Be Still, My Beating Heart
A mom's experience with beginning Shakespeare
by Amanda Witt
We've been studying ancient Rome, and yesterday read about Julius Caesar, so today I just had to read aloud excerpts from Shakespeare's play. I wasn't sure how this would go over with the boys, who are only seven and nine; we've read Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, but this was our first time to do Shakespeare himself, and I really, really didn't want to jump the gun and cause them to dislike the bard.
Maybe if I just read a little bit . . . something vivid, with not too much difficult Elizabethan dialogue.
I settled on the part where Caesar's wife begs her husband not to go to work that day; she tells him about her nightmare, and he repeats it: 'She dreamt tonight she saw my statue, which like a fountain with an hundred spouts, did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.'
My daughter grimaced; the boys were enthralled. I stopped reading.
'Don't stop there!' they all shouted.
'But you already know what happened to Julius Caesar,' I said. 'We read about it yesterday. His wife is right. The soothsayer who told him to 'beware the Ides of March' is right. He is in terrible danger. But he ignores the warnings, goes to work at the Forum, and gets killed by his friend Brutus, who thinks Caesar is going to destroy the Republic by making himself king. You know all that. You know what happens.'
'Please, read just a little more. We want to hear how Shakespeare tells it. Read where they kill him.'
I read the short section describing the attack on Caesar, putting everything I had into Caesar's betrayed, 'Et tu, Brute? Even you?'
'And when he saw his friend was among his attackers,' I said, 'He stopped defending himself, and he died.'
'Don't stop! Don't stop!'
'Well, now Brutus has to justify himself to all the people,' I said, 'Or he'll be killed himself. So he's going to make a speech explaining why he killed Julius Caesar.'
My nine-year-old snorted. 'He's going to make a speech? What could he possibly say? He killed a man. He's a murderer. They aren't going to listen to him.'
I read Brutus' speech.
My son was impressed despite himself. ''Not that I loved Caesar less,'' he repeated, ''But that I loved Rome more' . . . he's still a murderer, but he's a really good speaker, isn't he?'
'Convinced me,' the seven-year-old said matter-of-factly.
'He still shouldn't have killed Caesar,' my daughter retorted.
'No, but he makes it sound like he should have. Everybody believes him.'
I nodded. 'They do now. But wait until they hear Marc Antony's speech.'
The nine-year-old shook his head. 'Marc Antony can't possibly be better than Brutus. 'As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; but as he was ambitious, I slew him.'' He stabbed with an imaginary dagger. 'You can't get better than that.'
'Nope, can't get better than that,' his younger brother agreed. Their sister smiled and said nothing.
'Just wait,' I said. 'And remember, Marc Antony has Caesar's body lying right there in front of everybody.'
I read Marc Antony's speech, beginning with his assurance that if Brutus says Caesar was ambitious, then Caesar must have been ambitous, for 'Brutus is an honorable man'--though Caesar sure didn't act ambitious, Marc Antony innocently asks, now did he? He turned down a crown just the other day . . .
Then Marc Antony gathers the crowd around Julius Caesar's body and points out each of his wounds, right down to 'the most unkindest cut of all,' where Brutus stabbed and then withdrew his steel, 'and the blood of Caesar followed it, as if rushing out of doors to be resolved if Brutus so unkindly knocked or no.'
The crowd begins to cry for revenge; my children's eyes got bigger and bigger.
Then Marc Antony modestly says, 'I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts. I am no orator, as Brutus is, but, as you all know me, a plain blunt man' --and my audience jumped to their feet.
'He's lying!' they shouted. 'He knows he's a good speaker!'
'He's a bad man!' the seven-year-old yelled.
'No, he's a good man--he's trying to get the murderers in trouble,' his sister objected.
'But he's tricky,' the nine-year-old wailed. 'He's tricky and he's pretending that he's not tricky!'
They (and in particular the idealistic nine-year-old) like their villains black, their heroes white, and are troubled by anything in between. Brutus, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony . . . they all were too troublesomely complex.
Finally the kids settled down, still murmuring bewildered asides about who was good and who was bad, and we finished the scene, culminating with Antony's satisfied aside about his speech: 'Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt!'
The room was silent.
Finally the nine-year-old nodded. 'Brutus speaks well,' he said, retreating from the troublesome problem of good and evil, to the easier question of effective rhetoric. 'Brutus speaks well, but Marc Antony speaks better.'
His eyes grew round. 'And that means Shakespeare speaks better than both of them!'
This was posted by Amanda Witt on her blog in December 2005, and is re-posted here with her kind permission. Amanda currently blogs at amandawitt.blogspot.com