What truths about human nature does Shakespeare depict in the Act 3 riot scene of Julius Caesar?
During the funeral scene of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, human beings are revealed as stupid and fickle.
First, the crowd wholeheartedly accepts Brutus's version of events, and the reasons for those events. The crowd is probably ready at this point to kill for Brutus. But within a matter of minutes, they become ready to kill Brutus, as well as the other conspirators. Such a quick reversal on the part of the crowd, regardless of whose argument is correct, shows stupidity, and a willingness to be played with and manipulated, intellectually speaking. It shows a willingness to commit too easily to extremes.
Antony's speech, however, is not primarily emotional. Emotion finishes what intellect starts. The main part of his argument is rational and based on reason. He uses irony, created with juxtaposition (the placing of opposites side by side) to create a powerful rational and reasonable argument.
Antony does this with the following logical steps:
- He describes an unambitious action by Caesar
- He uses the refrain: But Brutus says he was ambitious, and...
- Brutus is an honorable man.
One example looks like this:
- Caesar turned down the crown three times
- But Brutus says he was ambitious, and
- Brutus is an honorable man.
This is a rational argument, not an emotional one. It may create emotion in the listeners, but it is an argument that uses reason.
And the crowd gets it, demonstrating that it is capable of reasoning. It is also fickle, however, and is eager to leap from one extreme to the other without considering the consequences. Though capable of using reason, they neglect to do so, and thereby demonstrate ignorance and stupidity.
This ignorance and stupidity reaches new heights when the crowd, turned into a mob, kills Cinna the Poet, thinking, at first, that he is Cinna the conspirator. Even after the mobsters become aware that they have the wrong man, though, they kill him anyway. This mob doesn't need a reason to kill; it just wants to kill.
In Act III of Julius Caesar, the astounding perspicacity of William Shakespeare is clearly evidenced. For, Shakespeare, who knew human nature so well, depicts the mob mentality that can quickly be swayed. While the noble Brutus idealistically believes that he can present logical reasons why Caesar needed to be taken from rule in Rome, Marc Antony better knows human nature, persuading the Roman crowd through the stronger, more exigent part of man, his emotions. Foolishly, Brutus feels that the Romans will weigh his words correctly against the fomenting speech of Marc Antony which makes use of several rhetorical devices.
Marc Antony appeals to the needs of the crowd for someone to love--"You all did love him [Caesar] once" (III,ii,103)--, then he tricks the crowd by implying that they are not rational and no longer love Caesar:
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar...(III,ii,105-108)
Antony shows the crowd the body of Caesar riddled with wounds and implies the brutality of the conspirators, suggesting that retaliation for this cruel death should be made:
But were I Brutus, and Brutus Antony [implication: if he be so "honorable,"] there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar's that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny (III,ii,227-231)
Finally, Marc Antony appeals to one of the strongest emotions of all men: greed. He reads the will of Caesar which bequeaths money to each citizen; afterwards, Antony implies that Brutus and the other conspirators have kept the Romans from this reward.
In the riot scene, Shakespeare demonstrates how the driving desires of greed and revenge and love/loyalty toward a leader can cause civil strife; emotion wins out against reason with mobs.
I interpreted your question differently than the other editors. When you mentioned the riot scene in Act 3, the first event that comes to my mind is Act 3, Scene 3--the scene in which Cinna the Poet is killed by the angry mob. In the previous scene, Antony certainly stirs the crowd into a frenzy, but it is in Scene 3, that the audience observes the effects of mob mentality upon humans. The Cinna scene demonstrates that:
1. Riots and mobs create chaos during which humans set aside standards of decorum and morality and assume the animalistic qualities of a herd of animals. Specifically, the scene with Cinna is so chaotic that no one truly listens to Cinna's protests or considers the consequences of his or her actions; instead, everyone acts as one to attack the poet.
2. Mob mentality takes advantage of the innocent who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cinna the Poet had nothing to do with the assassination other than unfortunately sharing the same name as one of the conspirators. Because the rioters are intent on violence, they attack and kill an innocent man who happens to be in the streets at the time.
3. Illogical reasoning consumes a mob. When the conspirators hear some of Cinna's protests, they nonchalantly reason that they will kill him simply
"for his bad verses” (3.3.31).
They then run off to burn the conspirators' houses. Under normal circumstances, the rioters would have most likely been outraged that someone was murdered for his bad poetry, but in this scene, they act as one under the "drug" of Antony's persuasive funeral speech.