Perhaps the most popular and influential play of William Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies is “Julius Caesar”. I have read this play before and viewed performances of this play and each time that I have I seemed to view Brutus and Cassius as the villains, Julius Caesar as the fallen martyr, and Mark Antony the vengeful hero who sets out to right the wrongs committed by the seemingly envious Senators. For me the “tragedy” was the murder of Caesar; not the death of Brutus and Cassius. However, something occurred to me when reading the play this time that had never occurred to me before. For the Romans, their pride was not in Julius Caesar the conquering emperor. On the contrary, their pride was based on the idea that the rule of Rome was not to be monopolized by a single person, but that government was to be res publica; it belonged to the people. This idea was in stark contrast to Caesar, who to the Senators was representative of concentrated authority resting in the power of one person. In reality, Caesar was the enemy of Rome and its democratic ideas and history shows that he affectively ended the Roman Republic and replaced it with the Roman Empire.
I do not feel that I am unique in my prior interpretation, at least among the general population. Many would say that Caesar was a fallen hero and the “conspirators” are the scoundrels of this play. Perhaps the overwhelming popularity of this play had a hand in not only swaying my opinion about Caesar as well as the opinion of many others. I began to think about why one might draw a similar conclusion to my own and I immediately thought about one particular moment in the play; the speech of Mark Antony. It seems to me now that not only did Shakespeare’s Mark Antony sway the opinions of the Roman public in the play, but perhaps Antony swayed my opinion and the opinion of many others with this masterful discourse. After all, my first experience of this play was for a high school English class and consisted of nothing more than the memorization and recitation of this speech; apart from the entire rest of the play.
After reading this play and watching it several more times, my opinion remained the same. However, this is not the only speech that is made. Antony follows Brutus who had just seemingly convinced the crowd that he was justified in what he and the others had done. All other factors aside, why would Mark Antony’s speech be so much more effective at swaying the public, and the reader? After examining the scene more closely it would seem that several factors could play a role in shaping the opinion of the reader. Between the speeches given by both Brutus and Antony there are differences in strategy in regards to timing, appeals, and method of delivery.
First, one will notice the timing of the speeches in regards to order. In Act 3 scene 1, when Antony request that he may be able to speak at the funeral; (3.1.230) Brutus grants the requests, against the opinion of Cassius, on the condition that he be allowed to speak first. (3.1.238) This does allow him to present his reasoning for the their actions first; and by proclaiming that Antony will later speak by their permission, he portrays the sense that they are of one accord. However, by Antony going second, he gets to have the last word. It seems that the audience has forgotten everything Brutus has said by the time Antony is finished.
Second, while Brutus eloquently appeals to logic and the status quo, Antony seems to appeal to the emotions of the people. In appealing to logic, Brutus attempts to sway them with a question, “Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?” (3.2.21) Again, he appeals to logic and the common thought of the people when he says, “I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus.” (3.2.34) Brutus does address emotion in his speech whenever he asks if he has offended anyone, but his use of emotion is the suppressing of it. He forms his questions in a way that for one to admit that one is offended, the individual would also have to admit to being base, rude, and vile. (3.2.26) Antony on the other hand, appeals directly to the emotions of the people. He appears to sympathize, with the conspirators, and those that are now enraged by Caesars’ “ambition.” Right away one may also notice that while Brutus appeals to them first as Romans, (3.2.13) Antony appeals to them primarily as friends. Antony speaks of Caesar faithfulness and friendship, (3.2.82) the tears that Caesar wept for the people, (3.2.88) and Caesar’s humbleness. (3.2.93)
Finally, when comparing the two speeches, it would seem that there is a difference in the method that Brutus and Antony chose to deliver their messages. Brutus seemed to speak down to the people from a place of authority. He was almost demanding with his reasoning and insulting to anyone that might not agree with his justifications. He told them to accept what he said on basis of his honor and out of respect for his honor. (3.2.14) He attempted to portray Caesar as an ambitious tyrant and mocked those that would disagree. He submitted to the people that to think otherwise one would not be a Roman. (3.2.29) Antony on the other hand does not force any conclusion on the people he presents them with a series of questions and then pauses; seemingly overcome with grief. It is the people that draw their own conclusions saying “there is much reason in his sayings.” (3.2.105)
Looking back on the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral, I am reminded of one Aesop’s’ fables. In The North Wind and the Sun, one learns that persuasion is better than force. While the north wind blows with all its might to strip the man of his coat, the sun merely shines its rays and the man takes off his own coat. So it is with Brutus and Antony. While Brutus tries to force a conclusion on the people by way of reason, Antony merely poses some questions that persuade the people into what is seemingly their own conclusion. Perhaps this is what Shakespeare intended with these two speeches. However for some, including myself, rather than seeing the power of persuasion put on display in this scene, we were ourselves persuaded by the rhetoric of Mark Antony. We soon forget what Rome had long stood for and welcome the idea of a tyrannical dictator as a hero and leader of the people. Perhaps we welcome Caesar today as well.
Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar." Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 257-322.