Political Rhetoric in Julius Caesar

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears

Anthony first establishes common ground. Even though, class-wise, he ranks far above his plebian audience, he emphasizes their similarities—rich or poor, noble or not, we’re all Romans—and downplays his own status.

The ordering of “Friends, Romans, countrymen” is not arbitrary, either—if he had opened the address with “Romans or countrymen,” it would have sounded more like a pre-battle pep-talk. By opening with “friends,” however, he establishes a close connection with the audience before going on to cite their broader relationship as “Romans,” and finally “countrymen.”

Lastly, Anthony further humbles himself by imploring the audience to listen instead of telling them. All of this contrasts with the more regal and authoritative speech Brutus gave earlier, too, which makes Anthony come across as a man of the people—or whatever the Roman equivalent of Joe Six-pack is.

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.

Having established common ground by noting their shared heritage, Anthony now assures the audience that he’s of the same mind—that is, against Caesar and for the conspirators—but he raises some doubt with the observation that the bad lives on while the good is ignored.

... The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it...

Anthony starts to move in for the kill, first patronizing Brutus, casting further doubt over Caesar’s guilt, and ending on the brutality of Caesar’s assassination. All the while Anthony never directly acknowledges Brutus’s part in the assassination; instead, he subtly alludes to it and answers the charge of Caesar’s ambition by emphasizing the punishment.

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 ...

And here we see the first mention of the speech’s most famous phrase: For Brutus is an honourable man. Already it sounds patronizing, and Anthony repeats it after answering charge after charge after charge of Caesar’s “ambition” to question not just Brutus’s intentions, but the intentions of all the conspirators. This is the catchphrase of Anthony’s speech, and every time he uses it, it reinforces the goodness of Caesar and questions the motives of the conspirators.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man…

Anthony now begins to answer the charges of Caesar’s ambition with counter examples. This first one—that Caesar was a just and faithful friend—is not very convincing, as Caesar could be both a good friend as well as ambitious, but Anthony’s just getting started, so he builds up Caesar’s character first and moves on to better examples later.

He also adds, “But Brutus says he was ambitious” to the catchphrase. Why not just say, “See? Caesar wasn’t ambitious—he was a good friend”? Because Anthony’s speech isn’t meant to exonerate Caesar so much as put himself in power. The way he does that is by exonerating Caesar and undermining the public image of Brutus. But since Brutus told Anthony that he can’t directly blame the conspirators in his funeral speech, he gets around it by reiterating the public perception of Brutus’s good character, for which he offers no proof, and contrasting it with Caesar’s, for which he offers concrete examples.

And here again, Brutus is not just Brutus but also a representation of all the conspirators. It’s an effective symbol because it allows the audience to direct their anger at the whole group on one man—who just so happens to be Anthony’s political rival, too.

He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

Anthony moves on from Caesar as a personal friend to Caesar as a Roman, and this example is carefully chosen. To most folks, Caesar was first and foremost a warrior, and Anthony could just as easily cite one of Caesar’s victories on the battlefield, but he chooses not to associate Caesar with violence here and instead focuses on the spoils of Caesar’s victories. Not only does this omission reinforce Caesar as a good and moral human being, it also adds emphasis to the only act of violence mentioned in the speech—Caesar’s death.

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.

And here Anthony combines the two—Caesar as a good friend and Caesar as a good Roman—to portray Caesar as, well, a good friend to all Romans, even—especially—to the unwashed and downtrodden. Anthony also introduces a new layer of sarcasm by mocking this quality before delivering the catchphrase.

Notice too that Anthony’s description of Caesar—first as a friend, then as a Roman, then a countryman—matches the speech’s salutation. Just as Anthony is a friend to all Romans, all countrymen, so too was Caesar.

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.

Finally, Anthony cites irrefutable proof before laying the catchphrase to rest. Now that that’s out of the way, here come the waterworks.

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?

This last part of the speech is a tour-de-force of emotion as Anthony appeals to his audience. He doesn’t ask them to mourn for Caesar; he asks them why they don’t mourn. This is the funerary equivalent of asking someone, “Do you still beat your wife?” It presupposes the audience’s sorrow over the death of Caesar, and before they can raise their eyebrows, Anthony falls into emotional frenzy and chastises them:

O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason…

Appeal to abstraction cuts off any rebuttle and answers the previous question with an implication of Brutus/brutish beasts before Anthony's so beaten down by grief he can say no more:

Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

The rhetorical device used here is Aposiopesis—the speech comes to an abrupt halt as the speaker is overcome by emotion. Like when someone says, “Why I oughta—” or this scene from the Aeneid where Neptune chews out the wind gods:

Audacious winds! from whence
This bold attempt, this rebel insolence?
Is it for you to ravage seas and land,
Unauthoriz'd by my supreme command?
To raise such mountains on the troubled main?
Whom I- but first 't is fit the billows to restrain;
And then you shall be taught obedience to my reign.

Wikiepedia offers a good, contemporary example from Star Wars:

Another modern example occurs in Star Wars: A New Hope in which Darth Vader says of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “I sense something; a presence I have not felt since—”, referencing the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

But Anthony does them all one better: Instead of actually being at a loss for words, he announces his need for pause—calling even more attention to the "anguish" he suffers from Caesar’s death.