15 March 2011

The Ides of March are come...

You can't get around the Shakespeare-oriented Internet today without discovering that it's the Ides of March. The #idesofmarch tag on Twitter is pretty interesting -- varying degrees of clever jokes, historical facts, and complete nonsense, with a lot of people saying RIP Caesar and even more saying "Watch out!" or that they hope nothing bad happens today. The Ides of March has become, through a slightly weird cultural association, a bad-luck day, inauspicious, much like Friday the 13th. I wonder what Caesar would make of it to know that, two thousand and fifty-five years later, his death remains so prominently remembered. I also wonder how much Shakespeare has to do with that -- Would Caesar's legacy remain so prominent if not for Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of his death? Would Plutarch and Suetonius be enough to prick the memories of western civilization? I don't think we can ever know -- You can't prove a negative, after all. But I was a classicist in a former scholastic life, so I've read my Roman historians like any good Elizabethan schoolboy would have done, so I can say this much for certain -- Shakespeare certainly told the story in more dramatic and exciting way.

Given the day, I thought it might be a nice opportunity for a mini-lesson on rhetoric. I use Mark Antony's eulogy for Caesar (or, at least, the first chunk of it) as my standard example for rhetorical exercises, because it's just so beautifully constructed. It's genius for the character within the world of the play, and it's genius for what it tells an actor playing the part. I had the great fortune last week to test out my rhetoric workshop (still very much a work-in-progress) with groups of visiting students from Colorado College and the University of South Dakota. As giddy as I get playing with rhetoric on my own, it's so much more exciting to bounce ideas off of other people, lead them through what I know, and then see what they find that I didn't notice.

So. Mark Antony, grief-stricken but already plotting revenge, convinces Brutus and Cassius to let him speak at Caesar's funeral. Brutus goes first, giving a prose speech where he explains that he killed the tyrant though he loved the man. When Antony steps up, he's initially fighting a losing battle. He addresses it thus:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
I wish I had a way to put my rhetorical markup in the blog, but I don't think the system will support it, so I'll have to talk you through instead.

The dominant devices in use are those of repetition and those arranging contrast. He repeats key words throughout the speech, reminding the audience both that “Brutus said he was ambitious” and that “Brutus is an honorable man.” What I like is the build; he starts out just repeating words (polyptoton on "grievous"), then he moves into phrases, then, by the end, it's full lines (diacope and epistrophe). There's a sort of confidence-building you can see in the way Antony structures his repetitions. But why repeat those words specifically? Well, the very repetition of those ideas forces his audience to call the truth of them into question. Each time he says Brutus is honorable, he's making the plebs wonder if that is, in fact, the case. That he mates the repetition with carefully seeded rhetorical questions (erotema) amplifies this effect. The focus on honor is also Antony’s way of avoiding blame; no one can accuse him of inciting the people against Brutus if he keeps telling them that Brutus is honorable. What one of the students in our workshop pointed out last week is that the repetition could also be a way of re-hooking the audience if he senses that he's starting to lose them, to pull them back in. In this way, the rhetoric gives acting clues not just for Antony, but for the plebs as well.

Antony’s devices of direction are sometimes of building force (auxesis), but more often of arranging contrast (antithesis). His either-ors contrast Caesar’s generosity with his supposed ambition. He wants his audience to draw distinctions between what they knew about Caesar and what Brutus said about Caesar, between Caesar's actions towards the people and Brutus's claims of ravenous ambition, and then to decide for themselves that Brutus was wrong to kill him. Whereas Brutus had to justify his actions, Antony doesn't have to justify anything. He simply lays out facts about what Caesar did, what ambition should look like, and what Brutus said, and lets the plebs drawn their own conclusions. This contrast works hand-in-hand with the repetitions, as noted above. By circling around to the same ideas over and over again, he reels the audience in, taking them by degrees away from their allegiance to Brutus.

So, what does this tell us about Antony as a character? What clues does it give an actor? As one of the students in last week's workshop said, he's smart. Smart as a whip, in fact. The devices he uses are clever, and all the more so because he's using them while under emotional duress, grieving for a friend, and with every awareness that the mob could turn violently against him. But Antony keeps it together. He presents his ideas clearly, and the constant repetitions seem to indicate that he knew from the start of the speech where he wanted it to go. He knows how to bring his audience along with him; the rhetorical questions, the contrast drawn by his antithetical statements, and his use of repetition lead the plebs to his way of thinking without his having to tell them directly what to think. They get there themselves, and that's so much more effective for Antony's purposes. His thoughts have a distinct and recognizable pattern.

Until the very end of the speech, he seems very much in control of his words, but then he breaks off, overwhelmed by emotion -- a device known as aposiopesis. The end of the speech presents choices for an actor: Is Antony truly overwhelmed with passion, forcing him to break off his speech, or is he playing the emotion up to win the pity of his audience? Considering how methodical Antony has been up to this point, I would say that the emotional outburst is a calculation, another way Antony is manipulating the crowd. But an actor could definitely choose to play it differently, to show Antony as more emotional, and to connect his real heartbreak to his desire for revenge that much more strongly. One of the greatest things about rhetorical analysis is that it so often isn't about finding the "right" answer -- it's about discovering options.

There's so much I could say about this speech and this play -- I didn't even touch on Antony's use of metonymy, and of course his address to the plebs goes on for another 130 lines or so, with plenty more rhetoric to pull apart. But all of that will have to wait -- fortunately, I get to write a Study Guide for Julius Caesar, and we're holding a special Teacher Seminar for it in August, so I'll have plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to keep engaging with these fascinating words.


  1. Does the fact you're doing a teacher seminar and study guide imply that we'll be seeing Julius Caesar soon on the Blackfriars stage?

  2. Would that it were so, Alexi! It's not slated for this upcoming artistic year, but I'm hoping we'll get it on the calendar soon. We're doing a study guide this year because it's the standard 10th grade Shakespeare in most Virginia textbooks, so we get a lot of teachers asking for help with it. We decided to go ahead and add it to the education docket even without a production scheduled.

  3. I wish we'd done Julius Caesar when I was in tenth grade! Though I doubt we would have gotten into the fun stuff as much as you do in this post. I love this analysis— it's always exciting to start seeing acting choices emerging from a block of text!