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Renaissance plays and poetry in England were saturated with the formal rhetorical twists that Latin education made familiar to audiences and readers Yet a formally educated man like Ben Jonson was unable to make these ornaments come to life in his two classical Roman plays Garry Wills focusing his attention on Julius Caesar here demonstrates how Shakespeare so wonderfully made these ancient devices vivid giving his characters their own personal styles of Roman speechIn four chapters devoted to four of the play’s main characters Wills shows how Caesar Brutus Antony and Cassius each has his own take on the rhetorical ornaments that Elizabethans learned in school Shakespeare also makes Rome present and animate by casting his troupe of experienced players to make their strengths shine through the historical facts that Plutarch supplied him with The result is that the Rome English speaking people carry about in their minds is the Rome that Shakespeare created for them And that is even true Wills affirms for today’s classical scholars with access to the original Roman sources


10 thoughts on “Rome and Rhetoric

  1. says:

    Like many indifferently educated people in the United States much of what I know or think I know about ancient Rome is through Shakespeare “Julius Caesar” primarily although “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Coriolanus” add to the mix; Garry Wills in “Rome and Rhetoric” says that knowing first century Rome from the perspective of 16th century England is a pretty good approach Wills of course has a very broad and deep knowledge and understanding of the Latin classics which he brings to bear in this textual analysis of the oratorical and conversational styles of Shakespeare’s Caesar Antony Brutus and Cassius It is a wonderful close reading laying bare the confusion regarding pride vs honor ambition vs responsibility and civic duty vs personal aggrandizement that involved each of these charactersWills looks at the individual linguistic devices of each of the four showing how the attitudes of each of them toward the others and towards the Roman people were both hidden or so the characters thought and revealed to the attentive reader or playgoer He thinks—and demonstrates—that Shakespeare knew classical Latin rhetoric particularly as used by Cicero a minor but key character in “Julius Caesar” and as taught to schoolboys in the late 1500s even in rural Stratford Wills contrasts Brutus’ speech at Caesar’s funeral to that of Antony in terms of their structures based on the initial principles laid down by Aristotle Both begin their arguments with logos an appeal to reason and a straightforward attempt to convince the audience—a very restive and volatile audience confused and upset with the assassination of Caesar and looking for leadership or at least someone to tell them what to think—that the conspirators had the best interests of the Republic at heart This is followed by ethos to show that the speaker is trustworthy According to Aristotle uoted by Wills ethos “affects the response especially in political but also in judicial forums that the speaker seem of a certain sort and that the hearers understand how he feels about them and to the point how they feel about him” Brutus’ speech is simple ethos—trust me because I am noble and honorable—but goes no further Antony shows that he is a plain lover of Caesar and using the device known aporia which is speech interrupted by silence and hesitation gets the crowd on his side when they fill in the blanks by saying that “There’s not a nobler man in Rome than Antony” He then goes beyond Brutus and into pathos directly into the emotions of the audience to change the way they think and feel about the Ides of March “If you have tears prepare to shed them”This is just a uick summation of a few pages from “Rome and Rhetoric” The book is full of learning but wears it lightly and assumes no from the reader than a willingness to look at a very familiar work of literature in a new although actually very old way There are plenty of asides that refer to other plays and other playwrights—particularly Ben Jonson—and fun facts about the play itself For example the title part is so short—significantly fewer lines than any of the other three—because it ran between “Henry V” and “Hamlet” both of which starred Richard Burbage It was a busy season so Shakespeare gave the great tragedian a bit of rest between rehearsing and performing two such daunting roles as the Lancastrian king and the Danish prince Wills attacks one of my favorite short scenes—lines 20 to 40 of Act 4 Scene I—in which Antony tells how he will cut one of the conspirators Lepidus out of the spoils of victory and set him up to be burdened with the “divers slanderous loads” that are sure to come and which should fall on Antony than anyone else When Octavius objects saying of Lepidus that “he’s a tried and valiant soldier;” Antony responds with “So is my horse Octavius and for that I appoint him a store of provenderdo not talk of him but as a property” Republican Rome had a very dark side; Antony’s casual dismissal of a formerly essential part of his party is a chilling example of it This is a short book that is worth reading and probably rereading


