By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth’ is one of a number of famous speeches made by Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The speech, which occurs in Act 3 Scene 1, is essentially a soliloquy since Mark Antony is alone on stage – the only other ‘person’ with him is the body of the assassinated Julius Caesar.
The line, ‘O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth’ is among the most oft-quoted from the play: a play which gives most of is best lines to Mark Antony, rather than Brutus or its title-character. Indeed, this speech actually gives us another of the play’s oft-quoted lines: ‘Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war’. But what about the rest of the speech? Let’s go through it, section by section, summarising its meaning and offer an analysis of its language and imagery.
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Mark Antony’s speech immediately signals a new tone in the play, as he allows his emotions free rein as he stands over the body of Julius Caesar (or, some productions, crouches over it and cradles it).
As David Daniell observes in his analysis of this speech in Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare) (an edition of the play we’d strongly recommend to anyone serious about studying Julius Caesar), the speech is ‘metaphysical, even baroque’. Grief opens up something new in Mark Antony’s language and imagery.
Technically, Mark Antony is not merely addressing Caesar but apostrophising him: a rhetorical term for addressing someone who is absent, or, in this case, dead. Caesar cannot respond to or hear Mark Antony’s grief, but we, who overhear his words as the audience to them, can register the emotiveness of his language (describing Caesar’s murderers as ‘butchers’).
In death, Julius Caesar’s body has returned to that from which it was created: earth, according to the Christian tradition (in which God made Adam from the earth or soil).
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Mark Antony pays tribute to Julius Caesar’s nobility of character. The word ‘tide’, which Brutus, without hearing Antony’s words, will pick up and use later in another famous speech (‘There is a tide in the affairs of men’), conveys the idea of history as an ever-moving stream which one cannot stand still in: one will always be caught up in events, as Caesar was, and as Mark Antony now is.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood.
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy
(Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue)
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
As Daniell observes, there is a strong ‘physicality’ to Antony’s speech: he condemns the ‘hand’ that shed Caesar’s blood (actually multiple hands: Brutus, Casca, and Cassius), Caesar’s wounds are like mouths which cannot speak, but seem to open up like lips to encourage Antony to call out this injustice; and Antony prophesises that the ‘limbs’ or body parts of the men who did this will be cursed.
Note how Antony’s mention of his ‘tongue’ complements those ‘dumb mouths’ of Caesar’s wounds: he sees himself as taking up revenge and justice on Caesar’s behalf.
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war;
National anger and fierce civil conflict within Italy will overwhelm the whole country now. (Indeed, following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC and Augustus’ triumph at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, there was indeed – as Daniell reminds us – a period of bloody civil war in Rome.)
Blood and death will become so common, Antony says, that mothers will simply smile when they see their own small children cut into pieces as a result of the war (note how Antony continues the physical and corporeal imagery already established with his phrase ‘the hands of war’).
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
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;
And as they become more inured to suffering, people’s sympathy will dry up (‘choked’), because ‘fell’ or evil deeds are so customary and commonplace. The ghost of Julius Caesar, wandering about seeking revenge – with Atè (the Greek goddess of blind infatuation in classical myth) beside him straight from the fires of hell – will, here in Italy, in the noble voice of a king, cry ‘havoc’ and unleash the dogs of war.
‘Havoc’ here clearly denotes more than just a bit of general mayhem: Antony (or Shakespeare) is using the word to mean merciless slaughter and butchery, as the image of ‘dogs of war’ suggests. This goes back to the image of the mothers’ infants being ‘quartered’ or torn apart by war.
Helpfully, Daniell takes us to the Prologue to Henry V, another Shakespeare play written around the same time as Julius Caesar. And ‘the dogs of war’ is probably meant to refer to specific instruments of war: namely, ‘famine, sword, and fire’, as the Chorus puts it in Henry V. If the Apocalypse has four horsemen, war (one of the four horsemen, of course) has three dogs, it would seem.
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
Note how ‘foul deed’ recalls (through consonance of ‘foul’ and ‘fell’) the earlier reference to ‘fell deeds’: the ‘foul deed’ that is the assassination of Julius Caesar will, Mark Antony prophesises, lead to many ‘fell deeds’ in response: an entire war.
Mark Antony concludes his speech by returning to the physical, corporeal language found earlier in his soliloquy: the smell of the dead bodies of the men who will be slaughtered in the coming war (‘carrion’ is rotting flesh) will rise high above the earth. And note how, although the words which end the final two lines of Antony’s speech, earth and burial, don’t rhyme, there is a ‘semantic rhyme’ linking them, because bodies are buried in the earth.
And ‘earth’ at the end of the penultimate line takes us back, of course, to the very first line of the speech: ‘O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth’. As, for that matter, does ‘carrion’ – the decaying flesh of dead animals – take us back to Antony’s word ‘butchers’ in the second line of his speech.