Inaugural Edition, December 2008

ENL 257: Best Essays in Rhetorical Theory

2nd Place Winner

The Art of Swaying a Hostile Crowd: Marc Antony’s Funeral Oration

Eileen Dunleavy

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony pleads with his “Friends, Romans (and) countrymen” to lend him their ears in an effort to exonerate Caesar from false charges laid against him. The three main conspirators in Caesar’s murder, Brutus, Casca and Cassius portrayed Caesar as an ambitious tyrant to the Roman people. After Caesar was unjustly killed by his friends and comrades, the crowd was persuaded to believe that his death was necessary for the good of the republic. However, Antony’s oration cleverly manipulates the crowd through the use of pathetic appeals, especially enargeia, into rebelling against the assassins and mourning the death of Caesar.

Caesar’s untimely and unnecessary death created a unique rhetorical moment that Marc Antony seized. Bitzer states in his article “The Rhetorical Situation” that “a particular discourse comes into existence because of some specific condition or situation which invites utterance” (Bitzer 41). According to the assassins, Caesar’s murder was necessary for the good of all the Roman citizens, who unquestioningly believed Brutus’s accusations that Caesar was ambitious and unfit to govern Rome. Marc Antony used his speech to win back the citizens and unite them in grief and outrage at Caesar’s murder. One of Marc Antony’s objectives as he ascended to the pulpit was to refute the claims of Caesar’s guilt of ambition: “I thrice presented him a kingly crown, / Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? / Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; / And, sure, he is an honourable man. / I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke” (3.2.98-102). He reminded the public that Caesar had been offered the opportunity to be crowned King of Rome three times, and each time Caesar had refused it. As Antony implies, an ambitious man would most certainly take the opportunity to become king at the first offering. Marc Antony was given permission to speak at the funeral of Caesar, under the condition that he would not undermine the conspirators. And so, Marc Antony never directly states that Brutus and the other conspirators lied about their murderous motives. Marc Antony was constrained by the inability to publicly show his contempt for the gruesome murder, and so he took a more subtle approach by gradually turning the crowds against the murderers.

Prior to Marc Antony’s oration the crowd had been convinced by Brutus that the death of Caesar was just and warranted. They were led to believe that Caesar was a tyrant and so when Marc Antony ascended to speak they were already hostile to his argument. Crowley and Hawhee state that

members of an audience may hold one of three attitudes toward an issue or a rhetor’s ethos: they may be hostile, indifferent, or accepting. Communication researchers have found that it is easier to move people who care about an issue than it is to influence those who are indifferent. That is, it is easier to bring about a change of mind in those who are accepting or hostile than in those who are indifferent. (212)

Before Marc Antony spoke the crowd called Caesar a tyrant and said “we are blest that Rome is rid of him” (3.2.73). The crowd had been easily swayed to believe the lies concerning Caesar’s ambition, and felt they were indebted to the murderers for freeing them from Caesar’s alleged tyrannical rule. However, after Antony’s speech, the hostile crowd had completely changed their opinions about the murder and the conspirators.

Marc Antony shows the gathered crowd the body of Caesar to show how viciously he was killed by his so called friends,

Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd;
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved. (3.2.176-181)

The display of the body and its wounds join with and Antony’s words to evoke enargeia which is when “rhetors picture events so vividly that they seem to be actually taking place before the audience. Vivid depictions of events, stir the emotions of an audience so exactly as if they had been present when it occurred” (Crowley and Hawhee 214). Crowley and Hawhee actually refer to Shakespeare’s version of Marc Antony’s oration in their text, in order to describe enargeia. They say “it is easy for readers to imagine this scene—Antony holding up the torn, bloodstained cloak, putting his hands through the holes made by the daggers that killed Caesar” (Crowley and Hawhee 215). This display of the brutal nature in which Caesar was murdered is vividly described by Marc Antony and plays upon the emotions of the crowd. The crowd is literally shown that conspirator’s actions were in no way honorable, as they had claimed them to be. At the sight of Caesar’s tattered, bloody cloak it becomes clear that Caesar was not killed for the good of Rome. The crowd begins to realize that it was not Caesar’s ambition that led to his death, but the ambition of the conspirators and that Caesar had been viciously assassinated in cold blood. Antony reinforces this when he describes how Brutus inflicted Caesar’s most fatal wounds.

For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart. (3.2.183-188)

Antony heart-wrenchingly asserts that it was not the brutal stabbing that killed Caesar, but his betrayal by his best friend Brutus. Marc Antony paints the picture of Caesar’s murder to the gathered crowd, describing Brutus delivering fatal stab wounds to his best friend.

To create a common bond between himself and the crowd, Marc Antony continually addresses them as “friends, Romans, countrymen.” These words serve to unify himself with the crowd and eventually sway them to feel as outraged by the murder as he does. Antony speaks with an intimate distance from his audience which according to Crowley and Hawhee suggests that he is familiar with his audience. Antony’s speech is punctuated with subtle and at times obvious disdain for the murderers which, as Crowley and Hawhee suggest, exemplifies how a “rhetors’ strong expression of an attitude—approval or disapproval, for example—closes distance. More attitude = intimate distance” (183). Antony clearly does not condone the murder and makes that abundantly clear; however, he never explicitly states that the conspirators were unjust. He uses honorific terms to identify them, repeatedly calling them “honorable men,” for example. This repetition actually serves to disprove the title, because honorable men would never have committed such a vile act. These techniques create a divide between the crowd and the conspirators who murdered Caesar because it forces the Romans to see the murder for what it truly was.

Antony evokes further pathos from the crowd by reading them Caesar’s will, and informing them that he left a large part of his estate to them.

It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
'Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it! (3.2.143-148)

He tells them that hearing Caesar’s will and the knowledge that they are his heirs will only infuriate them and it is better for them not to know how much Caesar loved them. Caesar had loved Rome and its people so much that he left provisions for them in his will. Learning that Caesar had left them all money and land in his will is what finally turns the public’s opinion against the murderers. Marc Antony’s speech succeeded in proving that Caesar was indeed a noble man, and should be mourned as such.

Marc Antony’s eulogy of Julius Caesar cleverly hid his agenda to clear the name of the slain leader and managed to sway public opinion from one extreme to another. His words cause the angry mob to scour the streets of Rome for anyone who took part in his murder. His pathetic appeals to his friends, Romans and countrymen incited them to become an enraged mob to avenge Caesar’s death. His words display the assassin’s malicious actions for what they were and honor the memory of Caesar.

Works Cited
Bitzer, Lloyd F. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric (1968): 39-48.

Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. "Chapter 6: Ethical Proof : Arguments From Character." Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. New York: Pearson Longmann, 2004. 163-203.

Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. "Chapter 7: Pathetic Proof : Passionate Appeals." Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. New York: Pearson Longmann, 2004. 205-219.


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