Lesson Plans and Teaching Resources for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Rhetorical Devices in Julius Caesar: Mark Antony's Funeral Speech

William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar is a treasure trove of rhetorical devices. What devices does Mark Antony employ in his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral?

Although Mark Antony claims to be a “plain blunt man” who is only able to “speak right on,” he is actually a highly skilled orator who uses a wide range of rhetorical devices not only to persuade his audience but to influence and even inflame their emotions (3.2.230, 235). Antony’s funeral oration amounts to a masterclass in the cynical manipulation of logos, ethos, and pathos!

Because Antony uses so many devices that it’d be hard to account for them all, this blog post will focus on the three most prominent rhetorical devices which play pivotal roles in his speech: rhetorical questions, verbal irony, and paralepsis.

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore this topic with your students, then you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Julius Caesar. Save yourself hundreds of hours of prep time while amplifying student engagement with this Complete Teaching Unit on Julius Caesar!


Mark Antony's Use of Rhetorical Devices

Mark Antony had been given permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral on the condition that he would not “blame” any of the conspirators (3.1.270). Does Antony ever explicitly blame Brutus or his fellow conspirators? No, Antony never explicitly blames or criticizes the conspirators. Yet the true meaning of his words inheres in what he says implicitly.…

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest
(For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men),
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me,
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
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 honorable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honorable man. (3.2.90-108)

Here, Mark Antony uses a series of rhetorical questions in order to establish that Caesar was not an ambitious person. For example, Antony observes that Caesar conquered many enemies whose “ransoms” enriched the Roman “coffers”; then he asks, “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” (3.2.98-99). Antony observes that Caesar refused his offer of the crown three times; then he asks, “Was this ambition?” (3.2.106). While Antony knows how his audience would answer these questions, he does not expect them to answer out loud, since to do so would be to “blame” the conspirators.

Mark Antony finishes each of these points by affirming that Brutus is an “honorable” man. In fact, he repeats the same pair of lines three times verbatim: “Yet Brutus says [Caesar] was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honorable man” (3.2.95-96, 102-103, 107-108). What is the effect of this repetition? By repeating this pair of assertions, Antony suggests that both assertions are untrue. His use of repetition creates verbal irony, whereby a speaker says one thing but means another. While he seems to assert that Brutus is “honorable,” the repetition of this assertion implies that Brutus is really dishonorable.

Mark Antony is a master of verbal irony. His dexterity in deploying ironic words and gestures is evident across a number of scenes in the play. Whereas Brutus consistently embodies honesty and humility, Antony purports to say one thing even as he is really saying the opposite. By using irony, Antony is able to explicitly praise Brutus even while he implicitly blames and condemns him. Each time that Antony seems to affirm that Brutus is an “honorable” man, he is really undermining his opponent’s honor and credibility.

Toward the end of his funeral oration, Mark Antony uses a rhetorical device called “paralepsis.” Paralepsis is a form of verbal irony where the speaker disclaims the very things which he is trying to accomplish! Antony uses paralepsis at least three times in his funeral speech. Here’s just one brief example:

Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honorable. (3.2.222-224)

In these lines, what does Antony say he intends to do? What does he actually do? Antony says he doesn’t intend to “stir […] up” his audience so they’ll take revenge on the conspirators; and he says he doesn’t mean to provoke a “sudden flood of munity.” But, of course, what Antony actually does is provoke his audience into pursuing revenge against his political enemies. As if on cue, the people cry, “We’ll mutiny” (3.2.244).

Like so many of Shakespeare’s villains, Mark Antony is an embodiment of duplicity and two-facedness. As the angry mob rushes out with torches to search for the conspirators, Antony utters a two-line soliloquy which reveals his true intentions. Speaking in apostrophe to the “Mischief” which he has sought to provoke, Antony concludes, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot; / Take thou what course thou wilt” (3.2.275-276).

Thus, Shakespeare uses this play to demonstrate that while rhetoric can amount to an art of rational persuasion, it can also be exploited for the purpose of manipulating and inflaming other people’s emotions.


Teach It Today!

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore these and many other topics with your students, then you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Julius Caesar. The 160-page resource packet includes worksheets, discussion questions, and writing prompts for every scene in Julius Caesar. Best of all, it includes a teacher's answer key for every page!

Save yourself dozens of hours of prep time while motivating students to be highly engaged. Check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Julius Caesar. You'll use it for years to come!

Julius Caesar Complete Teaching Resource by Rigorous Resources

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