  2. says:

    The heart of these essays is a detailed rhetorical analysis of the funeral orations of Brutus and Marc Anthony Stating that Brutus’ speech has usually been treated respectfully in the critical literature on this play But its rhetoric is so overdone that it approaches what is comic elsewhere in Shakespeare Wills demonstrates that Brutus's reliance on the rhetorical device of chiasm would have been recognized as a foolish figure by an educated Elizabethan Brutus piles figure on figure in a crammed little space Antony by contrast  moves at a relaxed pace through a development of different figures— ironia praeteritio interrogatio anaphora and aposiopesis Wills' essay on Caesar himself addresses two uestions why Caesar himself has so few lines and how the character of Caesar was understood by the Elizabethan audience The final essay on Cassius examines the Roman conception of friendship and Wills shows how friendship plays out among the characters So much than rhetorical analysis of Julius Caesar these lectures examine Shakespeare as a reader of Plutarch and Shakespeare's grasp of the Roman ethos Wills compares Jonson and Shakepseare Ben Jonson knew far about Rome than Shakespeare did as his gibe about Shakespeare’s “small Latine” shows But his Roman plays are congested and clogged with their own learning Shakespeare has a feel for Roman rhetoric Stoicism nobility and cynicism that are immediately convincing Will's own erudition is vast but lightly worn This is a deeply illuminating and highly recommended book 


  3. says:

    Ben Jonson famously said that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek But Garry Wills makes a convincing case here that despite his inferior classicist chops Shakespeare demonstrates in Julius Caesar a much better feel for the essential ualities of Roman civilization than Jonson displays in his two Roman plays Sejanus and Catiline Caesar is Wills says the first play to bring a strong feel for Romanitas to the English stage I've been meaning to read infuriatingly accomplished polymath Garry Wills for a long time I thought it was going to be his translation of Augustine or his book on John Wayne but I picked this up to supplement my reading of Ceasar and I'm really glad I did On my own I would never have been able to identify the rhetorical tropes Brutus employs in his funeral oration let alone understand and Wills maintains a grammar school educated audience unfailingly would have that his reckless use of them reveals his essential political incompetence Brutus's rhetoric Wills says is so overdone that it approaches what is comic elsewhere in Shakespeare This is an excellent piece of criticism bringing astonishing erudition and perceptive close reading to bear on a canonical classic I learned fresh things for instance the typical distribution of boy actors in Elizabethan theater and was exposed to fresh ideas about a hoary chestnut


  4. says:

    A really interesting and informative read but a bit narrow in its approach to characterization Wills makes really good points about the characters as conscious users of rhetoric but limits them to solely that a bad sole perhaps he could use a cobbler? From an actor's perspective while rhetoricizing to oneself is viable enough as an action it doesn't seem nearly as provocative when it's devoid of genuine internal conflict I think Wills could have left some room for that But otherwise this is a great book and well worth readingUpdate I just took another look at this book Wills is actually kind of sloppy at times which is disappointing At one point he attributes lines to Brutus that actually belong to Cassius pg 3 though maybe he was looking at a different uarto He also cites David Daniell in referring to thy and thee as formal pronouns pg 133 failing to realize that in Elizabethan times they were actually just the opposite informal pronouns reserved for either individuals of lower social status or loved ones This glaring misunderstanding keeps Wills from fully perceiving and exploring certain elements in the play namely the sincere and loving relationship between Brutus and Portia


  5. says:

    I wish I had commentary like this for every Shakespeare play I've ever read Smart but not haughty Eminently readable


  6. says:

    Wills' series of lectures is illuminating as he explores Shakespeare's development of four chief characters Caesar Brutus Anthony and Cassius while also including helpful observations about Calpurnia and Portia I appreciated such insights into Julius Caesar as this one Cicero said that logic is like a fist while persuasion is like an outstretched hand Brutus with his tight argument waved a fist Antony will open both his hands to the crowd 82Ben Jonson famously wrote that Shakespeare had small Latine but Wills points out that Shakespeare's plays were able to capture of the spirit of Rome than Jonson's Wills also helps us further appreciate Shakespeare's grasp of rhetoric and his use of Plutarch's Lives while not losing focus on Shakespeare's own contributions for the book he read most surely is the human heart 153


