Why Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Latin? Of how much use could something like that possibly be?
More than you might think.
It is a delightful and effective way to learn Latin. It could even help us to begin to feel a bit "comfortable" with the language, since it offers us an easy way to familiarize ourselves with the meanings of many essential words in context without constant reference to dictionaries, and it affords us a great desideratum in language-acquisition: the reading of comprehensible, manageably short, conversational Latin sentences, set in a compelling and famous dramatic narrative. It therefore overcomes the problem that plagues so many textbooks that force students to learn through disconnected fragments.
In a most practical way, this text helps us to learn how to negotiate the gap between English and the Latin modes of communication, particularly as it offers enough sentences for students to begin to get the right kinds of insights into how Latin syntax and diction tend to work. Learning any foreign language requires realizing how the target language accomplishes particular types of communicational tasks. But that realization alone is not at all sufficient. There has to be the repeated experience of that kind of comprehension. This work offers students an entire set of "exercises" that will feel like play. Such a work as this should therefore appeal to anyone who favors a phrase-based approach to language-acquisition. In fact, this book is a treasury of Latin equivalencies, a contextualized phrase-book in its own right.
If beginners have to labor on through the powerful waves of Ciceronian abundance, each sentence feeling like a totally new puzzle and every period marking another Sisyphean effort, we can usually expect tedium and repugnance to result. In the classical treasures of yore, the lack of adequate repetition of simple structures and specific concrete vocabulary makes for minimal achievement and glacial progress. The vast variety, volume, and learned infrastructure of classical eloquence tend to overburden young readers; the things that are so delightful at a later time in life might all too effectively remove in most apprentices the expectation of any real experience of fluency. In such a composition as this present one, however, the constant interactions of the characters and their short, pointed dramatic communications highlight simple, common, often-employed verbal strategies. With these, the prospect of fluent reading seems achievable.
Such a text as this one also gives students the sense of being able to read important material in the Latin language. Indeed there is much of significance already from antiquity, but many students are not yet at the point at which they are ready to appreciate that significance to any considerable extent. The works written by Julius Caesar in Latin are often found less fascinating than ones written about him. Also, the syntactical differences are such, and the linguistic habits and contents of ancient minds are such that it is almost impossible for students to bridge the gap with any kind of confidence. There is no shame in attempting to build a bridge to the world of classical antiquity starting from closer to where we in fact stand at this moment. Of course, in this case, we are building a bridge to Latin and, on the way, a second one, to a celebrated monument of English literature.
There is additional strategic pedagogical value in the practice of reading texts whose meaning is already known (Heinrich Schliemann's method). If students are familiar with the content of the play, they are better prepared to seize upon the meanings of the Latin with far less effort; if less effort is required and the story engaging, more reading is likely; if more reading occurs, linguistic comprehension improves; if linguistic comprehension improves, the experience of success can lead students to develop a real taste and even hunger for more experience of the language. Quietly, without trouble or resistance, a strong and secure linguistic foundation has been laid.
What if the Latinity is not as pure or classical as that which Cicero might have employed on a good day to impress a highly cultured audience? The encounter with the individual words and phrases and usages and syntactical patterns and combinations of endings will remain valuable. And really, we do not lose our best style of English speech if we occasionally hear the less-than-elegant language of a tv sitcom or drama. Understanding Latin that is less than perfectly classical and less than truly ancient is still a wonderful and encouraging experience for beginners. Any possible disadvantage of being exposed to non-classical style and non-ancient contents is more than compensated by a wider and deeper exposure to the language, by the additional practice of comprehension, and by the heightened interest that gripping narratives arouse. Simply gaining a better familiarity with particles and pronouns (even in a semi-conscious way, with no effort) promises growing facility and therefore confidence with the language.
There are yet other bonuses offered here. Using such a book as this, students can all the more easily arrive at the realizations that (1) Latin is a real language used to communicate real meanings, not a linguistic algebra in which to code and conceal messages for those who enjoy working out puzzles; and (2) translation is not at all a matter of "literally" substituting one word for another. Perhaps reading this text will encourage students to compose their own Latin or to attempt oral Latin as well: the language of drama is often conversational, after all.
Advanced Latinists of course can enjoy in Henry Denison's translation the delight of the Latin language in a new way. They can sharpen their own proficiency by considering other possible ways of producing similar meanings, or they can consider again the range of meanings that any particular word or expression can convey. This production may offer them as well some handy conversational turns of phrase. It certain provides them an occasion to once again feel the heft and quality of the original poetry and to attain new insight into the genius of the English language over against that of the Latin one.
In any case, the language that helped that mysterious poet "William Shakespeare" to become what he was — and perhaps a good knowledge of it was in fact a necessary precondition for his works of genius — that language always deserves an honored place in our educational repertoires. We cannot fully appreciate Shakespeare (or so much of the English literary corpus) without it. Henry Denison has generously provided us with one more means of access to the speech that has manifested such infinite variety and use. Latin still remains an invitation to the love of language, an aid to the understanding of poetry, and a stimulus to the appreciation of culture.
Saint Louis, Missouri
March 24, 2013