Hey, Caesar, the Ides of March are upon you

My study of Shakespeare began under duress - to atone for a botched assignment on Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake." Our 10th-grade English teacher had divided the class into groups for panel discussions on "Lady," but I must have been daydreaming when she moved the deadline up by a week - the very week I was planning to read it, of course.

To make matters worse, the leader of my group lost track of me (understandably, since there were eight of us) when he scheduled our rehearsal - and also failed to inform me that our group had volunteered to go first.

That's how I found myself in front of the class with seven other students, all of whom had actually studied the poem. I was the only one who didn't know we were pretending to be household servants gossiping about the main characters. I recall being impressed with the creativity of that approach. I also recall being terrified. I had no idea what they were chatting about, since I hadn't read one word of the work under discussion.

My only hope lay in remaining still enough to seem invisible. I nearly pulled it off, too - right up to that little lull when the discussion leader noticed that I had not spoken. (He later told me that only afterward did he realize I had not been present for the rehearsal.)

I tried to avoid eye contact, but to no avail. So, thinking I had read the poem, he wanted to give me an opportunity to participate. Staying in character, he asked whether I had any observations to share.

At 15 I had a lot to learn about handling situations like this one. A few years later I might have salvaged the moment by rephrasing some comments I'd heard the others make. But I hadn't been listening to the others - just to the loud ba-boom of my own heart. So, I gave the only answer I could think of. "No," I said.

Most of my classmates laughed. And so did the teacher. But she also noted my failure in her grade book. After class I struck a bargain with her: To offset my grade deficit, I agreed to do extra work on the next unit, which was Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Driven at first by the need to atone for the short shrift I had given Sir Walter, I threw myself into the project. But somewhere in the process of turning Shakespeare's tragedy (and perhaps my own) into a satirical comedy, I came to enjoy the play.

I no longer recall the nature of my parody. What I do remember is how carefully I had to read and study that play, line by line, so I could parody it. The language of Shakespeare began to grow on me, and I started to hear it as lively dialogue instead of seeing it as dry words on a page.

This immersion also prompted me to do some songwriting, which was an unexpected bonus. One of the fruits of this labor of love began "Caesar had a gal, and her name was Cal - Calpurnia." (Forgive me; it was the 1960s.)

My favorite of the songs I wrote borrowed the tune to "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and opened with "The Ides of March is upon you, all the livelong day, even if you're just a-strollin' along down Appian Way." A later segment warned, "Caesar, don'tcha go," and the last verse began, "Someone's in the Senate with Caesar...."

While working on this project, I discovered that the Ides of March merely referred to the 15th of the month, and that there is nothing ominous about the ides. I've since learned that ides originally marked the full moon, but the calendar didn't always coordinate well with lunar cycles, so ides soon bore no relationship to that phase of the moon.

Every month had an ides, although, except for March, May, July, and October, it fell on the 13th. The Roman calendar used ides - along with kalends (the first of the month) and nones (the seventh day in March, May, July, and October; the fifth in the other months) - to base the rest of the days on. (We get the word "calendar" from kalends.)

But the Roman calendar suffered from an unwieldy complexity, not unlike the Roman numeric system. (Imagine writing your phone number in Roman numerals!) And were it not for Julius Caesar, the word "ides" probably would not have survived in the English language.

And were it not for the mix-up that resulted in my abysmal performance in that panel discussion on "Lady of the Lake," I might never have discovered my capacity to enjoy the timeless words of Shakespeare.

Thinking back, I wonder whether that discussion occurred on the Ides of March.

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