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The Secret life of Minor Characters

Teachers' Rating:
  13 ratings

Unknown engraver after Jean Leon Gerome. Death of Julius Caesar. Engraving, 1869.

June 2003
Janet Field-Pickering, Folger Shakespeare Library, Head of Education 1996-2000.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Julius Caesar 3.1 This activity also works well with other scenes from Shakespeare: the wedding of Kate and Petruchio, the aborted wedding of Hero and Claudio, or Macbeth's banquet with Banquo's ghost. Identify the key moment or moments in the scene where all the characters onstage have to react to what's happening. Then adapt to the steps outlined below.
What's On for Today and Why
Students performing the major roles in a Shakespeare scene have lines to speak and business to do and are usually more content, even with more lines to memorize, than the silent or minor participants in a scene. Students playing soldiers, lords, and attendants often agonize about what to do with their hands, or aimlessly rock back and forth in place. Getting students to participate actively in a scene as a minor character without stealing focus is a challenge. Using the assassination of Julius Caesar as a case-in-point, this activity is designed to give each minor character a clear inner life and something to focus and inform their silent presence on stage. Having students think about and flesh out the motivations of minor characters provides them with critical thinking and analytical skills that can be applied to other works of literature—not just Shakespeare.


This lesson will take 30 to 40 minutes.

What You Need

Folger edition of Julius Caesar
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

What To Do

1. Have the students read around Julius Caesar 3.1.1-136, line by line. Discuss: What's going on in this scene? Who are these guys? Then assign roles and read the scene around again.


2. Get to the meaty part—the actual assassination. Pick a Casca, Caesar, and Brutus, and, as a group, decide where they should be on stage. Figure out where all the other assassins (the rest of the class) should stand.


3. Start with Casca's line, "Speak, hands, for me!" and have everyone stab Caesar until Caesar says his famous last words and dies. Chances are your students will have a great time, but the scene will be rowdy and messy.


4. Divide your class up into small groups. Tell them that each student in the group has to take the role of an assassin and come up with a clear characterization and motivation for his/her assassin. Discuss the possible motivations as a group: What kind of grievances could an assassin have against Caesar? Is he politically or personally motivated?, etc. Some of the assassins are given motivation in the play. Who are these characters?


5. Have each student come up with a few sentences to explain his/her motivation. Share out loud within the small group. Then each assassin should come up with a short—no more than five to ten words—line to shout out as they stab Caesar. Each line needs to be clear and specific and emotional and SHORT. "Take that!" is short but not specific. "Take that for lording it over us!" or "I'm afraid of the other conspirators!" or "Here's to your ambition!" are more specific.


6. Divide the class in half. Have the first half of the class stage the murder of Caesar while the other half watches. As each character stabs Caesar have him pause and shout his lines out loud. Do this twice. Then tell the students to take away the words, but keep the movement and the emotional push behind each stabbing. Have the assassins silently stab Caesar as they internalize their emotions and silently shout their lines deep inside.


7. Have the students discuss and comment on how the scene went. Then have the second half of the class perform and discuss. How did the actors feel about doing the scene? What did the audience see and experience? Optional writing assignment: Many professional actors create a "back story" for each character they play. They compose a detailed history of the character's past leading up to the point at which we discover them in the play. Have your students create "back stories" for their roles, delving into the past experiences and the psychological development of their characters.

How Did It Go?
Were the students able to come up with clear motivations for the assassins? Did this activity help the performers and the performance achieve a tighter focus? Did all the student actors in the scene appear more purposeful and, at the same time, more confident?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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