Thinking about Antony's Speech (3.2)
Tugging on the Heart
If there is one thing that Antony knows how to do, despite his protestations of lack of eloquence (3.2.217), it is how to move people. Indeed, when he says "I am no orator, as Brutus is (3.2.217)," he is reinforcing his fluency, much as one who uses self-deprecating humor often raises himself in the crowd's estimation through this rhetorical technique. This mini-essay will set the background for Antony's masterful speech, while others will examine discrete sections of it. Before doing this, however, one other action of Brutus must be mentioned.
Brutus Leaves the Scene
After Brutus concludes his speech and brief dialogue with some plebians (3.2.60), he tells them he is going to leave and that Antony would then speak with his permission. Twice he mentions his taking leave: "let me depart alone (3.2.55)" and "not a man depart,/ Save I alone (3.2.59-60)."
If this is not the dumbest thing he could have done at this point, from the perspective of the power of rhetoric and the authority of speakers, I don't know what is. He should at least have stayed around to "assert" his authority if he needed to do so, if Antony got "out of hand" in his address. The one in charge of the "program" always should stay around, if for no other reason than to give mute testimony to the crowd that the orator is speaking by permission. By abandoning this role, Brutus is throwing away whatever authority he may have had over Antony and the situation.
But he probably does this because he doesn't know himself and because he believes in the magical efficacy of his words and his honor. After all, if he, great as he believes himself to be, is convinced of his honor and rightness, how can the people, lower than he is, be anything other than mesmerized by his words? What possible effect can Antony have on the crowd? Antony is "under restrictions"--he must say that he speaks with permission and he cannot criticize the conspirators-- and so Brutus thinks, 'How can things possibly go wrong?' But just as he judged Antony incorrectly before, when he thought he would either die of melancholy or go back to his games after the killing of Caesar (2.1.187-189), he misjudges him again here. What Brutus is fundamentally unaware of is that an orator, which Brutus conceives himself to be [but is also mistaken about that], takes limitations as a challenge to be even more eloquent, more persuasive, more explosive than he could have been if he was just "given the rostrum" for a duration.
By placing limitations on Antony, Brutus has unwittingly stimulated the deep springs of an orator's creativity, just as creative artists might often challenge a crowd to make unrelated and skew lines on a page and then the artist, with only a moment or two to think, makes a beautiful picture out of it. Brutus has terribly misjudged Antony and will pay terribly for it.
Antony speaks, and is interrupted by the crowd, for more than 150 lines (3.2.72-256). His speech may be divided into five sections. First are his opening lines, when he exploits the theme of Brutus's honor for his own purposes (3.2.73-107). Second is his tantalizing dangling the unread and unknown will of Caesar before the people. Antony and the people banter back and forth but mere mention of the will, as expected, stimulates the desire of the people to hear it (3.2.118-152). Third is Antony's coming down from the rostrum and gathering the people around the lifeless body of Caesar, while Antony holds the mantle of Caesar torn by both errant and telling knife-thrusts (3.2.169-197). Then there is a brief section, mentioned above, where Antony protests his ineloquence (3.2.210). Finally, Antony reveals the content of Caesar's will after the people, crazed with emotion, have forgotten about it (3.2.235-252). The scene ends with the spectre of mayhem.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long