In the aftermath of the assassination of the titular Julius Caesar, there are back-to-back funeral speeches by Brutus and Antony. Over the next few entries, we’ll take a look at them both.
First up, Brutus.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honor for his valor, and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak, for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
Then none have I offended. I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol, his glory not extenuated wherein he was worthy, nor his offenses enforced for which he suffered death.
- III.ii.12-33, 35-9
First things, first. The first section of the oration is the single longest speech of prose in the play; in fact, the speech comprises more than 10% of all prose in the play. There are an additional seven lines of prose that follow the above excerpt, but there is little argument or rhetoric in those lines; they simply set up Antony’s appearance and speech to come. Compare this to Antony’s speech: Brutus’ short and succinct 27 lines of prose versus Antony’s 133 lines of verse (divided into ten interconnected speeches over 173 lines, broken up by interjections from the crowd).
At its most basic, what we’re talking about here is: Prose vs. Verse.
Way back “in the day,” we discussed the use of prose and verse, and we talked about the possible rationales for using one over the other:
- The ol’ “verse = nobility :: prose = common man” clichéd trope.
- Verse, by its very nature as heightened language, conveys both deep emotional content and complex rhetorical flourishes.
- Prose is perfect for conveying the mundane and banal… concepts neither earth-shatteringly important nor deeply philosophical.
Given Brutus’ almost universal use of verse elsewhere in the play, he looks to be employing the “verse = nobility :: prose = common man” analogy. His opening certainly does nothing to make a connection between himself and his audience: “Romans, countrymen, and lovers.” Romans, the city dwellers, possibly the aristocracy comes first. Followed by “countrymen,” those who are more rural in either locale or appearance. Only last does Brutus mention any sort of bond between him and his audience: “lovers,” which in Shakespeare’s day meant “friends” (“lover, n.2.1.a” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 December 2014).
In the remainder of his speech, he certainly doesn’t use many rhetorical flourishes. Mainly, they come in the form of cyclical syntax, oppositional diction, and repetition.
The first sentence (after the above-mentioned greeting) begins and ends with the word “hear.” The next sentence follows the same convention, with an even more palindromic structure: believe-honor-respect-honor-believe. Even the third sentence follows the pattern with censure-judge; though here he begins to use oppositional concepts (wisdom vs. senses [physical perception as opposed to intellectual wisdom]).
The oppositional diction comes to the forefront at this point. Brutus uses the parallel structure of opposing verbs and modifiers: “loved Caesar less”/”loved Rome more” and “living, and die all slaves”/”dead, to live all free men.” It’s not a complex structure. He keeps the sentences short and the parallels very simple. This reinforces the nobility vs. common man tactic, and might–if you are so inclined–reveal a disdain for his commoner audience.
Then Brutus hammers his point home with repetition. First, he employs a “as he was [fill in the adjective], I [fill in the verb]” repeated structure, summarizing it with a repetitious “[result of the verb] for his [adjective]” conclusion. All of this sets up the only real risk of Brutus’ speech: the call for a response. Three times, Brutus asks a question of his audience:
- Who is here so base that would be a bondman? societal: who would be so “not noble” (“base, adj.II.6.b” OED.) as to want to be a slave?
- Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? intellectual: who would be so “slow-witted” (“rude, adj.II.6.b” OED.) as to not be a Roman (the height of scholarship at that point in the world)?
- Who is here so vile that will not love his country? moral: who would be so “despicable” or “depraved” (“vile, adj.A.1.a” OED.) as to no love his country?
After each question, he says that if any of his audiences falls into the category he’s just described, then he’s offended them. This is the closest Brutus comes to complex rhetoric in his entire speech. Only it’s insulting. He sets up each situation as negative, then says he’ll pause for a reply. Who would call himself ignoble, slow-witted or despicable?
“None, Brutus, none” (III.ii.34).
It’s a leap of logic to go from not being offended to being compliant to assassination, but Brutus’ speech beckons to the mob and they make the jump. Contemptuous? Maybe. Cynical? Probably. Calculated? Most definitely.
From there, it’s just a matter of wrapping things up in a nice tight bow, with the reasons of Caesar’s death in the archives of the Capitol, seemingly objectively presented (with Caesar’s “glory” not understated nor his wrongs overstated). He claims that he has done no more to Caesar as the masses will do to Brutus (be careful what you wish for!), and then (in another case of ‘whoops, forget you heard that’) says that he has the “same dagger” for himself when Rome needs it.
Interestingly, before Brutus leaves, in his last speech to the commoners, he reverts to verse when imploring them to stay and listen to Antony. It’s almost as if, having succeeded in turning the crowd to his side, Brutus abandons his need for “common-speak” and, in letting down his guard, makes the miscalculation that will lead to his and Cassius’ downfall.