  7. says:

    The line Friends Romans countrymen begins Marc Antony's speech in 'Julius Caesar' It was a rhetorical tour de force Garry Wills looks at the entire play through the lens of classical rhetoric That may have been how Elizabethans saw the play As Wills argues Shakespeare and his contemporaries were trained in teachings on rhetoric of uintilian Cicero and other ancient writers The book is a collection of lectures that Wills gave at Bard College As such it is short with its 150 pages curtailed by a large font and wide margins But it is full of insight into the play and its characters reflecting Wills status as one He is one of the most literate learned people writing today Moreover the prism of rhetoric suggests that that the book might provide a key for the analysis of public oration at least for those like me unfamiliar with the tropes of rhetoric as put forth in ancient texts


  8. says:

    Decent Rightly begins with some of the obvious potential mysteries of the play as lever to prise open larger issues The best things here of course are the examinations of the two key speeches by Brutus and Antony Wills' Latinity and familiarity with the rhetorical tradition these speeches are influenced by make him a pretty ideal summarizer of the ways they work Though he insists at a couple of points there are no villains in the play his readings ultimately work against a rehabilitation of Brutus Perhaps this is just a rebalancing act after so many centuries of wannabe republican worship of this most sanctimonious and self deluded of rebels The least interesting chapter is the last one filled as it is with some rather less convincing allusions to other Shakespeare plays about which Wills is on shakier ground Coriolanus in particular but Titus as well


  9. says:

    Excellent short study of Julius Caesar in four chapters on Caesar Brutus Antony and Cassius Author gave me new and deeper insights into a play I thought I knew well Recommended


  10. says:

    “Rome and Rhetoric” by historian Garry Wills is a narrowly focused work that will appeal to only a small audience The 2011 book consisting of four chapters one each on the four main characters of Shakespeare’s drama “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” is a revised version of the Anthony Hecht Lectures that Wills gave in 2009 at Bard College “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” have been my two favorite Shakespeare plays and I was glad to read an analysis of the rhetorical techniues that the Bard used in revealing the thinking and motivation of the ancient Roman characters Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” has the title character speaking only 155 lines and dying halfway through unusual for a play or for that matter a movie Wills asks why the play was not called “The Tragedy of Brutus”? Brutus after all speaks almost five times the number of lines that Caesar does and survives almost to the very end of the play Wills points out that the historical Julius Caesar was only 56 when he was assassinated in 44 BC and was in robust health despite his epilepsy Will criticizes those directors and actors who would portray Caesar otherwise “Caesar was a commanding figure in the Renaissance imagination He should be played that way in Shakespeare’s drama Otherwise the power of his specter to haunt all the later action of the play makes no sense English actor Richard Burbage had to make Caesar a figure to reckon with To present him as so often happens now as a tinpot dictator or a dithering old fool is to reduce the scale of the tragedy” After Caesar’s assassination Brutus and Marc Antony deliver eulogies at Caesar’s funeral in the Forum Wills gives an astute analysis of Shakespeare’s method in using each speech to shed light on the character of each “Brutus’ speech has usually been treated respectfully in the critical literature on this play But its rhetoric is so overdone that it approaches what is comic elsewhere in Shakespeare And there is another thing to notice about it It is all about himself Antony’s speech will be all about Caesar – what he conuered how he loved what he leaves his countrymen But in the speech of Brutus there is a monotonous dwelling on Brutus his honor his unuestionable standing” Wills shows why Antony’s speech starting with “Friends Romans countrymen lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him” was the persuasive and thus effective speech how its rhetorical devices mainly irony and the repeated ironic use of the word “honourable” as regards Brutus roused the citizens of Rome to drive the assassins from Rome In exile they are ultimately killed For anyone who has performed in this 1599 tragedy or who has read or seen a production this slim volume will be a useful supplement