Rhetoric, Power, and Persuasion in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’

Boydell’s Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare’s works / British Library, Public Domain

Rhetoric was a much-valued skill in Renaissance England, as it was in ancient Rome.

By Dr. Kim Ballard / 03.15.2016

Rhetoric – the skilful use of language in order to move or persuade – was big business in Elizabethan England judging by the amount of books published on the subject. And although we know very little about Shakespeare’s life, it’s likely that he would have attended the King Edward VI School in his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon until his early teens and studied rhetoric there as part of the regular curriculum. Throughout his plays, we can see how Shakespeare was steeped in rhetoric – not just through the linguistic ‘tricks’ and techniques he uses to compose his characters’ speeches, but through the comments the characters themselves make about the art of communication. In Julius Caesar, however, rhetoric is brought into the foreground: a political intrigue set in ancient Rome, Julius Caesar is – on one level – a play about rhetoric itself.

The Art of rhetoric

The young Shakespeare’s study of rhetoric would have been accompanied by Latin lessons, another central element of 16th-century schooling. He would have become acquainted with many classical writers and historical figures, including the Roman writer Cicero – a distinguished orator and politician who features in Julius Caesar. Rhetoric traces its origins to Ancient Rome and Greece, where it was an important tool of government, law and philosophical debate. In our multi-media age, it is harder perhaps to appreciate how important rhetoric was to those leaders and politicians of long ago, but without the advantages of TV interviews, podcasts, Twitter, poster campaigns and so on, the one-off public performance was everything.

By the time Shakespeare was born, a huge revival of interest in the classical age was underway. This is largely why schoolboys were studying rhetoric, and why so many books on the subject were being published in English, in addition to translations of important classical works. These books included coverage of the specific ‘figures’ of rhetoric – the linguistic devices which can be used to make a speech or piece of writing more persuasive or memorable. These figures are often known by their original Greek or Latin names. Some are still fairly commonly used – for instance, hyperbole, antithesis and exemplum – while many others – like partitio, epiphora and aposiopesis – are less familiar to today’s students. Shakespeare probably learned about a large number of these devices and their names. In any case, he certainly knew how to craft the kind of speeches that would transport his audience to the world of ancient Rome in the last century BCE.


The Arts of Logic and Rhetoric by Dudley Fenner: Schoolboys in Shakespeare’s day would have studied rhetoric handbooks such as this one. / British Library, Public Domain

Rhetoric as Power

In the Rome of Julius Caesar, skills in public rhetoric give status and power to those who hold public office. We see this clearly in the opening scene, when the tribune Murellus berates the commoners for celebrating Caesar’s triumph over the sons of Pompey, a former leader of Rome. Appalled by their fickle behaviour, he bombards them with accusatory questions:

O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey?

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?
(1.1.36–37; 48–51)

His purpose is to shame them into running home to pray to the gods ‘to intermit the plague / That needs must light on this ingratitude’ (1.1.54–55). We also see here a sharp contrast between the forceful rhetoric of Murellus and the playful language of the plebeian cobbler who jokes with the tribunes using puns and double meanings.

Early on then, Shakespeare establishes rhetoric as the possession of the powerful, and as a means of controlling and influencing the behaviour of the commoners. It’s also the vehicle by which he explores issues relating to the good of the Roman people and the democratic values of the state. In the following scenes, however, it becomes the means by which a plot against Julius Caesar is hatched, fulfilling a clandestine rather than a public function.

Rhetoric and Conspiracy

It is Cassius who is the prime mover in the plot on Caesar’s life, and he relies on his rhetorical skills to recruit conspirators. He begins by attempting to persuade the senator Brutus that something should be done about Caesar’s ambitions for power, believing that Brutus (seen by many to be the play’s central character) will add respectability to the endeavour. Brutus is quick to suspect that Cassius is planning something that will go against his principles:

Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,
That you would have me seek into myself
For that which is not in me?

But Cassius draws on a whole range of persuasive tricks to convince Brutus to join the conspiracy. For instance, he cleverly develops a metaphor of himself as a mirror in which Brutus will see his true self reflected. He presents a vivid depiction of how he once rescued Caesar when they were swimming in the River Tiber, and emphasises Caesar as the weaker man by comparison with an event from Roman history:

I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar.

He also plays on the equality of the names of ‘Brutus’ and ‘Caesar’ (1.2.142–47) and strongly laments the fact that Rome is dominated by one man alone (1.2.151–61).


The head of Brutus (and reverse) on a coin commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Ides of March / British Library, Public Domain

So overpowering are Cassius’s words that Brutus has to ask him to stop and allow him time to think:

For this present,
I would not (so with love I might entreat you)
Be any further mov’d.

Rhetoric has the power to ‘move’ even the most steadfast of men, and Cassius later tells Casca how he has ‘mov’d already / Some certain of the noblest-minded Romans’ (1.3.121–22) to join the conspiracy. Even the practicalities of the assassination rely on persuasion: as the appointed day approaches, the conspirator Decius is confident he can persuade Caesar to leave his house (2.1.193–211), while Brutus – who has agreed to join the conspiracy – says he can easily persuade Caius Ligarius to support them: ‘He loves me well, and I have given him reasons; / Send him but hither, and I’ll fashion him.’ (2.1.219–20)

Brutus the Orator

It was through rhetoric that Cassius tempted Brutus to join the plot against Caesar, but Brutus then has to convince himself that such an action would be justified. Although he feels Caesar has committed no specific offence (after all, he judiciously refused the crown that was offered him), Brutus decides that the potential for evil is sufficient reason to assassinate him:

And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

In this soliloquy, Brutus works out how he would argue or ‘fashion’ the case for Caesar’s death (‘quarrel’ and ‘colour’ are also terms used in rhetoric) and looks for metaphors – such as that of the serpent’s egg – to convince himself that Caesar is dangerous.

