Brushing Up My Shakespeare

Brushing Up My Shakespeare

I’m not sure why some of Shakespeare’s plays remain classroom favorites and others go in and out of fashion.  Most of the students I’ve taught recently have worked with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a few know Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  However, just as the Iliad, most of Dickens, and Huck Finn seem to have fallen off the the radar, Julius Caesar doesn’t often pop up in ordinary conversation.  I couldn’t seem to escape it in my own school days, not that I had anything against it; it was so commonly quoted then that familiarity bred undeserved disdain.

I came of age at a time in which public speaking, oratory, declamation was as important as penmanship and spelling.  I never mastered penmanship to any degree and was a misunderstood speller as I used British conventions (honour/ colour/ metre /theatre / liquorice / grey / cosy / draught / plough / aeroplane / aesthetic / pyjamas).  I had happily spent my formative years reading Dickens, Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle; those spelling issues persist to this day and may eventually land me in gaol.  Ah, but declamation was my meat!  Today’s tyros compete in spelling bees and geography bees; I regularly prepared for and occasionally won, speaking contests.

And, to connect the dots, Julius Caesar was a treasure trove of great oratory, although Marc Antony’s funeral oration was almost always the schoolboy’s first choice.  It appeared so frequently that “Friends.  Romans.  Countrymen.  Lend me your ears.” became fair game in cartoons and comedies.  The structure of the speech made memorization relatively easy, and the obvious points of emphasis allowed even the most tone-deaf orator to get through the address without much damage to the play or to the speaker.

I’ll return to Marcus Antonius and the particular genius of that oration, but there are a number of other remarkable constructions that deserve some attention.  As I read the play now, I am increasingly impressed with Shakespeare’s ability to convey nuanced characterization with the use of one or two specific words; a short interaction often determines the tone of the entire play.

Julius Caesar begins as Caesar is about to return to Rome after a successful military campaign against the sons of his former compatriot, Pompey.  Crowds are forming, the atmosphere is boisterous; within minutes, and without instruction, we understand that Rome itself may fall to this conquering hero; ordinary working people find him irresistable.  Equally quickly, we see that there are those, and they are many, who fear the loss of their position and place.  We’ll spend most of our time with the noblest Romans, senators from families with impressive lineage; Marcus Brutus we learn is, “the noblest Roman of them all,” although the line delivered by Marc Antony is dripping with irony as he seems to admire Brutus’ motives for killing his best friend, excusing him in order to excoriate him.

But I digress.  The Senators plot the murder of Caesar for the reason that we might expect; they think their days as top dogs are numbered, although most of their rhetoric has to do with the preservation of liberty for all Romans.  Underneath their polished debate steam two strong unarticulated convictions:  ordinary Romans do not have the capacity to rule themselves, and ordinary Romans are dangerous when crossed.

The opening lines of the play are delivered by Flavius, a tribune.  Since Shakespeare picked up his extraordinary knowledge of things beyond his own experience by digging up tales he had read in his schooldays and by hanging out at pubs and listening carefully to stories told by those who traveled, we can’t be sure what his understanding of the role of tribune was, and since there were several sorts of tribunes, we’ll have to guess that Flavius is a sort of peacekeeper, not entirely an agent of the patricians, but not entirely pals with the plebians.

Here we go.

ACT 1. SCENE 1. Rome. A street.
Enter FLAVIUS, MARULLUS, and certain Commoners


Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?en

Flavius appears miffed, affronted by the presence of an ordinary person, dressed as an ordinary person, on the streets of Rome, without the tools that reveal the trade the commoner practices.  In Shakespeare’s time, a mechanical was a laborer with a specific skill, as the Midsummer Night’s Bottom is a weaver and Tom Snout is a tinker.  Hamlet’s sparring partner, the grave digger, is a mechanical.

Mechanicals were often played by a troupe’s comic actors, and they often serve to confuse their betters; in the case of Much Ado’s Constable, Dogberry, the confusion created almost leads to tragedy.  Flavius will be confounded by a mender of shoes, a cobbler, as the word “cobbler” also means a person who “cobbles” odd jobs together.  Let’s assume that this comic exchange also allows late-comers to find their way to their place so that the best lines can be delivered to an audience paying attention.

