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William Shakespeare and the Speech that Moved Rome


In classical literature, there stand certain iconic moments that attest to the immense power of persuasive discourse. One such instance is William Shakespeare's political play Julius Caesar, where Mark Antony's renowned funeral oration is a riveting demonstration of communicative artistry. This pivotal scene, known for its power to engage the affections and opinions of the Roman population gathered for Caesar’s funeral, revolves around the art of persuasion, embedded in timeless communicative principles that remain relevant in the present day. This article will provide an overview of the linguistic strategies employed by the character of Mark Antony, in order to unveil the secrets behind its enduring impact and fascination.

Shakespeare’s Sources and the Art of Rhetoric

The written script of Julius Caesar made its first appearance in 1623 within the First Folio, a comprehensive collection of William Shakespeare's most notable works that was published several years after his death. This first written version proved to be fairly accurate, with the abundance of detailed stage directions suggesting that it may have been dictated by the prompter himself. However, the composition of Julius Caesar, with its origins stretching back as far as 1599, likely coincided with the inauguration of The Globe Theater (Serpieri, 1995, p. XXXV).

Figure 1: An inside view of the reconstructed Globe Theater (The Globe, 2020).

Shakespeare wrote against a backdrop of two contrasting political visions: a monarchical, ritualistic vision on the one hand, whereby the leader of such an institution was invested with a divine mandate, and a republican vision on the other hand, which envisaged the legitimacy of the leader as a status conferred by the population and its representatives (Serpieri, 1995, p. XXXVIII). To create works commenting on contemporary history without overly taking political sides, Shakespeare sought events in the more distant past as his source material. This allowed his plays to resonate with audiences, enabling them to detect contemporary implications while safeguarding the author from accusations of political bias. In order to achieve this, Shakespeare consulted multiple sources. Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans seems to have been his preferred reference, mostly drawing inspiration from the lives of Caesar, of Brutus and of Mark Anthony (Greene, 1980). For Shakespeare, the biographies of these historical figures share a captivating allure, because they exemplify an intriguing clash of political and value-based models that the audience would be familiar with: Julius Caesar stages the contrast between the Republican institution in Rome, which had endured for five centuries, and the emerging monarchical tendencies embodied by Caesar, but it is intended as a covert reference to the political dynamics at play in Shakespeare's own time. The arena where Shakespeare stages the political conflicts and character divisions, and the meter by which the characters are measured against one another, are represented by the realm of the spoken language. Throughout the play, language stands out as the most potent instrument for accessing positions of power and influence: Shakespeare is careful in emphasizing that politicians who excel at articulation and artful manipulation of their words are the ones who will rise to the positions of power (Dumitrašković, 2023). The various linguistic tools employed to harness the communicative potential of language is the scope of the discipline called rhetoric. Although not a fundamental part of any academic curricula as of today, rhetoric played a central role in Elizabethan England, as it was regarded as the skill to restore classical learning to cultural life. Its popularity is attested by the numerous handbooks published on this matter: influential works included Institutio Oratoria (“Institutions of Oratory”) by Quintillianus; Ad Herennium (“To Herennius”), wrongly attributed to Cicero (though, as argued by Leith in 2012, it is this presumed attribution that made it one of the most popular handbooks on rhetoric during the Renaissance), The Art of English Poesie also played a central role in shaping Elizabethan courtly poetics: poetry, drama, and rhetoric were intricately connected in the context of networks of patronage due to their association with power, and they were considered to have essentially overlapping objectives (Leith, 2012). Further guidebooks used to master the art of persuasion were Wilson’s The Art of Rhetoric and Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (Ballard, 2016).

Figure 2: Cicero denounces Catiline (Maccari, 1889).

