The Oral Qualities of Mark Antony's Funeral Oration

The death of Julius Caesar.

In Act III Scene ii of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar Brutus has spoken to a crowd for the purpose of exculpating himself and has asked to be allowed to leave in peace following his part in the murder of Caesar. He has, as Adler notes in "The Art of Persuasion," successfully persuaded the crowd that his role in the assassination was necessary for the future of Rome. Mark Antony and his followers arrive, carrying before the assembled the body of Caesar. His speech follows. For the present discussion, I will focus on the oral qualities of this speech and how these features contribute to its rhetorical power.

Mark Antony's Funeral Oration Mark Antony's funeral oration. Courtesy of Eon Images.

One characteristic of an orally-based culture, Ong (2002) notes, is its aggregative nature. Scores of epithets, "which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant" (p. 38), figure prominently in orally-based thought. In the funeral oration, for example, Mark Antony initially refers to Brutus as "Noble Brutus," and he uses the phrase "Brutus is an honorable man" ironically to remarkable effect throughout the encomium. Ong suggests that the aggregates "Brutus is an honorable man" or "they are honorable men" (referring to the other conspirators) are intended to assure the listener that the epithet is in fact the case; it is not intended to question or to cast doubt. Antony must keep in mind that Brutus has convincingly won over the crowd (by his use of ethos, suggests Adler, by establishing his respectability) in his use of rhetorical questions with but one answer, and thus Antony must warm up to his ultimate point later in the speech. Brutus has a history of which the populace is well aware.

Redundancy and repetition, Ong notes, are characteristic of orally-based cultures. While writing allows for a history to which one can refer, oral utterances vanish once spoken, and hence many revisits to these evanescent bubbles are necessary for there to be a continued focus on the context. "Oral cultures encourage fluency, fulsomeness, volubility" (p. 40). In his speech, Brutus adduces as his prime motive for his part in the slaying Caesar's grandiose ambition. Antony's, on the other hand, is to counter this argument and to rouse the crowd against Brutus. To this effect, and to maintain the crowd's focus, he refers often but with slight variations to Brutus's accusation of ambition against Caesar. Phrases such as "But Brutus says he was ambitious," "Yet Brutus says he was ambitious," "Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?" "Was this ambition?" litter the first part of the speech. By my count, the words ambition or ambitious are spoken seven times, often juxtaposed with the repetitive and aggregative "And Brutus is an honorable man."

Ong asserts that "The fulsome praise in the old, residually oral, rhetoric tradition strikes persons from a high-literacy culture as insincere, flatulent, and comically pretentious" (p. 45). Though Antony says his purpose is not to praise Caesar, he does just that so as to cunningly incite the crowd to enact revenge. To this effect, he says his heart is "in the coffin with Caesar and he cannot for the moment continue"; he speaks of Caesar's "sacred blood"; that the crowd would "beg a hair of him for memory"; how the knives "burst his mighty heart"; "great Caesar fell"; "these are gracious drops [of blood]" and so on. These and kindred phrases, foreign to modern sensibilities, hit their mark: Caesar is a hero and by contrast Brutus and his co-conspirators villains, Caesar a paragon of virtue, Brutus of vice.

This brings up the topic of persuasion, of how this speech achieves its desired effect. Ong (2002) characterizes residual oral cultures as being empathetic and participatory: the "individual's reaction is encased in the communal reaction" (p. 45). Antony was able to rouse the crowd as a collective to identify with Caesar. Adler argues that this is done through pathos, which "consists in arousing the passions of the listeners, getting their emotions running in the direction of the action to be taken." Indeed, Antony, as noted earlier, continually reminds his listeners of Caesar's actions and asks whether they could be labeled as ambitious. Thus having downplayed his own character ("a blunt man"), having roused the crowd's "communal ‘soul'" (Ong, p. 46), Antony, Adler argues, uses logos—reason—to seal the deal.

This he does by mentioning Caesar's will and the benefits that will accrue to the citizenry. However, before he gets around to disclosing its contents, he has the crowd gather round Caesar's body while he, in relating touching moments of Caesar's life, further enflames their passion by a moving account of the nature of the dead man's wounds. In this part of his speech, it is worth noting, Antony cites epithets of Brutus-- "Caesar's angel," "the well-beloved Brutus." The contrast between these epithets and their alleged "nobility" is apparent to the crowd, who are now ready for blood. When they are ready for mutiny, it is then that Antony lets them know the contents of the will, after which time they make their move.

There are, I believe, lessons for those of us who are upper elementary teachers (or as Adler discusses, salespersons). In my limited experience, many eighth grade students believe Canadian history is boring with a capital-B. They can be a recalcitrant lot. How is the teacher to persuade them to follow a course of action? One method, like Antony's, can make initial use of ethos. The teacher can relate how, yes, memorizing dates, places and names can be boring, and that he or she felt similarly when their age. Then he or she can, on the topic of, say, Canadian Confederation, break into a discussion of how, for students their age, it can be very difficult to reach a consensus on any number of age-related topics. The early fathers of Confederation also had difficulties, and these have lasted to some degree to the present. Once a sense of pathos has been achieved, logos, a reasoning for the undertaking, can launch the students into action, perhaps a project. Granted this is a lot easier said than done. It may not work--few are those with Mark Antony's persuasive power--and hence the battle of teaching and learning goes on, hopefully with passion.

References

Adler, M. "The Art of Persuasion." Retrieved September 29, 2008 at http://radicalacademy.com/adlerpersuasion1.htm

Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. New York, New York. Routledge.