Silver coin with bust of Mark Antony


This coin shows a likeness of the historical figure behind the character Antony in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He is the character who most effectively uses rhetoric, the art of public speaking.

How does Antony use rhetoric?

For much of the first half of the play, Antony’s contributions are fairly limited: he speaks 34 words and is not present for the assassination of Caesar. His main contribution begins with a pause at 3.1.147, the exact mid-point of the play. He then delivers an eloquent lament over Caesar’s corpse, emotionally revealing the consequences of the conspirators’ actions. Perhaps his first real rhetorical success is persuading Brutus to allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral, despite Cassius’s warnings that ‘the people may be moved / By that which he will utter’ (3.1.233–34).

The speech he gives at the funeral is his most famous contribution. Partly, its success relies on the basic debaters’ trick of being the last to speak, and thus not giving the other speaker a chance to refute his points. The speech also contrasts favourably with Brutus’s because Shakespeare writes it in poetry, not prose. By contrast, the rhythms seem more stirring and direct. Compare Brutus and Antony’s respective first lines:

BRUTUS Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. (3.2.13–14)

ANTONY Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! (3.2.73)

‘Lend’ is more gentle than ‘be silent’, even if the intention is the same. And Antony immediately puts his audience at their ease by putting ‘friends’ first. From this initial warmth, the critic David Daniell points out that ‘his movement from the personal to the national is reinforced by expansion: Friends (one syllable), Romans (two syllables), countrymen (three syllables)’. The speech carries on as a masterclass of rhetorical technique, employing a huge range of figures with enough subtlety and restraint that the effect is not lost through the audience’s feeling of suspicion about being manipulated. There is constant irony in the way Antony says one thing about the conspirators and means another, and a number of rhetorical questions which plant first a question and then an answer in the audience’s mind. The finale in which Antony reads from Caesar’s will is praeterito, the technique of claiming to not want to mention something, but mentioning it by making that claim. Finally, showing the corpse, Antony’s verbal art takes on a visual dimension.

All of this is Shakespeare’s invention – there is no specific record of the speech in his source, Plutarch.

What effect does it have?

The speech has a pause in the middle, a technique known as aposiopesis, in which an eloquent speaker claims to have been brought to the point of speechlessness. Already in this, the Plebeians are convinced ‘There’s not a nobler man in Rome than Antony’ (3.2.117). Shakespeare shows the effect of this shift from reasoned prose to passionate poetry in the unreasoning language of the mob: ‘Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!’ (3.2.199). In making them ring the corpse, he has moved them physically and emotionally. This is especially important for how the scene looks on stage: just as Antony is controlling his audience, Shakespeare is controlling his.

Full title:
Silver coin with bust of Mark Antony
40–31 BCE, Antiocha ad Orontem
Roman Republic
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