Hamlet is trying to see us. I can’t blame him. Here he is—the smartest guy in most every room he enters—without a shoulder to lean on, except his friend Horatio who is a philosopher and who seems to have the personality of boiled cabbage…ever tried to get good advice from a philosopher?…from a cabbage?
As this is a chapel talk, the next point is important—our kind chaplain will take my license to give such talks away if I miss this next step—Hamlet has no comfort in faith. My wording here is careful though I remain uncertain of how to say what I am thinking. I’ll try to mine more deeply: Hamlet says some things that represent a kind of faith in the existence of a divine being…of at least something eternal, and he believes in a soul; however, he can not translate this amount of faith into anything that is useful to him. Perhaps it even works against him and paralyzes his ability to take action in the world. The world, the real world of murder, despair, hate, and grief in which we find him, has the man spooked—literally (once again, English IV scholars, please don’t hesitate to explain the “spooked” part to your colleagues in lower forms). Hamlet’s God is only good for making rules, hard rules, and for setting up the unhappy situation in which Hamlet finds himself. His God is not love; his God is not a resource of hope. Hamlet’s God is the one Christ thought for a moment he was dealing with when he intoned in the desperate moments on the cross—“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”…indeed the same God to whom San Manuel Bueno, Martir dice, “Mi Dios, mi Dios, porque me ha abandonado?” in Miguel de Unamuno’s story that some of our Spanish students read entitled, “Saint Emmanuel, the Martyr.” Hamlet clearly desires something of his faith. In fact, when he first sees the ghost of his father he begs in somewhat of a frantic prayer—“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!” Unfortunately for Hamlet, no one, certainly not “angels” or “ministers of grace,” is coming to his aid. My hope for you who are now sitting in our worn wooden pews or standing back there in the foyer is that you can find the comfort in faith that Hamlet lacks. Comfort in faith for me means that not only do we have faith, but that this faith is useful to us. In times of struggle, this kind of faith supports and nurtures us, and in times of ease and success, it humbles us. In short, it keeps us balanced so that our best self has the chance to do what our best self can do—share love and serve others without intellectualizing or calculating the sacrifice we think we are making.
Thought number Three: Hamlet’s intelligence is not enough to save him from catastrophe, he is missing some things he needs, and you have a couple of things that Hamlet does not have or, perhaps more accurately, has forgotten he has. A) you have, if you choose to have it, a family here, and B) you have the chance to make the world better. Hard to believe isn’t it?—but just listen to the seniors who have stood in this pulpit this year. Each seems to reference his or her connectedness to the people of this place. They celebrate teachers, staff, and students not as acquaintances but as family members, connected in powerful and therefore lasting ways. It is difficult to recognize the rarity and beauty of these connections until we find ourselves without them…this might just be part of Hamlet’s problem—that is, he once was connected, too, but once the connections are taken away, he has no idea how to rebuild his place in the world. Finding himself without connections, Hamlet cannot unify the world he once knew with the fallen world in which he feels he has been somewhat helplessly and unfairly cast. Hamlet does not have the ability to adjust and to make new connections, and while we can empathize with this flaw, we do not have to share it. My hope for you is that you take not only the specific connections to this community/this family with you when you graduate, but even more importantly, you also take the ability to create and to value connection, so that you can make them in your future life and indeed help others make them as well. In a sense Asheville School forces you to make connections, real connections, with other people. Like it or not, people know you here. Because he didn’t want anyone to know him, this might have driven Hamlet crazy but in the end being known should be a comfort to you. In your life after Asheville School (trust me, it does exist), you will have to work hard to make quality connections with others, but you can and will do it. You don’t have to be nearly as alone as Hamlet.
At the same time you are making these quality connections with people, you have the chance to help build the world into a better place whereas Hamlet is in the position of having to tear the world down. Our world is ready and willing to accept all the good we can do. In the play Hamlet, the only thing the character Hamlet thinks he can “pay forward” is violence—his inheritance from his family is murder and sin. Your inheritance from Asheville School is, to say the very least, neither as horrifying nor as crushing, and we can pay forward better things than poisoned cups and razor sharp swords.
The idea of paying something forward reminds me of this statement: “Those to whom much is given, much is expected.” To my ear, the logic is undeniable and the sound is threatening. This sentiment certainly threatened Hamlet. Hamlet would tell us that he didn’t ask to be given so much…to inherit so much, so then he should not have to meet anyone’s expectations for him. We should not be threatened, however. The world needs us to share what we have been given. In fact, the gifts we have been given are strangely both gifts and loans. The truth is we can’t take anything with us when we die—everything we have is a loan, including our material wealth, our health, and our strength. Sometimes we hold onto material wealth…or self-obsession…or hate so tightly in one hand that we neglect to see what is slipping away through the fingers of the other. For Hamlet, he holds onto hate in one hand, so he can not loosen his grip enough to see what gifts he has to offer the world in the other. My hope for you is that you will not make the same mistake. Don’t let your gifts slip through your hands—pay them forward.
Whatever we have to give can’t help Hamlet whose slain body at the end of Act V is an emblem of wasted potential. Whatever his faults, he also has generous doses of the best qualities of human kind, yet he dies a murderer in the tragic heap of a bloody stage. He could have been great and benevolent; he could have been a diplomat and a leader; he could have been a devoted husband and a loving father. His final act obviously is not yours, however, and fortunately, Act VI will be the one in which you are a player. What will your play be?
A Final Thought: Hamlet’s intelligence is not enough to save him; he is missing some things he needs; you have a couple of things working for you that Hamlet does not have or perhaps has forgotten he has; and the world ahead of us is ours to make. Hamlet’s play has gone on too long, and in Row E, seat 12, we are ready to stretch our legs.