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Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Whether you are a fan of “The Bard” or not, I think we can all agree that William Shakespeare is one of the most well-known authors who ever lived. Everyone I know has read at least one of his plays as a student (usually in a high school or college English class). Personally, I studied Shakespeare’s plays and poems in middle school, high school, and college…and taught several of his plays when I was a classroom teacher.

The most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays is most likely Romeo and Juliet, which I studied as an eighth grader, and then again as a ninth grader. (I know I was in an advanced English class in eighth grade, but I can’t help thinking there was some poor communication between my teacher and the ninth grade English teachers up at the high school.) I’ve taught the play no fewer than eight times myself, and I have to admit that it is not a favorite of mine.

Personally, I greatly prefer plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Othello, and The Tempest. But my absolute favorite is Julius Caesar, which I’ve had the pleasure to read and teach several times.

Despite the fact that the play is based on a real event, the assassination of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is considered to be a tragedy, rather than a historical play. Even so, the play tells a fascinating story, which includes one of the most manipulative characters I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction, as well as an incredibly bizarre off-stage death.

Julius Caesar begins during the feast of Lupercal and, during this day, Caesar is warned by a soothsayer to, “Beware the Ides of March.” Unsurprisingly, Caesar dismisses this warning at first, referring to the soothsayer as “a dreamer.” Unbeknownst to Caesar, however, the soothsayer’s warning is very real. In fact, a group of discontented Roman citizens is actually plotting to assassinate him. One of these men, named Cassius, attempts to sway one of Caesar’s close friends (Marcus Brutus) to their cause, believing that Brutus’s involvement in the assassination would make their actions appear just.

One of the things that I’ve always found interesting about this play is the fact that the title character is in the play for a relatively short amount of time. Quite a lot of the play focuses on the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, the way in which the Roman public responds to the announcement of Caesar’s death, and what happens to his killers. There are many very dramatic moments throughout the play, but the speeches made by Brutus and Antony about Caesar’s death are my particular favorites.

The most difficult thing about reading Shakespeare is, undoubtedly, the language. While Shakespeare tells some great stories, the language used in his plays is very different from our modern-day vernacular, and it can cause problems for readers…especially if they are reading one of Shakespeare’s plays (or one of his sonnets) for the first time. If you’re interested in reading more Shakespeare for yourself, but are concerned about the difficulty of the language, I highly recommend checking out the No Fear Shakespeare series created by SparkNotes.

While many copies of Shakespeare’s plays will include footnotes that explain some of the more difficult pieces of dialogue, the SparkNotes books go a little further and provided the reader with a complete modern translation of each play. The original Shakespearean text is located on the left-hand side of the page, while the modern version is on the facing page. The formatting of these books is fantastic, and the books in the series really make Shakespeare’s plays more accessible for readers, especially at the high school level. (When I was still in the classroom, I had access to the No Fear Shakespeare version of Julius Caesar, and I loved it! I wish that I’d had copies of the other plays that I taught as well.)

If you’re looking for a really fun introduction to Shakespeare, there’s also the Brick Shakespeare collection, which includes eight of his famous plays. Brick Shakespeare tells the stories of these plays in comic book format, using LEGO mini-figures and bricks to create the characters and scenery. The books are very clever and well-done, and they’re a lot of fun to read. There’s one book that contains tragedies, while the other focuses on comedies.

So you might be wondering…how am I planning to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday? Rather than reading one of Shakespeare’s plays, I am planning to watch one of them this evening. Specifically, I’m going to be watching the BBC’s 1979 film adaptation of Julius Caesar, which stars Charles Gray, Richard Pasco, Keith Mitchell, and David Collings (among many others). I’ve watched this film adaptation several times, and I never fail to be impressed by the acting.

Reading and/or watching one of The Bard’s plays is a great way to celebrate his birthday, but if you’re looking for a more poetry-focused way to celebrate, then I recommend checking out Twitter.

For the past few weeks, Sir Patrick Stewart (who played Captain Picard in Star Trek: Next Generation) has been posting videos of himself reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. I love watching these videos, because he does a marvelous job! If you’re interested, you can find him @SirPatStew, or by searching for #ASonnetADay. I’ve been retweeting each of the videos as well, and you can find me on Twitter @UnapologBkworm.

I hope you have a wonderful day!

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