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One good essay question for practically any work of literature is to ask how a particular piece or passage is effective as a work of literature – that is, as piece of language that calls attention to itself as language or as a group of words skillfully designed and arranged. One might ask, then, the following question:
How is Brutus’s soliloquy at the opening of Act II, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar effectively written? What combination of literary techniques helps make the soliloquy a memorable piece of writing?
In answering this question, one might call attention to the following factors:
- The opening phrase – “It must be by his death” – is written in regular iambic meter, in which each odd syllable is unaccented and each even syllable is accented. This kind of meter, used to express these kinds of thoughts, suggests that Brutus’s thinking at this point is calm, deliberate, and rational. He seems already to have decided what he intends to do.
- In contrast, the words “my” and “personal” are heavily accented in the next line and a half, as if Brutus now carefully considers and emphasizes the implications of his own participation, as an individual, in any killing of Caesar.
- The word “But” is heavily accented, signaling a swing back from the personal to the abstract, so that the first three lines alternate rapidly in their implications: first Brutus seems to have decided, then he seems to hesitate, then he move back again toward justifying the killing. This back-and-forth movement is in fact typical of much of the soliloquy.
- The very brevity of the phrase “He would be crowned” emphasizes its key importance for Brutus, as does its placement at the very beginning of the new sentence. This issue – Caesar’s possible coronation – is literally first and foremost in his mind.
- The following two lines are especially effective because of their vivid images:
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking.
Shakespeare here uses archetypal imagery, since snakes inspire fear in most people. He also uses irony, since we normally think of daylight as less dangerous than night. In addition, he uses the literary techniques of assonance (as in “day” and “craves”) and alliteration (as in “wary walking”).
- The phrase “Crown him?” is effective because of its brevity, its placement at the very beginning of the line (with heavy accent on the crucial verb), and its formulation as a quick question. Imagine how much less effective this moment would be if Shakespeare had written, “It bothers me that they do think to crown him.” The two-word question is far more effective and surprising; by repeating a key word, it suggests the degree to which Brutus is obsessed with this issue of crowning.
- Just as Brutus reiterates the idea of crowning, so he also reiterates the imagery of stinging and snakes. His language, in short, reveals a kind of obsessiveness as he keeps returning, over and over, to the same key thoughts.
These, then, are the sorts of answers one might provide to the question stated above.
Something extra: It's often a good idea to imagine how the writer might have phrased things differently than s/he did, as in the example above about the question "Crown him?" By writing out alternative ways of phrasing the same basic idea, one can get a better idea of the original phrasing's strengths and/or weaknesses.
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