BMCR 2012.06.24

Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities

, Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2011. 186. ISBN 9780300152180. $25.00.


This slender volume is typical Garry Wills: learned but also accessible, well-written, making some subject of scholarly interest entertaining for a broad audience. Few of our public intellectuals can manage to flow right along, for the most part unpretentiously, while throwing around terms like praeteritio and aposiopesis. Somehow Wills manages, once if not twice a year, to absorb an impressive amount of academic commentary on his topic du jour and to transform it into a popular book. This new work on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, originally presented at Bard College as the Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities, reflects a number of the characteristic interests that have preoccupied Wills over the years: literature, classics, politics, leadership.

The book is not long–unfortunately, I cannot blame the tardiness of this review on the scope of my assignment–and its 150 pages of text, with their large font, ample line spacing, and generous margins, can be read in an afternoon. It consists of four chapters, each on one of the play’s main characters: Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and Cassius (in that order). Although the title suggests a focus on the role of rhetoric in the play, this is more prominent in some chapters than others. The discussions of Brutus and Antony involve close examination of their rhetorical techniques, especially (though not only) in the successive funeral orations they give following Caesar’s assassination. The chapters on Caesar and Cassius, on the other hand, while they involve considerable textual analysis, do not analyze rhetorical technique to nearly the same extent.

The opening chapter on Caesar is clearly the book’s weakest. It includes two different arguments, both of them interesting enough, but very disconnected, almost as if two separate essays had been combined into a single chapter merely because they were about the same character. First, Wills considers the limited role of Cicero in the play and wonders why Shakespeare has this prominent figure appear so little on stage and speak even less. He argues that the actor playing Cicero must have doubled another role with limited lines, and, after considering some of the play’s early scenes, concludes that the same actor (Wills votes for Richard Burbage, the star of Shakespeare’s company) must have played the roles of both Cicero and Caesar. This is an intriguing suggestion and inevitably prompts the question of whether Shakespeare might have intended anything by having one actor play both the great spokesman of republican Rome and its first emperor. Yet Wills does not pursue this question, or develop any possible implications from his claim; instead, he moves directly into a separate discussion of the role that Caesar himself, who dies early in its third act, plays in the drama. Here he argues that Caesar should be portrayed not as “a tinpot dictator or a dithering old fool” (25), but rather as “the presiding spirit of the play” (35), whose avenging ghost drives its action forward even after his death, in his “posthumous strength [striding] across seas and lands like a Colossus of retribution” (32). His persuasive argument to this effect would gain force from attention to the play’s context in debates over tyrannicide in Elizabethan England, nicely summarized by David Daniell in his introduction to the Arden edition of the play.1

Although Wills claims that “[t]here are…no villains in this play” (153), he is fairly hard on Brutus, whom he portrays as so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with his own unassailable virtue and honor, that he can neither see his own serious shortcomings nor exercise good political judgement during or after the assassination. Wills examines Brutus’ favorite rhetorical devices, such as chiasm and partitio, suggesting that Shakespeare often uses them to hint that a character is suspect or pedantic. His discussion of chiasm is especially helpful. He argues that “Brutus’ honor, his supposed strength, is actually his weakness. It is the instrument of self-involvement, as we can see from the chiasmic form itself. It is not a forward-moving argument, like a syllogism, but a circling back upon itself…. [Brutus] does not go out to others to convince them, but asks the audience to come into his own conviction of his own perfection” (56-7). In a similarly insightful remark, Wills claims that the sudden prose of Brutus’ funeral oration– which is both preceded and followed by his speaking in verse–is not a sign of sincerity, as a modern reader might instinctively imagine, but rather one of artificiality: “Brutus reads his cold and studied text” (59; emphasis in original), a speech evidently prepared in advance and pulled out for the occasion. Wills buttresses his assessment of Brutus with shorter examinations of his private soliloquies in his orchard, which reveal that he has already decided to join the conspiracy even before Cassius arrives to seal the deal, and also of the “visual rhetoric” (68) of the murderers’ bathing their hands in Caesar’s blood. He nicely points toward the sacramental character of the latter act. In both of these cases, Wills suggests, we see that Brutus’ confidence in his own honor leads him astray. It lets him justify the murder before the fact, even though he can produce no evidence of Caesar’s tyranny; and afterwards, he foolishly imagines that his own reputation will suffice to inoculate the populace against Antony’s demagogic rhetoric.

