‘Julius Caesar’ and Shakespeare’s change in the American curriculum, from rhetoric to literature

scene from Julius Caesar
Alfred Krausse. Julius Caesar, act III, sc. II, Antony & Caesar’s body. Mid to late 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART File S528j1 no.38 (size M)

Imagine students being assigned to memorize a speech from Julius Caesar, but not being told that the words were written by William Shakespeare because he was considered too low-brow, not cultured enough.

That was how it was at the beginning of the 19th century in America schools. Unattributed speeches from Shakespeare’s plays would be included in the school readers of the day “not to study as literature, but to read aloud because they were exemplars of good elocution, of good public speaking,” says Joseph Haughey, a professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Writing at Northwest Missouri State University. “Shakespeare’s reputation was that of popular culture, not appropriate to be read in school.”

While 19th-century Americans loved to see Shakespeare plays performed, the theater still had something of the unsavory about it. However, as theater’s reputation improved over the century, Shakespeare’s rose with it. And Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar proved an excellent bridge in schools between the traditional study of Latin and the study of English, according to Haughey.

“That’s what we started to see at the end of the century… that transition away from studying the classics toward studying Shakespeare in modern language,” says Haughey.

Haughey explains more in this excerpt from a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode about the history of Shakespeare in American schools. He is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BOGEAV: So, after the 1850s you start seeing the passages in the readers being attributed to Shakespeare and then it grows from there?

HAUGHEY: That’s right. So, you start to see… there’s a couple of examples earlier in the 19th century, but very few. But by the time we get to the 1860s, the Civil War, and especially after we’re in the 1870s, we see a shift in the readers. The readers will endure through to the end of the 20th century before they really give way to really the anthology genre. But at the end, they have whole scenes, sometimes multiple scenes from the same play, sometimes context, so they tell you what happened before and after in the story. You’re starting to see something, not quite what I think of as the study of Shakespeare today, but something that’s bridging that gap.

BOGEAV: Well, yeah, because early on it comes up over and over again: these excerpts from Julius Caesar. You mentioned earlier that Julius Caesar a good play because it’s this transition period away from a classical curriculum and people and learning Latin and, you know, it’s a really nice bridge. And then you have the rhetoric issue. They want kids to learn rhetoric, but why Julius Caesar? Why was that considered okay?That’s our hallowed text, that’s okay for kids to learn.”

HAUGHEY: Well, Julius Caesar was really popular. I mean it still is really popular, but it was very popular in the 19th century. I think because students are used to reading Caesar in Latin, the orations. But I also think it has to do with… Julius Caesar is a play about… that challenges us to think about the very notion of a republic of democracy, of dictatorship. I think it’s a play that’s incredibly relevant, in many ways, to the 19th century as well.

If we are going to find a play that sort of helps us think about Shakespeare as literature, as something that speaks to the current situation, it’s a wonderful choice for that as well. If we want something—it’s great because it’s got “Friends, Romans countrymen.” It’s got some great orations that we can use to practice speaking allowed, and we’re used to reading those in the 19th century. We read those as, you know, the… in the later 19th century, those teachers were used to having read those as students themselves. But also now, as we dig deeper into the play, we find that it speaks in many ways, to a young nation.


Listen to the full interview with Haughey and read the transcript.

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