Julius Caesar

by: William Shakespeare

Act III, scenes ii–iii

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Summary: Act III, scene iii

Cinna the poet, a different man from Cinna the conspirator, walks through the city. A crowd of plebeians descends, asking his name. He answers that his name is Cinna, and the plebeians confuse him with the conspirator Cinna. Despite Cinna’s insistence that they have the wrong man, the plebeians drag him off and beat him to death.

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Analysis: Act III, scenes ii–iii

Act III, scene ii evidences the power of rhetoric and oratory: first Brutus speaks and then Antony, each with the aim of persuading the crowd to his side. We observe each speaker’s effect on the crowd and see the power that words can have—how they can stir emotion, alter opinion, and induce action. Brutus speaks to the people in prose rather than in verse, presumably trying to make his speech seem plain and to keep himself on the level of the plebeians. He quickly convinces the people that Caesar had to die because he would have become a tyrant and brought suffering to them all. He desires to convey that this message comes from the mouth of a concerned Roman citizen, not from the mouth of a greedy usurper.

Antony’s speech is a rhetorical tour de force. He speaks in verse and repeats again and again that Brutus and the conspirators are honorable men; the phrase “Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man” accrues new levels of sarcasm at each repetition (III.ii.8384). Antony answers Brutus’s allegation that Caesar was “ambitious” by reminding the crowd of the wealth that Caesar brought to Rome, Caesar’s sympathy for the poor, and his refusal to take the throne when offered it—details seeming to disprove any charges of ambition. Pausing to weep openly before the plebeians, he makes them feel pity for him and for his case.

Antony’s refined oratorical skill enables him to manipulate the crowd into begging him to read Caesar’s will. By means of praeteritio, a rhetorical device implemented by a speaker to mention a certain thing while claiming not to mention it, Antony alerts the plebeians to the fact that Caesar cared greatly for them: “It is not meet [fitting] you know how Caesar loved you . . . ’Tis good you know not that you are his heirs” (III.ii.138142). Under the pretense of sympathetically wanting to keep the plebeians from becoming outraged, Antony hints to them that they should become outraged. He thus gains their favor.

Further demonstrating his charisma, Antony descends from the pulpit—a more effective way of becoming one with the people than Brutus’s strategy of speaking in prose. In placing himself physically among the crowd, Antony joins the commoners without sacrificing his rhetorical influence over them. First he speaks of Caesar’s wounds and his horrible death; he shows the body, evoking fully the pity and anger of the crowd. He claims, with false modesty, that he is not a great orator, like Brutus, and that he doesn’t intend to incite revolt. Yet in this very sentence he effects the exact opposite of what his words say: he proves himself a deft orator indeed, and although he speaks against mutiny, he knows that at this point the mere mention of the word will spur action.

Having prepared the kindling with his speech, Antony lights the fire of the people’s fury with his presentation of Caesar’s will. Caesar had intended to share his wealth with the people of Rome and had planned to surrender his parks for their benefit. Antony predicts and utilizes the people’s sense of injustice at being stripped of so generous a ruler. The people completely forget their former sympathy for Brutus and rise up against the conspirators, leaving Antony to marvel at the force of what he has done.