In Julius Caesar, rhetoric is the linchpin around which all events revolve: as early as Act I, the play establishes rhetoric as a tool of the powerful men, to control and influence others, displaying the efforts of the conspirators to persuade Brutus to join the plot against Caesar. For example, Cassius relies on the power of eloquence to persuade Brutus: he uses vivid imagery to argue that since they saved Caesar once, he can't be an invincible leader. Cassius also bemoans the dominance of a single man in Rome.Therefore, the pragmatic aspects of the assassination, such as recruiting other conspirators like Caius, also rely on persuasive communication. Rhetoric shapes not only public exchanges but also intimate and private moments of the characters: an instance where rhetoric is manifest in Brutus's soliloquy when he wrestles with his uncertainty about justifying Caesar's assassination. He ultimately convinces himself by highlighting the potential for evil, preparing the imagery he will use later, such as the serpent's egg, which becomes prominent in the final confrontation at Caesar's funeral. It helps him explain how Caesar poses a threat to Rome. Even in his personal life, Brutus values rhetoric. He holds respect for his wife, Portia, and lets himself open up to her because she herself possesses rhetorical skills and can engage in meaningful dialogue, as seen in Act II, Scene I. Rhetoric defines the political personas of Brutus and Cassius, shaping not only their confrontations and interactions, but their very decision-making as well. Because of the pervasive relevance of the power of words, Julius Caesar is, in many ways, a play about rhetoric itself (Ballard, 2016). Caesar’s funeral is arguably the climax of the play and the central event of the plot, rather than his assassination, as it is the moment that will prompt the story towards its close. After the two separate interventions from Brutus Mark Anthony, the Roman population transitions from considering Caesar a tyrant to cherishing him a good man and resorts to warfare, animated by the desire to avenge their benefactor: they have been moved to action. As the target audience of a rhetorical speech, they have, strictly speaking, been persuaded.

Aristotle’s on Rhetoric: the Language of Logic and Emotions

Throughout history, rhetoric has been considered as closely connected to truth and communication on the one hand, and persuasion on the other hand. Defined as “the art of persuasion,” rhetoric is recognized for its profound influence through language (Leith, 2012; Dumitrašković, 2023). As its essence lies in the skillful use of language, making it inherently heterogeneous, rhetoric occupies a unique position at the crossroads of truth, communication, and persuasion. Its ambivalence arises from the dual role of conveying content, expected to be true, while simultaneously serving persuasive objectives. This dual nature becomes all the more evident when observing a skillful rhetorician's use of tools, exemplified in Mark Antony’s speech, seamlessly blending naturalness with the specific power to persuade (Ellero, 2001).

Figure 3: A symbolic representation of persuasion (Unknown, n.d.).

Rhetoric, rooted in ancient Rome and Greece, draws profound influence from Aristotle. Aristotle's pivotal shift in defining rhetoric, emphasizing persuasion over knowledge, positioned it as a practical art, as detailed in his handbook On Rhetoric. By Shakespeare's time, rhetoric had evolved into a discipline taught alongside grammar and logic, forming the foundational trivium of education. Furthermore, in On Rhetoric Aristotle introduces ethos, pathos, and logos—three interconnected means of influencing an audience. Ethos involves establishing credibility and common ground, fostering trust and alignment with the audience. Pathos appeals to emotions, creating a shared experience that reinforces the connection between speaker and audience. Logos, grounded in reason, forms the logical aspect of a rhetorical speech. Expert rhetoricians modulate it in a way that allows the audience to feel they have reached this conclusion independently.


Mark Antony's speech stands as a compelling example of Aristotle's timeless rhetorical principles in action. In a display of communicative competence, Antony effectively blends ethos by establishing his credibility and common ground with the Roman audience; pathos by stirring their inner emotions and creating a shared experience; and logos, by rooting his reasons in logically sound arguments. This intricate combination allows Antony to not only connect emotionally with the audience but also to sway their intellectual understanding.

Figure 4: A connected leader (Unknown, n.d.).

Rhetorical Principles in Mark Anthony’s Speech

At Caesar’s funeral, Brutus is the first to deliver a speech, explaining to the Romans the reasons why Caesar had to be killed. Despite the popularity that Caesar has always enjoyed among the population, the crowd there gathered is initially convinced by his motives. Then, it is Mark Antony’s turn to speak. Deeply discontent regarding the situation, he remains fiercely loyal to Julius Caesar and is determined to ensure that the conspirators do not escape justice for Caesar's murder. However, he is aware that he cannot be forthright about it: not only is he surrounded by the conspirators, but after Brutus’ speech, they have the Romans’ support. Therefore, if he is to gain the audience’s trust, he needs to outwardly appear to agree with the murder while subtly sowing doubt into the minds of the Romans regarding the justification of Caesar's assassination. And despite the challenges posed by the situation, he succeeds.

While both speeches incorporate rhetorical principles, Mark Anthony's speech stands out as the most memorable for readers over the centuries due to its skillful use of rhetorical techniques. Not only does it align with Aristotle's principles of persuasion, which include ethos, pathos, and logos (Al-Abdullah, 2011), but Mark Anthony also employs a wide array of rhetorical figures of speech to amplify the impact of his oration and support these persuasive appeals. One of Mark Anthony's primary goals is to emphasize a stark distinction between himself and Brutus and the two speeches showcase significant differences in their stylistic choices—although they share similarities as well. At the metric level, Brutus opts for a measured prose: not verses but continuous sentences, characterized by balanced paragraphs; instead, Mark Anthony centers his composition around the use of blank verse (technically defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter: it is a metrical pattern consisting of lines with ten syllables, where every other syllable is stressed , resulting in a rhythmic pattern of unstressed, stressed syllables. Each pair of syllables is called an "iamb," with the first syllable being unstressed, and the second syllable being stressed) (Dumitrašković, 2023).