Bust of Brutus by Michelangelo / British Library, Public Domain

Brutus is not just a skilled orator: rhetoric is the means by which he thinks and makes decisions. It defines him. His wife Portia understands this, and, trying to persuade her husband to tell her what is preoccupying him, she adopts a logical, orderly style that she knows he will respond to:

I grant I am a woman, but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
I grant I am a woman, but withal
A woman well reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father’d and so husbanded?

Brutus’s respect for his wife seems to stem not just from her obvious devotion to him but also from her ability to speak so eloquently.

Caesar’s Funeral

In the preparations for the assassination of Caesar, Brutus defies Cassius’s view that Caesar’s ally Mark Antony should also die, drawing on his persuasive skills to convince his fellow conspirators they should be ‘sacrificers, but not butchers’, ‘purgers, not murderers’ (2.1.166; 180). Having been allowed to live, the formidable Antony persuades Brutus to let him speak at Caesar’s funeral, although Cassius warns Brutus ‘how much the people may be mov’d / By that which he will utter’ (3.1.234–35). At the funeral, rhetoric once more takes on a public face. In fact, the pivotal event of the play is not the death of Caesar, but the funeral orations that follow it. The ability to win over the fickle plebeians who gather in the Forum will determine the events of the rest of the play, and it is Brutus and Antony who address them.

Brutus speaks first, taking this opportunity to explain the reason for his part in the assassination. Speaking in prose, his oration is measured and calm, making considerable use of the antithesis and parallelism that characterise his style: ‘Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?’ (3.2.22–24) His reasons for killing Caesar seem clearly worked out and he appeals to the crowd’s sense of fairness: ‘As ‘Caesar lov’d 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.’ (3.2.24–27)

The crowd’s response to Brutus is a positive one. His honesty seems to have won them over, at least for the moment.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709: Mark Antony wins the crowd, delivering his speech over Caesar’s wounded corpse. / British Library, Public Domain

Antony’s speech (significantly, in blank verse not prose), delivered over Caesar’s wounded and bloody corpse, is far more subtle than Brutus’s. Through a series of examples and through repeated reminders that Brutus is ‘honourable’, he slowly imparts doubt that Brutus’s words can be trusted:

He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man

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.
(3.2.85–87; 91–94)

Following the teaching of the Greek philosopher Aristotle on rhetoric, Antony also appeals as much to the crowd’s emotions as their reason, including this tantalising hint at the contents of Caesar’s will:

Let but the commons hear this testament –
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read –
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds,
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood.

In a few minutes, the crowd have changed from believing ‘This Caesar was a tyrant’ (3.2.69) to seeing him as ‘noble Caesar’ once again. The ‘honourable’ Brutus, however, has become a traitor in their eyes. Antony, Brutus and their respective allies must resort to warfare, not words, to resolve their differences.

Silver coin with bust of Mark Antony, the play’s most persuasive speaker / British Library, Public Domain

Rhetoric, Uncertainty, and Superstition

The Rome of Julius Caesar is a world where the power of words is harnessed in order to deal with civic, political and even personal uncertainty. But Shakespeare adds to this sense of an unsettled city with stories of disturbance in the natural world. As the plot against Caesar takes shape, a great storm envelops Rome, and Casca recounts how he has seen the tempest ‘dropping fire’ (1.3.10) as well as a slave whose hand burned like a torch (1.3.15–18). An animal sacrificed according to Caesar’s orders is found to have no heart – but Caesar takes this to be a message from the gods about cowardice, not imminent danger. Portents are in ready supply. A soothsayer warns Caesar about the Ides of March, although he chooses to ignore the warning. Caesar’s wife Calphurnia has a vivid dream of Caesar’s statue spouting blood which Caesar first takes as a foreshadowing of danger, but then is persuaded to interpret as a good omen. In fact, Calphurnia, who up to now has ‘never stood on ceremonies’ (2.2.13), is alarmed by reports of strange events, including the dead rising from their graves. Even the cynical Cassius, at the end of the play, says he is starting to believe in signs and omens, describing the birds of prey that encircle the battlefield:

Their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.

Boydell’s Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare’s works: Brutus and the ghost of Caesar. Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3 by Richard Westall / British Library, Public Domain

Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the superstitions of the Romans, and many of Shakespeare’s plays contain elements of the unnatural and the supernatural. The rich texture of Julius Caesar is a lot to do with the way Shakespeare juxtaposes the controlled medium of rhetoric with what is beyond human control or understanding. Act 4 contains impassioned and compelling rhetoric, both in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, and afterwards when Brutus convinces Cassius they must march together to Philippi to confront Antony’s forces. But the mood changes again when Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus, casting an ominous feel over what is to come. A funeral oration brings the play to its close: as Antony reflects on the life of Brutus, this time there is no irony in his declaration that he ‘was the noblest Roman of them all’ (5.5.68).

Originally published by the British Library under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.



%d bloggers like this: