Bringing Shakespeare to the Corporate Classroom

As an English teacher to private, foreign executive students, I usually use articles and news events from major magazines and newspapers for conversation and vocabulary. But this week, I decided to shake things up and bring in a hired gun: Shakespeare —  specifically, Julius Caesar.

I’m hardly an expert on Shakespeare — what I know mostly goes back to middle and high school, plus more recent Off-Off Broadway plays and Hollywood movies. But over the years my appreciation for the Bard has grown, and I thought it might be fun.

Shakespeare, fun? I was not sure why I felt so eager to do this. I vaguely remembered reading Macbeth with an advanced, Spanish-speaking student a few years back — a worthy effort but one that proved fairly difficult and which had kept me from repeating the exercise on others.

Now, with Julius Caesar, I had to wonder how my students would feel about reading a play written in the English Renaissance about an event in 44 B.C. Would they find the class interesting, not too difficult, and relevant to their needs?

Among my students, there were three whose goals in English seemed in line with introducing Shakespeare. For each class, I brought my library copy of No Fear Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which gives the original text on the left and in modern English on the right. And thanks to the versatility of both playwright and the historic Roman general himself, each lesson was completely different from the next. What follows are descriptions of the various classes and students, whose names/details have been changed.

For the first student, Mah, a Chinese managing director who wanted to learn more about Western culture, Julius Caesar provided a good starting point — about 60 B.C. We spread out a map of Europe and looked at how the Romans, beginning with Caesar, came to influence Western Europe in architecture, society, defense, and language. Even the month we were in — August — had been named (in several languages) after Julius’s successor, Augustus; the month of July being named after the original Julius. As for “Caesar,” the named evolved into the meaning for “emperor” in German, as “Kaiser,” and Russian, as “Czar.” (We did not actually get to the play itself that day.)

For Pierre, this French businessman’s interest in Shakespeare had been sparked earlier in the summer after seeing a street performance of Sueño, a Spanish version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We then read the Spark Notes summary of the original Midsummer play — and he was hooked. This student, so well-read in French literature but not familiar with Shakespeare, was struck by the intricacy of the plots and the completely recognizable human emotions and situations found in this 500-year-old play.

Perhaps it was Pierre who had unconsciously encouraged me to take on more Shakespeare. With him, we never attempted to read the whole play of Midsummer Night’s Dream, or (after that) Macbeth. Instead, we used a combination of Spark Notes for summaries  and scenes, Wikipedia for extra information, and Google images to provide a picture or backdrop. We then read certain short scenes and soliloquies, and the plays came alive. Julius Caesar was Pierre’s third Shakespeare play, and by using the same techniques as with the other two, it was a hit. Hail, Caesar!

My third student, Anil, is a soft-spoken engineer from India who for two months has been practicing speaking skills for talking with colleagues in meetings or small conferences. I have been working on getting him to project more clearly when he speaks, so using Shakespeare seemed like a good idea.

Though Anil had never read any Shakespeare before, he quickly grasped the opening situation in Act 1: a small group of Roman senators are envious of Caesar’s popularity and power and want to stop the ruler from achieving any more. In Scene 2, Caesar confides to his best friend, Mark Antony, that he does not like the look of one of the senators, a severe-looking man named Cassius. Anil read that passage in modern form, and i t went something like this:

CAESAR:  I wish he were fatter! He looks lean and hungry. Not that I’m afraid of him — I’m not! But if I were capable of fearing anyone, Cassius would be the one. He always watches people to see any hidden motives. He doesn’t like theater the way you do, Antony. He doesn’t listen to music. He rarely smiles … and will never be comfortable while someone ranks higher than himself, and therefore … is very dangerous …”

We then adapted those lines to a modern office setting: seated in a conference room are Caesar (Anil), the team leader of a certain project team who has just returned from vacation; and a conspiratorial team member (me) who’d like to see Caesar on permanent vacation.

TEAM MEMBER (me): Good to see you, Julius. Look, while you were away, we decided Cassius would be a great addition to our team. He’s brilliant with data, really understands strategy, and is an amazing organizer. 

CAESAR (Anil): Yes, but I wish he were fatter! I mean, he has a lean and hungry look. He is always looking at people, watching them, like they are doing something sinister. He doesn’t go to plays or movies, never watches shows, and never smiles — at least, he doesn’t smile in a friendly way, only in a kind of sarcastic way. To be honest, I don’t think he would be good for the team. He seems … not a good fit.

Anil liked this role-playing. He could see the connection to real life, and enjoyed the drama. Inspired, we flipped to the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech that Mark Antony gives to the Roman people shortly after the senators’ shocking assassination of Caesar. We read both original and new versions, watched a YouTube clip from the 1969 movie, and talked about it. One thing Anil noticed was the number of times Antony calls the senators, and Brutus in particular, “honorable” and “noble,” despite their just having murdered the Roman leader. Even though Antony defers to the senators with ostensible respect, he was still able to make the crowd understand that Caesar’s death was an unjust and terrible crime.

We then moved the scene to now: Much-loved CEO Julius Caesar has just been fired by X Company’s Board members. Senior VP Mark Antony (Anil) must address the shareholders (me) who have quickly gathered to understand the situation.

MARK ANTONY (Anil): Friends, colleagues, shareholders, Thank you for coming. Today the Board, the honorable Board, has decided to relieve CEO Julius Caesar of his duties.  I’ll try to explain. It seems Caesar was … ambitious, overly so, and it was in the interest of the company to let him go.

SHAREHOLDER A (me): Do you agree with the Board’s actions?

MARK ANTONY: Yes; I stand by them. The Board, and especially Board member Brutus, are all honorable men. They had to make a difficult decision. Sure, Caesar was my friend, faithful and just to me. He also made a lot of money for the company. But his ambition meant lots of potential trouble for the company … 

SHAREHOLDER B: Ambition! What ambition – he extended maternity leave! and created paternity leave! Do you call that “ambition”?

MARK ANTONY: Caesar cared about his employees a lot. But ambition takes many forms. He could have been chairman — the position was offered to him three times but he always turned it down. Why? I ask you: Was this ambition? But once again — Brutus and the Board are all honorable men.

Bottom Line: Yes, Shakespeare can be used not only effectively, but dynamically in the corporate classroom — through story-telling, pictures, focused reading, and role-playing. There are many ways to take the discussion — through character action, metaphors, vocabulary, and more. And many students, often well-read in the literature of their native country, appreciate being introduced to Shakespeare and this brave new world. And it IS fun.