Figure 5: The Death of Julius Caesar (Camuccini, 1806).

Because he needs to motivate the murder to the rallying crowd, Brutus strategically employs a multitude of figures of speech that serve to highlight the reasonableness of the act. Such figures are, for instance, repetition (which involves the repeated use of a word, phrase, or idea for emphasis), antithesis (a rhetorical device that involves the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, words, or phrases within a sentence or in close proximity that is used to create a stark contrast and draw attention to the differences between the elements being compared) and parallelism (a figure of speech that involves using similar grammatical structures or patterns in a series of words, phrases, or clauses. It is often used to create balance and symmetry in a sentence, making it easier to read or listen to and enhancing the overall impact of the message, as in: As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 3.2.18-22), he portrays himself as composed and his speech as logically sound. His style closely mirrors the structure of a reasoned argument, primarily appealing to the crowd's sense of logic (Ballard, 2016). Unlike Brutus who grounds his speech almost entirely in logic, Mark Anthony is perfectly aware of the importance of the balance of reason and emotion in rhetoric. Throughout his oration, he is able to stir a variety of emotions, including grief at the loss of a leader and friend, a call to honor the dead, and a sense of anger and desire for revenge. In essence, Mark Anthony masterfully harnesses the potential of ethos, pathos, and logos to his advantage (Dumitrašković, 2023).

Mark Anthony immediately forges a connection with the audience through his opening line: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears (3.2.73). The initial part of this statement exemplifies ethos, as it positions the speaker in relation to the crowd. Instead of drawing attention to himself as a political figure, Mark Anthony uses this appeal to define his presence and, by extension, his authority to address the Romans. In essence, he subtly positions himself as one of their own. Leith (2012) argues that the order in which the terms appear is not casual. Because the appeal to friendship would arguably be more potent than the appeal to a shared citizenship, it intuitively should appear last for emphatic effect. Mark Anthony, however, uses it at the beginning instead, because his priority is to connect with the audience on a human level. Only after he has achieved that does he remind them that they are all Romans. Finally, he introduces a term that signifies the convergence of both elements—being “countrymen” implies experiencing a sense of fellowship as Romans and creates a bond of camaraderie between the speaker and the audience. The sound characteristics of these three words also play a role: the first consists of one syllable, the second of two, and the third of three, creating a crescendo effect that favors the meter's memorability. In terms of stress, the distribution is relatively even: a single stressed syllable, followed by a trochee (one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable), and then a dactyl (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables). This results in a consistent rhythm that makes the verse both memorable and easy to recall at the phonetic level. Additionally, the opening appeal is in stark contrast with Brutus’ opening—Romans, countrymen, and lovers (3.2.11)—, both in terms of structure and implied meaning. The second part of this verse, lend me your ears, establishes connection and intimacy as well. While the mood is imperative (i.e., it is formally framed as a command), the choice of the verb “lend” makes all the difference: a metaphorical extension of an action word, the implied meaning is that Mark Anthony lacks a resource that only the Romans can generously concede to him in an act of fraternal concession. He is positioning himself in a condition of humility and necessity with respect to the populace. The ethos thus established in the opening line is consistently maintained throughout his speech. Throughout the remainder of the speech, rhetorical figures employed serve the purpose of establishing an effective tone of ethos and pathos as well.


Figure 6: Mark Antony's Oration (Holmes, n.d.).