The better lines fall to Marullus, and while Flavius has revealed his contempt for the lower class, Marullus will put some meat on the bones of the larger issue; crowds for Caesar validate Caesar’s bid for power.  Marullus will attempt some quick re-education of the commoners, and that exhortation is helpful in advancing the plot, but my interest is in the language Shakespeare gives to Marullus.

Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

Not bad!  Let’s assume that the mechanicals hear blah, blah, blah – go home, while we are filled in on the political shift.  This speaker uses rhetorical flourishes and keeps a fairly complicated structure in place from start to finish, but this language is too large for him and the occasion.  You rocks, you stones… wait for it … you senseless things.

In the next scene we meet Caesar for the first time.  Caesar has some memorable and oft quoted lines, but few of them are lengthy or polished.  He is a soldier, a wily tactician, for the most part, plain spoken.  He’s not entirely unaware of the hard feelings some may have toward him, and in describing Casca, one of the plotting senators, Caesar famously observes:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

In response to Antony’s appraisal of Casca, Caesar argues that Cassius is more to be feared.  Why?

He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves…

To the point and concise.  Caesar is no fool, and his language is purposeful.  In his final moment, as he twitches to his death, stabbed on the steps of the Senate, he suffers the final blow, delivered by Brutus, a man Caesar considered a friend.

Et Tu, Brute! Then fall Caesar.

No lingering death throes rumination on the certainty of betrayal, no blood-soaked admonitions or dire warnings.  Then fall Caesar.  Of course, Romeo is also pretty darned concise at the end.  “Thus with a kiss I die,” but he’s had some lovely rhapsodies during the rest of the show.  Caesar keeps it brief.

OK, at last, the true purpose of this lengthy recapitulation.  I find in the two funeral orations the best example of Shakespeare’s genius.  Not only are there moments in each oration that are exquisite examples of sophisticated rhetoric, the two in comparison are a primer in the ways in which character, voice, and tone accompany particular kinds of language.  The two orations, one delivered by the most respected Senator in the nation and the other by a more roughly hewn soldier, have diametrically opposed intents.  Brutus is charged with placating a crowd that had witnessed the murder of the most famous and admired man in Rome; Antony, under close scrutiny lest he strike back at the conspirators, intends to rip the togas off the blooded traitors while seemingly sticking to the script he’s been told to follow.

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Brutus speaks first, with all the weight and dignity of his station.  He counts on his reputation as a man of honor ( or, as some might say, honour) to convince the crowd that he and his fellow conspirators have acted from the highest of motives and with the interest of the common people first in their thoughts and deeds.  And, he does a pretty good job of it.  The rhetorical construction of his most famous assertion, “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” is essentially the form John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter used in the “Ask not what your country can do for  you…” and it still sounds compelling.  I’d give Brutus a solid A- on the address, complimenting him on the structure of the piece, but reminding him that some of the convolutions of language may not have been as effective as he had hoped.  The “If then” construction might not have been not all that easy to follow in the heat of the moment.

Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

And it works.  As we have learned in our own time, crowds can be swayed, and Romans shift from anger to acceptance (appreciation?) by the time Brutus is done, leaving Antony facing a hostile crowd, as the Senators had hoped.

Now, hardly breaking a sweat, Shakespeare jumps the rhetoric up a notch, giving Antony an A+ speech and inciting the crowds to riot.  In case you’ve not heard it spoken, go to:


I like the Brando version because he comes across as a tough guy working a crowd that wants his head.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
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,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Now that he has the crowd, he will coyly pretend to be reluctant to reveal all that Caesar has left to the people of Rome in his will.  Voices swell as the tide turns and the conspirators are seen as the murderers they have been (Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!  Let not a traitor live!).

I am impressed that Shakespeare writes Romeo’s first encounter with Juliet so that they finish each other’s sentences in iambic pentameter – pretty good trick – but to write an excellent speech for one actor and an excellent plus plus for the next?

I am mute with admiration (finally).





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