William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: it is a classic play of many characters and their power plays for honor and status. There is Julius Caesar, who is revered by many and scorned by few, and Brutus, the moral compass of Rome. Then, there is Antony. At first a seemingly unassuming character, Antony proves to be a master of persuasion comparable to the likes of Caesar and Brutus. Antony’s famous speech eulogizing Caesar is heavily imbued with rhetorical devices and oratory effects that bring his audience, and ultimately, Rome, to its knees.
One of the main reasons Antony is so effective in winning over his audience is in his approach. Much of the devices and effects Antony employs are for the purpose of building a connection between himself and his audience. Antony first begins by presenting himself as a friend: “Friends, Romans, countrymen / … / Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral. / He was my friend, faithful, and just to me” (III.ii.75,86-87). He then gains the empathy of the crowd when he loses composure and pauses in his speech.
“Bear with me,” implores Antony, “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me” (III.ii.107-109). This use of aposiopesis, be it feigned or genuine, elicits responses from the audience like, “There’s not a nobler man in Rome than Antony” (III.ii.118). Antony also makes statements to appeal to the emotions of the audience. “We’ll hear him, we’ll follow him, we’ll die with him,” yells the crowd in response to Antony’s riling descriptions of Brutus’s death (III.ii.210-211). By the time he suggests mutiny, it is apparent that Antony has won the hearts and trust of the citizens.
This trust Antony establishes is mutual; while he gains the trust of his audience, Antony also trusts them to pick up on the nuances of his sarcasm and irony. A point he repeats five times in his speech is that “Brutus is an honorable man” (III.ii.84). As he repeats this line throughout his speech, however, it becomes clear that Brutus’s accusations greatly contrast from the selfless, generous Caesar Antony portrays: “When the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: / Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: / Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honorable man” (III.ii.93-96). This repeated sarcastic remark reduces Brutus’s “honorable” words to the utterances of a traitor, and soon Antony finds himself with a zealous audience willing to do his every bidding.
However, even with the trust and devotion of the citizens, Antony remains cautious in presenting his case:
O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honorable men:
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honorable men. (III.ii.123-129)
With this statement, Antony effectively kills two birds with one stone: he first implies that Brutus and Cassius have done Caesar, the citizens, and himself wrong, and in suggesting this, he stirs the audience to stand up for themselves and rise in mutiny. Antony is a master of this subtle use of reverse psychology and uses it profusely to his advantage. With the intention of using Caesar’s will as another key to the audience’s heart, Antony induces the citizens of Rome to implore him to read the will by deliberately denying them of it:
Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it;
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad.
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For if you should, O, what would come of it? (III.ii.142-148)
Throughout his speech, Antony does not lose his sense for the importance of such subtleties, and in keeping his own feet grounded he keeps his audience hooked.
As one of the younger, bolder characters in this drama, Antony is initially portrayed as an overenthusiastic, brash young man. Instead what is revealed in his subtly nuanced speech is the sophistication of a master of persuasion. He skillfully gains the trust of the citizens, appeals to their emotions, and gets his point across while making it seem as though it was their own notion all along. With his crafty use of rhetoric devices and oratory effects, Antony becomes the master puppeteer within the play, controlling every seemingly conscious act of his audience through invisible strings.
Shakespeare, William. “Julius Caesar.” Elements of Literature – Fourth Course. Ed. Goldberg, Phyllis, and Ralph Penner. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1997. 775-877.