In the sixties, I had my first introduction to Shakespeare through West Side Story and Franco Zefferelli’s production of Romeo and Juliet starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. In many high schools, Romeo and Juliet is the only introduction to Shakespeare many of us get. It is logical to start teens out with a play that focuses on the pain of teen love and parental control. I also remember seeing a delightful and memorable 1935 film of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both plays are very engaging for those new to Shakespeare; his histories … not so much.
My sister was an English major at Kent State University during the sixties and I remember how much she loved her Shakespeare class with Doris Franklin, her favorite professor. I was fortunate enough to take Shakespeare with Dr. Franklin 10 years later. She was an exquisitely ancient woman, frail and tiny, and her thin voice wavered from tremors. Yet, there was a power in her voice and manner that made her formidable.
Among the plays we discussed in class, was Julius Caesar. Everyone in class relished the more approachable plays and characters and groaned as we discussed Julius Caesar. As a Classical Studies major, I was the only student looking forward to it. As we discussed the play, Dr. Franklin read from memorable passages like Portia’s monologue and Mark Antony’s funeral oration. My classmates laughed as tears and mascara streamed down my face. I’ll never forget Dr. Franklin’s chastisement of my friends. I can’t remember the exact words, but she put them in their place, making me feel as if my emotional response indicated a higher appreciation of Shakespeare than those who scoffed.
Everyone is moved by something different in Shakespeare, and many have been moved by these passages. The power of Julius Caesar has been appreciated by many, even a group of prison inmates. To see how performing in the play affects the lives of such an unlikely audience, check out Caesar Must Die on Kanopy. The film is in Italian with subtitles and was filmed in a Roman prison. Their Shakespearean acting is amazing and quite moving.
The film starts with the play being performed and the actors lead back to their cells. Then, it backtracks to the auditions and rehearsals, the actors practicing in their cells, and the play unfolds. It is an outstanding demonstration of the power of art and literature to change lives.
If you haven’t seen Julius Caesar, there are two film versions available on Hoopla and Kanopy. There is a version starring Charles Gray (the bad guy in the Bond flick Diamonds are Forever and the criminologist in Rocky Horror—“it’s just a JUMP to the left”).