Julius Caesar

by: William Shakespeare


Public speaking was one of the chief values of the Roman Republic, and Julius Caesar presents many examples of noble characters who deliver persuasive arguments in elevated language using classical techniques of rhetoric. Rhetoric is a term that refers to both the substance of a speaker’s argument—the appeals to reason, emotion, or values that the speaker makes to support a point—but also to the style and arrangement of words for maximum effect. For example, in the first scene, the tribune Murellus scolds the commoners for celebrating Caesar’s defeat of Pompey. He shames them by reminding them of their previous love for Pompey and the many times they celebrated his victories, culminating in a series of rhetorical questions that is forceful because of its repeated syntax:

And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? (I.i.)

The elegant arrangement of the words combined with the clear emotional appeal (look at how ungrateful you’re all being) and the vivid imagery of Pompey’s blood makes a powerful impact.

Julius Caesar is made up of many speeches like this, in which characters present an argument justifying their actions or decisions or to persuade someone else to act a certain way. Each of the major characters—Brutus, Caesar, Cassius, Portia, Mark Antony—delivers a number of such speeches, and each has his or her own own distinct style of using rhetoric.

The central action of the play is the assassination of Caesar, and Brutus is the character who has to make a public speech attempting to justify it. In Act II, Scene i, we see him deliberating with himself about the possible rationales for killing Caesar, not so much delivering a speech as working out how he would justify the killing, testing and discarding possible arguments. His arguments here notably lack the things that make other speeches in the play persuasive, such as emotional appeals, appeals to shared values, or vivid imagery. He admits that he has no personal reason to hate Caesar and can’t point to anything Caesar has actually done as justifications. His reasons are very abstract and sound like philosophical propositions or sayings from books: “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power ...’tis a common proof / That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder … think him as a serpent’s egg, / Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous. (II.i.)” Since Brutus sees himself as rational and not governed by emotion or self-interest, he might see this abstract quality as a good thing, but because his arguments are so far removed from how actual people think and feel, they lack persuasiveness. The murder itself is going to be horrible, and to say “we killed him because of what he might do in the future” is not going to hold up to scrutiny.

The finished product, the speech Brutus actually gives to the public after the killing, is more polished and clear than the earlier version, and it does display a command of style, most obviously in the repetition of syntax and sentence structure to create a rhythm: “Hear me … Believe me … Censure me,” or “As Caesar loved me … As he was fortunate … As he was valiant…” The speech’s main feature is that it is very brief and to the point. Brutus strives to show that he is just and balanced, neither exaggerating Caesar’s faults or minimizing his virtues. He seems to condense his reasons into as few words as possible for maximum impact: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. (III. ii.)” He doesn’t ornament the speech with imagery. He speaks in prose rather than in verse (he speaks in verse most of the time.) The resulting speech is reasonable but not especially compelling. In fact, because it’s so didactic it actually underlines how disconnected it is from normal human feelings or values. We don’t usually hear people talk about how they love and honor their friends for certain qualities and at the same time kill them for others.

Antony’s speech over Caesar’s corpse is a far more masterful display of rhetoric than Brutus’s. We know while watching this speech that his motivations are bad, since he has explained to the audience in Act III, Scene i that he wants revenge for Caesar’s death and that the outcome he hopes for is “war and destruction.” Thus we may view his speech as primarily manipulative and insincere, since he says so many things he obviously doesn’t mean, such as that he’s not going to read the plebeians the will when he obviously wants them to demand he read it. But in fact Antony’s speech as a whole shows how effective irony can be as a rhetorical device. He juxtaposes concrete, simple statements about Caesar that his audience can relate to or that they know to be true, such as that Caesar was his friend, that his audience once loved Caesar, that Caesar made many conquests for Rome, that he refused a crown, etc., with statements that he clearly wants his audience to disagree with, such as that the good Caesar did should be “buried” or forgotten, that Caesar was ambitious, and that Brutus and the other conspirators are honorable men. The effect of irony on the listeners is so powerful because it creates the impression that they are seeing a “truth” for themselves that contradicts what the speaker is saying. The speech would still be effective even if Antony and his audience are both “in on” the fact that he’s being deliberately insincere. Whether we see him as sly and manipulative or bitingly sarcastic, and whether we see the plebeians as dimwitted dupes or sharper and more aware, could vary depending on how this scene is performed.

Prose and Verse

Most of Julius Caesar is in verse. The very first scene is mixed, in which the commoners speak prose and the Tribunes lecture them in verse. Since the commoners are portrayed as clownish, making silly jokes and not particularly caring why they are having a holiday, and since the tribunes are eloquent (and no one argues back against them), the effect of the prose/verse juxtaposition seems to be to justify the social hierarchy. The noble characters who have mastered language and can speak eloquently seem more qualified to tell others what to do. However, since Flavius and Murellus are actually resisting Caesar and Caesar is in power, the scene might suggest that Caesar’s ascension to the status of dictator has depended in some sense on his popularity with the commoners rather than on the better sense of the Roman nobility, suggesting that things are not in good order in the politics of Rome.

Casca presents a notable exception to the rule that noble characters speak in verse. In Act I, Scene ii, Brutus plucks Casca by the cloak to get him to remain on stage and tell him what happened when Caesar was offered the crown, and the two of them speak prose until Casca exits. In this case, the shift to prose seems to mark the transition from the public to the private and confidential, in which Casca will give a semi-secret and unvarnished account of the scene, as if to say “this is what really happened” as opposed to a version that’s meant for public consumption. However, when Casca leaves, Brutus and Cassius not only revert to verse, but Brutus remarks how “blunt” or stupid Casca is, which Cassius argues is not actually the case. Another impression we might form of Casca (who does speak verse later in the same act) is that he has affected a false persona that is gruff and somewhat stupid, in order to protect himself from being perceived as a threat to Caesar, as Cassius is.

Another important use of prose by a noble character is Brutus’s speech to the commoners in Act III, Scene ii. (The fact that Brutus’s speech is in prose makes it contrast more with Antony’s, which is in verse.) Brutus’s choice to use prose here seems to reflect a wish to be plainspoken and accessible. He wants his motives to be clearly intelligible, and his speech is therefore easy to follow and devoid of stylistic distractions. As always, Brutus tries to appeal strictly to his audience’s reason. Antony, on the other hand, appeals to their emotion, and therefore speaks in verse, using metaphor to stir outrage in his listeners, comparing Caesar’s wounds to “dumb mouths.” Antony subtly critiques Brutus’s dispassionate, unpoetic way of speaking when he tells the crowd “you are not wood, you are not stones, but men.” Antony is implying that being human, the crowd cannot helped but feel emotion, and therefore he speaks in an appropriately passionate register about Caesar’s death.

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