This statement by Antony appears in act 3, scene 2 of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Caesar has been assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, and the conspirators in the previous scene, and Antony is now speaking at Caesar's funeral. Brutus and Cassius have already spoken to the Roman citizens, trying to explain and justify their action, but when they depart, Antony takes over. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” he begins. Then he says that he has not come to praise Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them,” he continues. “The good is oft interred with their bones. / So let it be with Caesar.”
At first, it seems like Antony is agreeing with the conspirators and celebrating Caesar's death, even calling his friend an evil man. Indeed, the statement as it stands alone is true. The evil that men do does indeed live after them. The effects of people's poor choices and wicked actions resound for days, months, and even years as those left behind deal with the consequences of the evil committed. Think, for instance, of a murderer who kills another person and then takes his own life. He may be dead, but the family and friends of the murdered person are left to cope with the evil that has been done.
As we continue to read Antony's speech, however, we begin to realize that he is speaking ironically. Brutus, Antony reminds the crowd, has said that Caesar was ambitious. Brutus is an honorable man, he grants, so this statement must be true. Caesar must be guilty of the evil of ambition, and therefore that evil must live on in its consequences after his death. Yet Antony goes on to refute Brutus's claim (and put Brutus's honor into question), for he relates how Caesar “brought many captives home to Rome” and increased Rome's wealth through their ransoms. Caesar wept with the poor. Caesar turned down the “kingly crown” three times. The people once loved Caesar faithfully. None of these qualities reveal Caesar's evil ambitiousness; in fact, they show quite the opposite. Caesar was not an ambitious man. Brutus's claim is untrue, and Brutus himself may not be as honorable as he seems. Reason has been turned on its head. Indeed, Antony implies, perhaps the evil that Brutus has done will live after him in the consequences of Caesar's murder.