Mark Antony’s speech: A masterpiece of oratory
The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare is recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists.
“Julius Caesar” (1599) is one of his major tragedies. It is the tragic story of political rivalries in ancient Rome.
Fearing Julius Caesar will become a popular tyrant, Brutus and Cassius plot to assassinate him. On the day agreed for the assassination Caesar is nearly persuaded to stay at home by his wife Calphurnia’s fateful dreams. He decides to go to the Senate, ignoring a soothsayer’s warning and a letter that names all the conspirators, and is stabbed. Brutus calms the citizens attending Caesar’s funeral and spares Mark Antony, Caesar’s trusted companion and allows him to speak to the people.
Mark Antony starts talking to a crowd that is already convinced of the rightfulness of Brutus’s cause. He addresses them by “You gentle Romans” to achieve what’s called “captatio benevolentiae”, that is gaining the auditorium’s sympathy. The term “Romans” has a good purpose: waking up the people’s national consciousness and subconsciently reminding them 29569ntk21ctn3y
To capture their attention, Mark Antony tells them to “lend me your ears”, a short phrase that show us that Mark Antony is a good orator who is not imperative, like Brutus. To calm the crowd, he tells them that he is not here to praise Caesar. He continues with an aphorism saying that after one dies people only remember the bad things about him and they forget all the good things he has done, a subtle allusion to Julius Caesar. He is ironic: he repeatedly calls Brutus “noble” and “honorable”. He says he doesn’t deny that Brutus is an honorable man and that Brutus blames Caesar for ambition and then he expresses doubt about all that with an “if”: “If it were so”. We notice that, a great orator, he never says directly what he has to say; he only insinuates things and makes the auditorium put the pieces together. He continues by saying that only under the permission of Brutus he came to speak; he displays modesty, but it’s a would-be modesty.
Mark Antony speaks about Caesar’s successes, about the good and clever leader he was. He reminds Caesar’s qualities and, knowing that the people are responsive to material interests, he tells them that Caesar would not take the crown, in order to inflame them against the conspirators. Then he uses a rhetorical question to cast doubt upon the blame put on Caesar: “was this ambition?”. Using the adversative conjunction “yet”, he is putting face to face the facts with Brutus’s affirmations. We notice the emphatic use of “do”, a rhetorical device, in “what I do know”, to clear any doubt about the rightfulness of his words; and another emphatic word, “did”, in “You all did love him”.
Antony makes a rhetorical invocation: “O judgement!”; he is now histrionic; he acts, forcing the approval of the people: “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,/ And I must pause till it come back to me.” His words have the desired effect on the people, who start doubting about their beliefs. Then Mark Antony informs the crowd that he has found Caesar’s will but he doesn’t mean to read it. He does that only to excite the people, who are now demanding to hear the will. Now he can afford to be ironic and play with people’s patience while completely ignoring the conspirators, unlike in the beginning, being now the master of the situation. He tells the crowd that they shouldn’t know how much Caesar loved them, because it would be too much for a man to hear. His words are now taken for granted by the crowd, who can only think about hearing the will: “We’ll hear it”, ”You shall read us the will.”. In these phrases, the modal verbs ”will” and “shall” have imperative meanings: “We want to hear it”, “You must read the will”. Despite all that, Mark Antony is calm; he has achieved his goal: he controls the crowd and is waiting for the proper moment to unleash the people’s anger upon the conspirators. He continues to be polite to the people even if they are not polite to him. His subtle initial irony now changes into sarcasm: “I do fear it” and he accuses the conspirators of Caesar’s murder. The people’s patience starts reaching it’s uppermost limits: everybody is revolted against the conspirators and everybody wants to hear Caesar’s will.
Hearing that Caesar has left his fortune to the Roman people, the crowd dashes off to punish his murderers. tt569n9221cttn
All this being said, we can conclude that Mark Antony’s speech is a masterpiece of oratory, not only for the impressive amount of rhetorical devices used but also for the way the speaker weighs his words and manages to take complete control over the auditorium, gradually increasing the tension and the anxiety of the crowd.