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So the trope babies and I were having a grand time analyzing Mark Antony’s famous speech in Julius Caesar (Power to the People). Such a grand time, in fact, that I decided that we should have a whack at Brutus’s speech that precedes it. So we did and, caught up in the spirit, I decided to read the whole play. I hope that’s not quite as derelict as it sounds. I had read the play once, but in high school, and one forgets much in half a century.

Imagine my chagrin when I realized that the tragic hero is Brutus! Not only that, but Mark Antony is an opportunistic snake! In my feeble defense let me point out that Brutus does lead the attack on Caesar and it is hard to countenance such brutality (I used the terms “hacked” and “butchered,” and I stand by those terms) and it touches us deeply when Caesar says, “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar,” accepting in body and soul that “most unkindest cut of all.” The betrayal of a friend cries to heaven for vengeance. And then we have that speech, which is indeed masterful and moves the crowd to Brutus’s side (because it suits Shakespeare’s dramatic purposes to do so). But I think that when we cynics hear that summary line—“Not that I loved Caesar less but that I loved Rome more”—we are inclined to say, “Yeah, right, Brutus.”

And then comes Mark Antony with that killer of a funeral oration. Brutus speaks of political necessity, but Antony speaks of love and heartbreak; Brutus speaks of the state, but Antony speaks of his mutilated dead friend. Antony speaks to our hearts in ways that Brutus does not.

But we do not know the dealing that has taken place between the assassination and that pair of speeches. Perhaps Antony did love Caesar as much as did Brutus, but he is above all a schemer with bigger fish to fry—in fact, an empire to gain. In effect, he says to Brutus, “I have no bone to pick with you, my dear friend. I see now why you had to do what you did...just let me give Caesar the proper rites.” Cassius thinks that would a big mistake, but the bluff and trusting Brutus gives his permission. Alone then with the corpse, Antony in true character promises Caesar vengeance (it is here we find that chilling line, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war”).

By the way, it is not enough that Antony steal the crowd away from Brutus with his oration. He follows it up it a long teasing about Caesar’s will, which he says he has found (“[But] I must not read it; it is not meet you should know how Caesar loved you”). Finally he feigns surrender: “You will compel me then to read the will?” until the crowd is crazy with anticipation. And still he draws out the tease for another thirty or so lines. The payoff? Every man will get seventy drachmas! Caesar has left his parks and orchards for the public’s pleasure! The populus is now screaming for blood. Brutus and his compatriots flee for their lives to Sardis and prepare for battle.

Act IV begins with the budding triumvirate—Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus—plotting their next move. They make a list of those enemies, actual or potential, who must die . Among the names is that of Antony’s own nephew, Publius. Antony doesn’t bat an eye (“He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him”). Then he dispatches Lepidus on an errand and lets Octavius (and us) know that faithful Lepidus, too, is expendable. This guy is some piece of work, and not the way Shakespeare might mean the word.

I will spare you the battle; it does not go well. First Cassius, then Brutus—not to be paraded through Rome in chains—kill themselves with the same weapons that did great Caesar in. Antony—will we ever really take his measure?—delivers the elegy:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all made one of them.
His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him the Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

A man with a terrible choice to make. When he said he that he loved Rome more than he loved Caesar, he spoke true and had the guts to act upon that truth. But we wanted so much to be romanced by Antony, the wily serpent. There’s a lesson there.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is shea@macinstruct.com.


 
                          





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