Thursday, March 14, 2013

Beware the Ides of March

 As the ides of March approaches, I have been working with my daughter to memorize that great bit of rhetoric, Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. That is one of those texts that suffers from being too familiar: everyone thinks they know it, so we forget to notice just how good it is. In this, it is like The Great Gatsby, “A Road Not Taken,” and so many other literary classics wasted on us in our youth.

Part of why English teachers make kids learn Antony’s speech is that it employs numerous classical rhetorical devices. I will spare you the Latinate nomenclature. But really, legal writers can benefit from a close look at the devices that make Antony’s speech so effective because these same tricks can be utilized to make any kind of persuasive writing sing.

For instance, the speech begins with a three-item list (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen). Lists of three tend to please; they strike just the right balance. And how the ear receives them can be controlled by whether and to what extend one includes conjunctions (like “and” or “or”) to link the items in the list. Here, Antony leaves out the conjunction because his list is a set of synonyms—three different ways to refer to the crowd he addresses, not three different groups. In terms of content, the list conveys that the speaker sees the audience in complex and favorable terms, a fraternal community of compatriots, which makes them feel implicitly affirmed.

Antony follows his list with a catchy double metaphor (“lend me your ears”). This opening line—“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—does not follow a regular meter but is instead broken to create emphasis. The audience is thereby induced to do exactly what it is being asked to do: sit up and take notice.

The irregular opening line is followed up by a few patterned lines of classic iambic pentameter—

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

—followed by another line where the meter broken, this time mid-stream:

So let it be with Caesar.

The iambic pentameter is soothing, in stark contrast to the bitter cynicism of the lines’ content. The lyricism allows the speaker to slip in his harsh rebuke without beating anyone over the head just yet. But the broken line creates a pause to give the audience a bit of breathing space, a moment to reflect.

Then Antony introduces his theme, an ironic one, that is conveyed through insidious repetition. He refers repeatedly to “the noble Brutus” and the other “honorable men” who have just killed Antony’s benefactor, Caesar. And as long as the delivery of the actor playing Antony isn’t too snarky, the repetition of these phrases will do the character’s heavy lifting, making the point that Brutus’s nobility and the Senators’ honor are entirely suspect without the speaker having to come out and say so.

The speech also includes concrete examples that support Antony’s thesis—that Caesar was killed not because he was ambitious—which allows the audience to visualize the rebuttal point he is making:

·         He was Marc Antony’s friend “faithful and just to [him]”
·         “He hath brought many captives home to Rome/ Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill”
·         “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept”
·         “You all did see that on the Lupercal/ I thrice presented him a kingly crown,/ Which he did thrice refuse”

All of this creates doubt about what the other guy has been saying without having to say “Brutus is full of it; he’s the ambitious mo-fo who needs to be cut down to size.”

Moreover, the speech is peppered with rhetorical questions, e.g., “In this did Caesar seem ambitious?” Such tropes are, of course, implicitly answered by the question itself.

Finally, Antony manages to appeal to his audience’s sense of justice without directly calling them out for being an ignorant, whimsical bunch of sheep:

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.

Up to this point, Antony has remained in total control of his rhetoric and thus of his audience. Only after this measured build-up does he finally permit himself an emotional indulgence:

. . . . Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

And of course this emotional hiccup is itself artful. Yet if a person recites the speech as it is designed to be recited—as Shakespeare’s musical patterns practically force a person to recite it—the speech will induce real emotion. The speaker will choke up at just the right place, which, in turn, will unsettle/move the audience in just the way the speaker intends, but without seeming overtly manipulative.

I suggest you go try to falsify my theory. Spend enough time with the speech such that you won’t trip over your tongue. Then read it just as the meter and phrasing and repetition directs you to do. You will feel the magic. Then think about how you might steal some of these same devices in crafting your next piece of legal writing. By doing so, perhaps you will make that brief or client pitch sing such that you need not fear the ides of March—or whenever that next deadline of yours happens to fall.

1 comment:

  1. If Marc Anthony is correct, and the good is oft interred with the bones of the do-gooder, then "True Complaint" will undoubtedly go with its author to her grave. If he is wrong, however, and acts of goodness simply go underground, or hide in the shadows, in times of under appreciation, while all the while unwittingly fertilizing the soils of recipient souls, then "True Complaint" and its author will, if I permit myself a moment of "emotional indulgence," ratchet up the cultural DNA of her readers and uplift generations to come. I think in this instance, Marc may be wrong.

    Minor hyperbole aside, just wanted to applaud your terrific analysis of this "great bit of rhetoric." Well done, as usual, Ms. Sween. Thank you.