In the following line, Mark Anthony continues: I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him (3.2.74). This statement carries a variety of multi-layered implications. As Leith (2012) nicknames it, he is playing the “anti-rhetoric” card: he is stating outright that he is not there to make a speech, thus establishing another contrast between Brutus and himself (although he is, of course, lying). He is going to reinforce this same point later on, when he says:


I am no orator, as Brutus is;

But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man

That love my friend, and that they know full well

That gave me public leave to speak of him. (3.2.217-220)


Not only is he further distancing himself from Brutus, but he is drawing attention to the very scope of rhetoric: declaring himself a stranger to the art of tricking the audience with well-crafted sentences, he is consequently belittling rhetoric itself (Greene, 1980). The verses quoted effectively persuade the audience because they represent an example of the rhetorical figure called enthymeme, another powerful tool drawn from Aristotle that the philosopher considered a rhetorical declination of the syllogism in logic. Both are viewed as cognitive units that serve to elucidate connections between ideas. However, the enthymeme can be delineated as a subtype of the syllogism, distinguished by its concealed assumption, in contrast to the explicit premises. In this case, the implied premise is that an effective speaker or orator would be more eloquent and sophisticated, while the explicit premise is that Anthony is a plain, blunt man who loves his friend, Caesar. The conclusion is that he has been granted public leave to speak about Caesar. Comparing himself to Brutus and emphasizing his own plainness, he indirectly appeals to the audience's sense of trust and familiarity with him. This enthymeme is designed to challenge Brutus's credibility as an orator and make the audience question whether he is as trustworthy as they believed, ultimately helping Mark Anthony reaffirm his own ethos. Being a figure that introduces logical reasoning in the speech, it is a way to properly establish a tone of logos as well.


Figure 7: Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar" (1953).

One of Mark Antony's most prominent rhetorical devices are repetition and irony (Dumitrašković, 2023). Irony is a literary or rhetorical device where there is a sharp contrast between what is openly stated and what is actually meant, entailing a strong discrepancy between form and reality. By reiterating that “Brutus is an honorable man” so often, the irony becomes evident, thus undermining Brutus’ authority in the eyes of the Roman populace and, consequently, the credibility of his words and the legitimacy of his murder. Every repeated assertion of Brutus's honor is preceded by another statement: But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honourable man (verses 82, 87, 94). Because it is a juxtaposition of clauses similar in structure, this sentence is a case of parallelism: the repetition of the name Brutus, followed by the two adjectives “ambitious” and “honourable” (repeated five times each in the first thirty-four lines of his speech), lend the entire verse an overall feeling of balance. The irony in Mark Antony's speech is emphasized as he repeatedly uses the phrase to cast doubt on Brutus’ honor. Moreover, Mark Anthony never frames his statements in the form of a straightforward opinion, as in the sentence “Caesar was ambitious”, but merely reports Brutus’ opinion instead. By doing so, he implies the possibility of alternative interpretations and casts doubt on the accuracy of Brutus's allegations, ultimately distancing himself from the accusations of Caesar's ambition. Conversely, Brutus’ being honourable is presented as his own opinion in a direct statement, repeated in lines 86, 91, 98, 103. And indeed, as soon as the man from the crowd shouts the word “honourable” as a sarcastic remark (3.2.153), its strict sense is now officially discarded by the crowd as well and from then on the word takes on an opposite connotation or becomes ironic in the context of Mark Antony's speech. This sentence also exemplifies the rhetorical figure of antithesis, whereby a pair of opposites is pitted against each other in order to obtain a logical feel. In this case, the contrast stems from the contraposition of the adjectives “ambitious” and “honorable”, which, in this context, could not be further apart in meaning. While Brutus fails to produce concrete evidence to back up his arguments—he repeats that Caesar was murdered on account of his perilous ambition, but provides no concrete occasion when Caesar had been demonstrably ambitious—Mark Anthony has concrete proof to show the Roman populace. He is able to provide no less than three examples of Caesar’s good character, which implicitly undermine Brutus’ thesis that Caesar was ambitious. The anecdotes he presents, rather, indicate that Caesar was humble and generous. However, instead of outright concluding that Brutus' accusation has been proven unfounded, he employs another rhetorical device that prevents him from explicitly drawing any direct conclusions (that will be for the Romans to do): the ever popular rhetorical question. These are sentences grammatically framed as questions, but from the context of use it is evident that they do not require an answer because the answer is either implied or obvious for all interlocutors, without the need for further clarification. The function of rhetorical questions is rather to place the emphasis on the point that the speaker is making: Did in this Caesar seem ambitious? (3.2.90) And Here was a Caesar! when comes such another? (3.2.253). The answer is obviously negative to both the first two questions, as Mark Anthony has provided conclusive examples that Caesar was not ambitious, thus refuting Brutus’ principal thesis. This use of rhetorical questions, of course, appeals to the capacity of the crowd to proceed by logical reasoning.

Figure 8: The crowd listens in the film "Julius Caesar" (Unknown, n.d.).

