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Comparing Brutus's and Mark Antony's rhetoric in Julius Caesar

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Jun 30, 2009, 12:45pm   #
One Major concern of Julius Caesaris about rhetoric-the skill of persuading others with words. In Act III, Shakespeare pits Mark Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech (III, II) against Brutus' "Romans, Countrymen, and Lovers" earlier in the scene. Read both carefully. Most find Antony's speech more effective rhetoric (surely the crowd did!). Why is that? Does Shakespeare agree? Or disagree? Be able to argue from care attention to the text, not just your general impressions.

You might consider what makes for effective persuasion, and what Shakespeare might be saying about persuasion through presenting these two speeches. Break down as carefully as you can howeach speech works, whateach speaker is trying to achieve, and how successful each was.

Compose an essay dealing with these question. SEt out a thesis (that is your position) and defend your thesis with evidence from the text and your reasons and analysis. Please limit your answer to 2-3 pages (500-750 words, double spaced).

Here is my essay. I would appreciate advice, criticism and any typos that slipped through my proof read.

Julius Caesar is a play deeply concerned with the idea of rhetoric, or persuasion. The play is driven by persuasion. Cassius convinces Brutus that Caesar must die, setting the story in motion. The resolution of the plot is decided by Antony's speech to the plebeians. Shakespeare sees rhetoric as one of the most powerful forces in the world; able to topple kings and crown them. The play, Julius Caesar, examines what gives rhetoric its power by pitting Brutus's speech against Mark Antony's. Shakespeare shows Antony's rhetoric to be superior by the effect he has on the plebeians.

Brutus's speech fails to convince permanently win over the crowd because he does not understand them. His first failure is at the beginning of his speech when he asks the plebeians to, "Censure me in you wisdom, and awake your senses". It seems as though he does not realize that he is speaking to an angry mob. His argument is based on cold and calculating reason. He argues that the love of freedom is stronger than the ties of friendship. "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more". This logic cannot sink deeply into an emotional mob. He asks the plebeians to "Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor that you may believe". He cannot use his honor as a reason for belief in his story when his honor is in question. Brutus fails to offer any proof of Caesar's ambition, the central point of his argument. He ends his speech with a verbal attack on any who disagree with him, essentially calling them cowards. This silences dissension temporarily but when the other side is presented it does not help his cause. Brutus's argument fails because he much less a man of the people than he would like to think.

Mark Antony's argument is a great piece of rhetoric. He successfully accomplishes his object of convincing the plebeians that Brutus is a traitor. He has mastered the use of emotion, subtlety and logic. He uses emotional phrases such as, "My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar" and "Oh judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts". Which give him a connection with the emotion the crowd is feeling at the death of Caesar. He begins not by attacking Brutus, but by praising Caesar. This serves to give him a greater common ground with the crowd, who must have also remembered the things that Antony spoke of. He provides many counter-examples to Brutus's claim that Caesar was ambitious. "I thrice presented him a kingly crown which he did thrice refuse". These counter-examples give warrant to the crowd's rejection of Brutus. His reference to Brutus as an, "honorable man" progresses from a simple statement to a mordant denunciation over the course of his speech. His indirect way of showing the crowd his feelings makes his speech more effective. The crowd is guided but not forced to his conclusions so that when they accept his argument they feel like it is their own. Antony is ultimately the better orator because of his understanding of the crowd.

Both Brutus and Mark Antony struggle for the support of the plebeians, who are portrayed as dumb and fickle. This is at the heart of Shakespeare's idea of rhetoric. Rhetoric is pure persuasion; it is not bound by the same rules as debate. Shakespeare does not pass judgment on the absolute validity of either argument in that scene. The viewer is left to decide for himself who is truly right, but there is no doubt that Antony is the better speaker.

Jun 30, 2009, 04:54pm   #
You're on the right track. I don't know that you can say that Brutus's speech isn't effective at the beginning, though. The people do respond well to him. He has a good reputation, he offers to let the crowd kill him if they find him villainous, and they urge him to live. His rhetoric is pretty good. But he speaks first, and leaves once the crowd is calmed down. Antony comes along afterward, and speaks for a lot longer. He doesn't need to -- the crowd is ready to riot after the first part of his speech, but he gets a lot more air time, as it were. Part of the point here is that the crowd is so fickle, in need of a strong ruler.

Beyond that, I'd say you need to add more to your essay, and to break down the two speeches in much more detail than you do. What you have now is strong, but you could quote more extensively and add additional points. You only have ~500 words, and can go for half that again if necessary.
Jul 1, 2009, 12:21am   #
I also notice that you seem to be arguing that Mark Antony has the better rhetoric because the crowd responds to him more favorably. While it's certainly true that the only true test of persuasive speech is whether it, in fact, persuades, what your teacher wants to know is why Antony was more successful and what, if anything, Shakespeare means to say about rhetoric and persuasion by this example.

At present, your introduction reflects this wider concern, but your conclusion does not. So, in addition to providing more detail in your rhetorical analysis of each speech, be sure to return to the wider question of persuasion in the play in or just before your conclusion.

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