Political Rhetoric and the Masses
Brutus’s tour de force of interwoven rhetorical devices in Julius Caesar (3.2.14) sways the crowd away from their anger at the assassins to cheering them. This speech, however, is outdone by Mark Antony’s masterpiece of manipulation (3.2.82), which whiplashes the crowd back to outrage and riot. But, in fact, Brutus had failed in his speech even before Mark Antony opened his mouth. Brutus’s justification for killing Caesar was the preservation of the Republic. The point was to prevent Caesar from being crowned a king and dictator. Yet, at the end of his speech, the plebeians are cheering to crown Brutus in Caesar’s place:
Let him be Caesar.
Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crowned in Brutus.
In the entire passage, those are the only lines written in verse, suggesting perhaps that Shakespeare wanted to drive home that point. Then the line that follows, “We’ll bring him to his house with shouts and clamors,” echoes the opening scene of the play in which the people, the republic, are called “you blocks and stones, you worse than senseless things.” “Shouts and clamors” are hardly the articulate and thoughtful speech of an informed citizenry.
Brutus’s and Antony’s skills at swaying the masses and respecting or at least feigning to respect them stand in stark contrast to Coriolanus’s distain at having to endear himself to plebeians. In addition to calling them a “common cry of curs,” he later tells the plebeians exactly what he thinks of them:
He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble, that was now your hate;
Him vild, that was your garland.
That sums up precisely what happened in the exchange of speeches between Brutus and Mark Antony.
Mark Antony begins his oration, like Brutus, with classical rhetorical reasoning. But unlike Brutus, Antony injects a bit of emotion with, “He was my friend, faithful and just to me.” A short bit later he escalates the emotion with, “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.” And not too long after that, he is in full-throated passion with:
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…
Finally, Antony becomes the consummate craven populist politician by promising the citizens that they would inherit substantial portions of Caesar’s wealth. The appeal to their self-interest and greed transformed the populace into the “dogs of war” Antony had earlier promised. Brutus was a compelling orator who could reason with and persuade the people, but Antony, like all great politicians, possessed the power “to stir [their] hearts and minds to mutiny and rage.”
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