Antony, though claiming to be a “plain blunt man” (III.2.211), is as clever and effective a speaker as Brutus is formal and ineffective. Here again Wills leads us through a sequence of rhetorical figures that Antony uses to his advantage as he attempts to win over the crowd and then to turn them against Caesar’s killers. Through his use of irony and other devices, Antony first induces his listeners to question the conspirators’ pretensions, to “question its own certitudes–about Brutus’ honor, about Caesar’s ambition” (95). Having done so, he moves into persuasive mode by establishing his ethos, his character as a friend and lover of Caesar. With the crowd now on his side, and teasing them with the secret contents of Caesar’s will, Antony then closes with a superb theatrical gesture of his own, to match Brutus’ previous visual rhetoric: he descends from his pulpit to come down among the crowd, where he reveals Caesar’s wounded body and displays his bloody vesture. His speech culminates in the metaphorical rhetoric of Caesar’s corpse, as Antony shows “sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths, / And bid[s] them speak” (III.3.218-19). Yet the Antony who can speak so movingly as Caesar’s friend also has his darker side, seen vividly in the proscription scene, where he readily and chillingly agrees that his nephew must be among those to die. Wills nicely contrasts the “cold efficiency of the triumvirs as they lay out their plans” (105) with the “idealistic fools, blind to their own motives” (104) who had planned the conspiracy. He argues that the greatness of the play–”the first play to bring a strong feel for Romanitas to the English stage” (109)–lies in this ability to portray all of Rome, its grandeur as well as its ruthlessness. His summing up of this is nicely suggestive of the play’s power: “Shakespeare’s Rome is more convincing than [Ben] Jonson’s, and it suggests another contrast of an intuitive as opposed to a scholarly approach to the classics…. Shakespeare saw all around the Roman ethos, its bellicose and cold-blooded side, as well as its aspirations after honor and nobility. He gives us the Roman mobs as well as the Roman snobs. He has called up, for all time, a world whose time was over” (111).

The book’s final chapter–ostensibly on Cassius, but in fact drawing a number of different characters into a discussion that does not, in the end, seem focused on any single person–resembles the first in containing two somewhat different sections, though in this case the link that joins them is more evident. The first is a reflection on Shakespeare’s use in the play of “parallel lives,” the organizing concept of Plutarch’s Lives, in which Shakespeare found much of his source material for Julius Caesar. Wills argues convincingly that Shakespeare borrows Plutarch’s technique of probing the similarities and differences between his characters by means of juxtapositions that illuminate their strengths and weaknesses. “Once Cassius uses Caesar to spur on Brutus,” Wills writes, “the poising of man against man begins for all the major figures in this play. It is a drama famous for the difficulty of deciding which role to emphasize” (116-17). Among the more interesting comparisons Wills makes is one between Cassius and Antony: the former initiates the conspiracy but is shunted aside by Brutus’ assumption of leadership, the latter stirs up the opposition to the conspirators but is similarly overshadowed by Octavius. Through a brief discussion of Portia and Calpurnia, Wills suggests that the parallel lives technique extends not only to the “poising of man against man,” but also to that of woman against woman. After highlighting various of these parallelisms, Wills then shifts to one of the book’s highlights, its closing treatment of amicitia in the play. “Shakespeare is nowhere truer to Rome than in the importance he places on Roman friendship” (145), such as that between Brutus and Cassius, or Antony and Caesar. The value they place on friendship and loyalty helps to humanize these characters for us. In a final eight-page tour de force, Wills examines the tent scene between Brutus and Cassius, in which they first quarrel and then reconcile, He demonstrates that their argument plays upon themes from Cicero’s De amicitia and also echoes the dispute between Antony and Cicero when the former accused the latter of violating the bonds of friendship in his Philippics. Wills closes by suggesting that Shakespeare’s “appreciation of friendship in the Roman ethical system” is the clearest sign of his “ability to intuit Rome” (153).

This short but illuminating book, which could be usefully read alongside the play by undergraduate or even high school students, reveals the immersion in his subject and the flashes of insight that are characteristic of Wills, whose career has surely been one of the best advertisements for the lasting value of a classical education. It should be enjoyable also for more seasoned scholars. Specialists in the voluminous literature on Julius Caesar will, I suspect, not find a great deal here that is genuinely new. But even they are likely to appreciate Wills’s own ability to intuit the meaning of prominent lives or of cultural moments, from 20th-century America, to Elizabethan England, to republican Rome.


1.Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ed. David Daniell (London: Cengage Learning, 1998), pp. 22-38.