Friday, December 13, 2013

Wither Shakespeare? Part V - What Is Friendship in Julius Caesar?

A grade 12 classroom in the east end of Hamilton Ontario.

I was a substitute English teacher for the day.  I expected the usual rioting, but for some reason these older high school students seemed ready to continue with the lesson their regular teacher had prepared.

They were studying Julius Caesar and the instructions were to continue reading aloud.

Act V, Scene iii:  The war between Caesarists and conspirators has gone back and forth.  Wrongly believing his army was taken, Cassius has his servant stab him.  Discovering Cassius's body, his lieutenant, Titinius, "points the sword at his heart and falls forward upon it."

Act V, Scene v:  But now it appears that the rebel forces have been defeated by Antony's army and those loyal to Caesar.  Brutus does not want to be taken alive.  We find Brutus at his camp surrounded by his most loyal friends. 

Brutus sits down with his friend Clitus and whispers in his ear.  Clitus responds:

julius-caesar-william-shakespeare-hardcover-cover-artCLITUS:  What, I, my lord? No, not for all the world.

BRUTUS:  Peace then! no words.

CLITUS:  I'll rather kill myself.

Brutus then calls to his friend Dardanius.

BRUTUS:  Hark thee, Dardanius.


DARDANIUS:  Shall I do such a deed?

CLITUS:  O Dardanius!


CLITUS:  What ill request did Brutus make to thee?

DARDANIUS:  To kill him, Clitus. Look, he meditates.

Brutus then says openly to his dear friend Volumnius

BRUTUS:  Come hither, good Volumnius; list a word.

VOLUMNIUS:  What says my lord?

BRUTUS:  Why, this, Volumnius:
The ghost of Caesar hath appear'd to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come.

VOLUMNIUS:  Not so, my lord.

BRUTUS:  Nay, I am sure it is, Volumnius.
Thou seest the world, Volumnius, how it goes;
Our enemies have beat us to the pit:

It is more worthy to leap in ourselves,
Than tarry till they push us. Good Volumnius,
Thou know'st that we two went to school together:
Even for that our love of old, I prithee,
Hold thou my sword-hilts, whilst I run on it.

VOLUMNIUS:  That's not an office for a friend, my lord.

I interrupted the reader and said, "Brutus asks Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius to simply hold his sword while he ran against it, but they all refuse.  What's going on here?"

"Brutus wants to die," one student replied, "and his friends won't kill him."

"Cassius's servant, Pindarus, was willing to kill him, but Brutus's friends won't?"

"They're his friends.  You don't kill your friends."

"But Caesar was Brutus's best friend.  Caesar didn't want to die, and his best friend killed him.  Brutus wants to die, but his friends won't kill him.  What's Shakespeare saying about friendship?"

The students looked up from their books.

I said, "Consider these lines from Oscar Wilde's poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol.'"  I recited from memory:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
  By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
  And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
  Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
  The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
  Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
  And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
  Yet each man does not die.
At the word "die," the bell rang.  The class was still, silent, thinking. Then like a horde of Roman soldiers entering the battlefield, they grabbed their notebooks and hustled to their next class.

At lunch I ran into one of the students outside the library.  "Hi Miss.  I found it!" she said, eyes dancing.  She was carrying a volume of Oscar Wilde's poetry.

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