By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a masterclass of irony and the way rhetoric can be used to say one thing but imply something quite different without ever naming it. Mark Antony delivers a funeral speech for Julius Caesar following Caesar’s assassination at the hands of Brutus and the conspirators, but he is only allowed to do so as long as he does not badmouth the conspirators for their role in Caesar’s death.
Antony’s references to Brutus as an honourable man subtly and ingeniously show that Brutus is anything but honourable, while also serving to show that Caesar was not the ambitious man Brutus has painted him to be.
The best way to analyse this key speech from the play is to go through it, summarising it section by section.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
Immediately we see Mark Antony’s brilliant rhetorical skills, which he uses to get the crowd ‘on side’. As David Daniell observes in his note to that opening line, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’, Mark Antony begins with the more intimate address ‘Friends’, before moving from the personal to the national, a move that, for Daniell, is ‘reinforced by expansion’: ‘Friends’ (one syllable), ‘Romans’ (two syllables), ‘countrymen’ (three syllables). (See Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare); we thoroughly recommend this edition of Julius Caesar, by the way).
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Mark Antony has ‘read the room’ and knows the mood among the crowd: they still support the assassination of Julius Caesar and so side with Brutus and the other conspirators. Mark Antony treads carefully, brilliantly going against their expectations and reassuring him that he is simply there to deliver a funeral oration, not to take the dead general’s side (it’s worth remembering that Julius Caesar was a general, not an emperor: although he was called Caesar, he wasn’t ‘a’ Caesar, the name given to later emperors of Rome in his honour).
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
Daniell notes helpfully that these lines, which have become much more famous thanks to Shakespeare’s play, are proverbial and their sentiment (albeit with different wording) predate Shakespeare.
The meaning is obvious enough: when people die, the bad things they did often stick in people’s memories, while their good deeds are forgotten. As Antony goes on to say, ‘So let it be with Caesar’.
Immediately, then, he is cleverly saying that he is happy for everyone to focus on Caesar’s bad points and forget the good the man did; but in referring to the latter, he is subtly reminding them that Caesar did good as well as evil things. (By the way, a note on scansion or metre: because Mark Antony is addressing the crowd using blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter, ‘interred’ should be pronounced as three syllables, not two.)
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.
Mark Antony now takes up Brutus’ words about Julius Caesar and responds to them. He doesn’t contradict Brutus, but instead uses the subjunctive ‘If’: ‘If it were so’. He refuses to say that Caesar was ambitious, but grants that if it were true, it was a terrible fault.
The purpose of this is to cast doubt on the very idea that Caesar was ambitious (supposedly the very reason for his assassination), but in such a way that doesn’t rub the crowd (which still supports Brutus) up the wrong way. He then goes on to point out, however, that if Caesar was ambitious, he’s now dead, so has ‘answer’d’ or paid the penalty for his fault.
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.
Mark Antony makes a performative gesture to Brutus’ supposed generosity in letting him, Mark Antony, speak at Caesar’s funeral. He says that such generosity is a sign of Brutus’ honour: he, and the rest of the conspirators, are ‘honourable men’.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
Antony now slowly begins to ease in some praise for Caesar, but keeps it personal to him, rather than making grand, universal statements about Caesar’s good qualities: he was his friend, and faithful and just to him. But then, Brutus says Caesar was ambitious, and Brutus is honourable, so ‘I guess I was wrong (but I know I’m not)’. Obviously this last bit is implied, not spoken aloud – but that’s what Mark Antony is building towards.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
Let’s look at what Caesar did: he took many enemies prisoner and brought them here to Rome, and these captives’ ransoms, when paid, helped to make Rome rich. Does this seem ‘ambitious’ behaviour to you?
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.
When the poor of the city suffered, Caesar wept with pity for them. Hardly the actions of an ambitious man, who should be harder-hearted than this! But Brutus says Caesar was ambitious, and Brutus is honourable, so … it must be true … right? Note how Antony continues to sow the seeds of doubt in the crowd’s mind.
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.
Antony reminds the Romans that at the festival of Lupercalia (held in mid-February, around the same time as our modern Valentine’s Day; so just a month before Caesar was assassinated), he publicly presented Julius Caesar with a crown, but Caesar refused it three times (remember, he was ‘just’ a general, a military leader: not an emperor). Again, Antony appeals to the crowd: does this seem like the action of an ambitious man?
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
Although he clearly is disproving what Brutus claimed of Caesar, Antony maintains that this isn’t his aim: he’s merely telling the truth based on what he knows of Caesar.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
Antony reminds the crowd of Romans that they all loved Caesar once too, and they had reasons for doing so: Caesar was clearly a good leader. So why do they now not mourn for him in death? (Note Antony’s skilful use of ‘cause’ twice here: they loved Caesar with good cause, but what cause is responsible for their failure to shed a tear at his passing?)
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.
Observe the clever pun on Brutus’ name in ‘brutish beasts’: Antony stops short of calling Brutus a beast, but it’s clear enough that he thinks the crowd has been manipulated with violent thugs and everyone has lost their ability to think rationally about Caesar. The mob spirit has been fomented and everyone has made Caesar, even in death, the target of their hatred.
Mark Antony brings his ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech, a masterly piece of oratory, to a rousing end with an appeal to personal emotion, claiming that seeing Rome so corrupted by hatred and blinded by unreason has broken his heart. He concludes, however, with a final line that offers a glimmer of hope, implying that if Rome would only recover itself, he would be all right again.
You can watch Damian Lewis reciting this famous speech here.