Mark Anthony has cast doubts on the trustworthiness of Brutus’ words since the earlier parts of the speech:


If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. (vv. 79-80) With these verses, not only is he again making room for doubting the conspirator’s motives, but the second part suggests that, even if Caesar was indeed ambitious, the punishment that he has endured (death by murder) was disproportionate. Mark Anthony’s speech is not only characterized by iron-clad logical strategies, but is imbued with pathos as well. The linguistic device of apostrophe is another key component of Mark Anthony’s rhetoric that leads the Romans to revolt (Dumitrašković, 2023): this figure of speech consists in directly addressing an absent person. Apostrophe is used, for example, in the following passage: O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,

That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!

Thou art the ruins of the noblest man

That ever lived in the tide of times.


Mark Antony is addressing Caesar's spirit, lamenting his brutal assassination and voicing his sorrow and outrage. In order to achieve the maximum emotional effect on the audience, however, he does not limit the scope of his own rhetoric to oral communication, but exhibits external evidence to get his points across. He does so on two separate occasions. Firstly, he presents Caesar's lifeless body to the crowd, all the while providing a description that humanizes him. Caesar's corpse is depicted as an ordinary human body, and Mark Antony carefully describes the wounds, speculating about which conspirator might have inflicted each one. Secondly, he discloses the contents of Caesar's will, prefacing his revelation with a warning that it will be emotionally overwhelming, and pretending to resist reading the will in order to spare their feelings. Caesar has, in fact, bequeathed money and portions of his private estate to the Romans, which further energizes and motivates the Roman populace to avenge him.

Conclusion

In the world of Julius Caesar, the power of language is more than just a means of communication; it's akin to wielding a weapon, a tool that can shape destinies and decide fates. Characters within the play rise or fall not just based on their actions but on their ability to use words effectively. Rhetoric, far from being a mere stylistic choice, emerges as a central and driving theme that underpins the play's dynamics. In Julius Caesar, to persuade is to move by means of eloquence, and it is language that emerges as the ultimate force that moves people to action.


Bibliographical References

Al-Abdullah, M. (2011). Aristotle's Rhetorical Strategies in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Master's thesis). Yarmouk University, Irbid, Jordan.

Ballard, K. (2016, March 15). Rhetoric, power, and persuasion in Julius Caesar. The British Library. [https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/rhetoric-power-and-persuasion-in-julius-caesar]


D'Agostino, N. (1995). Introduction to Giulio Cesare [Julius Caesar] by Alessandro Serpieri. In A.

Serpieri (Ed.), Giulio Cesare [Julius Caesar]. Garzanti Editore.


Dumitrašković, T. A. (2023). Rhetoric and Politics. The Power of Words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Philologist – Journal of Language, Literature, and Cultural Studies, 14(27), 102–116. https://doi.org/10.21618/fil2327102d


Ellero, M.P., & Residori, M. (2001). Breve Manuale di Retorica. Sansoni.


Greenblatt, S. (2018). Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. W. W. Norton & Company.


Greene, G. (1980) 'The Power of Speech/To Stir Men’s Blood': The Language of Tragedy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Renaissance Drama, Volume 11, 67-93. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1163&context=scripps_fac_pub


Leith, S. (2012). You talkin' to me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. Profile Books.


Visual Sources

Figure 1: An inside view of the reconstructed Globe Theater. (2000). [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://secretldn.com/the-globe-visitor-guide/


Figure 2: Maccari, C. (1889). Cicero denounces Catiline [Fresco]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cicero_Denounces_Catiline_in_the_Roman_Senate_by_Cesare_Maccari_-_3.jpg


Figure 3: A symbolic representation of persuasion. (n.d.). [Image]. Retrieved from: https://common-sense-marketing.com/persuasion-the-simple-equation-that-sky-rockets-response/


Figure 4: A connected leader. (n.d.). [Image]. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/the-looking-glass/5-characteristics-of-a-connected-leader-a4ff71ef92e


Figure 5: Camuccini, V. (1806). The Death of Julius Caesar [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_Julius_Caesar_(Camuccini)#/media/File:Vincenzo_Camuccini_-_La_morte_di_Cesare.jpg


Figure 6: Holmes, S. W. (n.d.). Oration [Oil Painting]. Retrieved from: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/julius-caesar-act-iii-scene-2-marc-antonys-oration-54989


Figure 7: Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in the film "Julius Caesar". (n.d.). [Photo]. Retrieved from: https://unacknowledgedlegislation.com/2016/04/24/marlon-brando-and-shakespeare-an-affair-cut-short/


Figure 8: The crowd listens in the film "Julius Caesar". (n.d.). [Photo]. Retrieved from: https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0045943/mediaviewer/rm608999424






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