‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’: so begins one of Mark Antony’s most famous speeches from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That line is well-known, but it’s a testament to how many great speeches we find in this play that this isn’t even Mark Antony’s most famous speech from Julius Caesar: that mantle must go to his ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ address (which we have analysed here).
But now, it’s the turn of the ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’ speech, which we find in Act 3 Scene 2, shortly after Antony has delivered his ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech. As with that speech, the best way to offer an analysis of its meaning is probably by going through it one section at a time, summarising it as we go. It is a significant speech because of its emotive content: it focuses on Mark Antony discussing the unjust murder of Julius Caesar before he dramatically reveals the dead body to the crowd.
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
’Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Throughout Act 3 Scene 2 in particular, Mark Antony shows himself to be a gifted orator who is able to use rhetoric to influence the crowd. Here, he appeals to his audience’s emotions, preparing them for the poignant story he will go on to relate.
The story concerns the mantle or cloak that belonged to Julius Caesar. He reminds the people of Rome that they should all recognise it, as Caesar often wore it. However, as David Daniell observes in his excellent notes to Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare), Mark Antony’s ‘memory’ of Julius Caesar here is all made up: it’s a complete fiction. He is ‘building the personal link’ between him and Caesar, but he wasn’t fighting alongside Caesar when the general ‘overcame the Nervii’: the story he recounts is all fabricated.
The Nervii, by the way, were a north-European tribe whom Julius Caesar defeated.
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
If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
Mark Antony holds Julius Caesar’s cloak, covering the murdered dictator’s body, and points to where Cassius’s dagger pierced the fabric during the assassination of Caesar. He gestures to the tear in the fabric that Casca made elsewhere in the cloak. And here (we can imagine the actor playing Mark Antony pointing to a third hole) is where Brutus, whom Caesar loved and trusted, stabbed him.
Mark Antony then directs the crowd to observe where the blood from Caesar’s body flowed out through the hole when Brutus removed his dagger. Antony uses an ingenious simile, likening the path of the blood to someone rushing out through a door to see if it really can have been the trusted Brutus who was knocking so rudely at the door. (Recall Julius Caesar’s shock when Brutus stabs him after Cassius and Casca have already done so: ‘Et tu, Brute?’)
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;
Mark Antony reminds the crowd that Brutus was Caesar’s ‘angel’: that is, a minister of loving offices (as Daniell glosses ‘angel’ in Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare), drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word). Nobody expects an angel to stab the person they love and, one would assume, wish to protect; Mark Antony is using the word to remind the crowd of the injustice of Caesar’s assassination.
The gods know just how dearly Caesar loved Brutus, so Brutus’ action with his dagger was the most unkind cut of all (of the conspirators’ cuts). Note: ‘most unkindest’ may sound ungrammatical to us, but in Shakespeare’s time things like double superlatives (‘most’ and ‘unkindest’?), like double negatives, were used to reinforce and underscore something. So, not just unkindest, but – for extra emphasis – most unkindest.
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart;
When Caesar saw Brutus stab him, and it was Brutus’ ungratefulness after all Caesar had done for him, more than the wounds inflicted by the other traitors, that killed Caesar, because it broke his heart that his friend would do such a thing to him.
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
Caesar fell down with his cloak (the one Mark Antony is now brandishing to the crowd) wrapped up over his face. This happened at the base of Pompey’s statue (the word should technically be pronounced as having three syllables, to agree with the iambic pentameter metre, as if ‘statue’ were ‘statué’: i.e., ‘sta-tyu-ay’), and the statue ‘ran blood’, i.e., seemed to bleed itself. Pompey was Caesar’s enemy, but the suggestion, as Daniell observes, is that Pompey has sympathy for his great rival’s unjust fate.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us.
Antony remarks on what a fall it was – not just because of the violence of the crime, but because Caesar was a great dictator who had been brought down by a few knifemen. Its ramifications would be far-reaching. Note Antony’s use of ‘my countrymen’ to bring himself and his audience together as fellow Romans – against the conspirators. It recalls his earlier ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’, too.
He then consolidates this by his use of the rhetorical pattern of three: I … you … all of us. Every Roman fell when Caesar fell, because Caesar was holding Rome together as its great ruler. (‘Flourish’d’ is also a nice touch: it doesn’t just mean ‘triumphed’ or ‘won’, but suggests a showy flourish, denoting a certain confidence, even arrogance.)
O, now you weep; and, I perceive, you feel
The dint of pity: these are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar’s vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marr’d, as you see, with traitors.
Antony’s impassioned speech has had its desired effect upon his listeners: now, people in the crowd are weeping. Note the way the syntax of ‘I perceive’ and ‘you feel’, juxtaposed as they are, further bring Antony and his audience together as one: not just ‘I see that you are moved’ but ‘I perceive, just as you feel’.
The ‘dint’ of pity is the mark of sympathy: ‘dint’ suggests the mark left by a blow, much like the stab wounds left on Caesar’s body. It’s as if everyone has been emotionally ‘stabbed’ by hearing what happened to Caesar. He assures his audience that their tears are ‘gracious’ and noble and kind. ‘But if you find it upsetting to look merely at Caesar’s cloak, how about if I remove the cloak?’ Antony (rhetorically) asks them – before removing the mantle from Caesar’s body to reveal his wounded corpse to the audience. Here he is, Antony concludes his speech: Caesar’s body, destroyed by traitors.