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“But For My Own Part, It Was Greek to Me.”

–Casca, a conspirator (The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Act I, Sc. 2)

We all can feel like Casca when we’re trying to read Shakespeare. It’s like we’re pushing slowly through a foreign language because IT IS, essentially, a foreign language. A foreign language with its own slang, inside jokes, and cuss words–AND iambic pentameter.

Not for the faint of heart.

As I mentioned in my earlier post (“Isn’t That Tragic?”), I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan. I appreciate it, but I’m not going to pick it up for giggles.

Over the years, I’ve picked up some survival tips that help me appreciate more and struggle less. Give them a try, especially those of you with Julius Caesar to finish!

  1. Skim the opening scene and/or any scene between servants or “low” characters. Why? Frankly, those passages are usually for comic relief and involve complicated puns that rely on that “foreign language,” Elizabethan English. If you get caught up in trying to suss out each line in modern English and piece out each joke (some are extended), you will be frustrated. You will use up all your juice in the first scene, which could very well turn out to be tangential.

    Instead: Skim these parts. Come back to them later. They’re not meaningless or pointless–they’re just better approached after you’ve gotten your bearings in the play.
  2. Stay out of the weeds. And by weeds, I mean footnotes. Why? Footnotes are the equivalent of embedded links on the internet. Do you want to “click here” and be taken away from the main page? Then you have to read links that may or may not actually add value. And click back to return to your main focus. And hope you remember the last sentence you read. Yep, it’s disruptive, and the payoff is uncertain.

    Instead: Onward ho! Keep chugging through the lines, pausing to summarize longer speeches. Stop for footnotes only when you’ve come to a standstill because you truly have no idea what a specific word/phrase means. Alternatively, you can chug through without footnotes even when you are confused, and then pause and reread entire scenes or speeches with their accessories as you finish them.

    3. Yes, I said to reread. Can’t be denied. The good news is that rereading will pay off immensely, and every time you return to a passage, you will find it so much clearer.

    4. I’ve been saying footnotes. The truth is, most new editions have given up on footnotes and replaced them with sidenotes, which are easier to consult in the normal course of reading. Usually they are on the page facing the text and allow for pretty easy consultation. Be sure to use an edition with sidenotes. I can’t tell you how much easier I find them. See the illustrations below for examples of side and footnotes (taken from my actual books!).

Here you can see true “footnotes,” which require you to stop reading, relocate your eyes down the page, read, absorb info, and return to the text (in the same spot, ideally!). (The Pelican Shakespeare edition of Twelfth Night from 1986–the one I used in college!)

Ok, so not the best image, but you can see how the notes are side-by-side with the text, allowing you to move back and forth between the play and bonus information without too much disruption. (The New Folger Library Shakespeare edition of Julius Caesar.)

How do you keep from drowning in Shakespeare? Help out your fellow readers in the comments below.

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Crossing the Rubicon (More on Julius Caesar)

Have you ever heard the expression “crossing the Rubicon”? I have, but until this week I had no idea what it meant.

I was preparing to tutor Julius Caesar and wanted to understand the play’s opening, when Caesar is leading a triumphant procession through Rome.

Shakespeare doesn’t dwell too much on the historical details here (much of his audience would know it already), but he gives a wide variety of commentary on Caesar and his defeat of the “sons of Pompey.” Some citizens hero-worship Caesar, and others are disgusted–angry–apprehensive (heard of Brutus?).

I started by trying to figure out who Pompey himself was, and the story got complicated quickly. You think our politics are a mess? Brutus was a literal backstabber.

Then I ran across mention of the Rubicon River. Turns out this river is one of the north-south dividers for Italy, along with the Arno River on the west side. Caesar, returning from Gaul, could not legally cross the Rubicon with his troops.

The red arrow shows the Rubicon River, which Caesar had to cross to return home.

So what did he do?

He crossed the river.

With his troops. Supposedly he said, “The die is cast,” just before his fateful move.

Caesar’s insubordination was definitive and shaped the chain of events that led to the Roman Empire and his assassination.

So we’ve arrived back at Shakespeare. And we’ve gained a great expression for crossing the point of no return.

Or throwing down the gaunlet.

Maybe waving a red flag at a bull.

Is there an expression I’m forgetting?

As always, thanks for reading. I hope you’ve walked away richer! Comment, like, and share if you feel so moved!

If you want to read a precise historical account of Caesar’s river crossing at Mike Anderson’s Ancient History Blog, click here:

Posted in Literary Genres, Literature

Isn’t That Tragic?

Spoiler Alert!

I never was a huge Shakespeare fan, though I enjoy his plays when I read them. These days I mostly read them along with my students or my kids. Right now it’s Julius Caesar season.

Sometimes I find tallying the dead bodies in Shakespearean tragedies amusing. If you don’t find humor here, you’re missing out. That’s why I love this graphic, which gives a body count for each play. And we’ve got some unique modes of death–to say the least! Characters eat hot coals!? Are stabbed and baked into pies!? There’s some food for thought (pun intended).

On a serious note, I wanted to define “tragedy” and “comedy” in a traditional sense. We’ve all heard of the elements of tragedy, like the fall of the tragic hero and DEATH. Comedy is more confusing, especially when referring to classic literature: it doesn’t mean funny, like “ha-ha.” It is the opposite of tragedy, in which the outcome of the play/story is usually marriage, or at least couples pairing off and metaphorically walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.

The happy ending of a comedy carried over into novels as they began appearing in the eighteenth century. Novels had only one traditional ending: marriage. Of course that’s changed over time.

So, do you prefer a tragedy or a comedy?

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Welcome to 2020–and my new website!

January sits right at the gate between two years, and I tend to use the whole month to transition. I think about the past, as you do, and set goals for the future. I admit, it’s hard to stay focused when all the possibilities for the year sit out in front of me!

It’s exciting–inspiring–and a bit overwhelming.

I’ve decided to bite into the “bit overwhelming” part and forge ahead with a new website for CJDWhite Tutor. This will be the one location for information about tutoring sessions, upcoming special events, news and tips related to literacy, writing, and high school education.

Planting myself in a spot on the internet is huge for me. I intend to feed and water this site so that it becomes a green oasis for parents and students who are seeking support, encouragement, and just plain MORE from their language arts studies.