Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086
A crowd gathers in the marketplace, demanding an answer for Caesar’s death. Assuring the citizens that he is planning to address them and make good his cause, Brutus asks Cassius to address another street. Cassius exits with some citizens. Brutus begins his powerful speech by urging the citizens to “be patient till the last” and hear him out fully. He tells the people that he had to assassinate Caesar, because as great as his love for Caesar was, his love for Rome was even greater. Would the people rather Caesar lived and they died slaves, or would they prefer things the other way around? Brutus says anyone who loves his country will understand the reason Caesar needed to be slain, adding that he will always cherish Caesar’s good qualities and criticize his ambition.
As Antony enters with Caesar’s shrouded body, the crowd, moved by Brutus’s speech, demand he “be Caesar” and be crowned. Brutus asks the citizens to hear out Antony, who is being allowed to speak with his permission. Brutus leaves, and Antony takes the pulpit. Antony begins his speech with the powerful exhortation
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Antony says he is not at the pulpit to praise Caesar. After all, those who killed him were honorable men. Describing the “noble Brutus,” Antony says that Brutus claimed Caesar was ambitious, but Caesar’s three-time refusal of the crown does not appear to be the act of an ambitious man. Yet they must believe what Brutus and the conspirators say since they are all honorable men. While technically adhering to Brutus’s stipulation to refrain from disclaiming the conspirators, Antony’s vividly illustrative speech achieves that very purpose. Next, he tells the citizens about reading out Caesar’s will, which he says he dares not read aloud, because it would rouse the citizens to great emotions, as "[they] are not wood, [they] are not stones, but men.” When the citizens implore him repeatedly to read out the will, Antony asks them to gather around Caesar’s body so he can read his will in its presence. Showing them Caesar’s rent and blood-stained mantle, and then his stabbed body, Antony rouses the crowd to a fever pitch of emotion. Bloodthirsty by now, the crowd demands the death of Brutus and the other conspirators. Antony asks them to stay until he has read out Caesar’s will. The revelation that Caesar has given each Roman citizen 75 drachmas and left all his property to become public parks fans the fire. The enraged mob disperses in search of Caesar’s killers. Antony learns that Octavius is already in Rome, while Brutus and Cassius have fled the city.
A poet named Cinna enters a street packed with citizens, recalling an ominous dream in which his feast with Caesar ended unluckily. Even though there is foreboding in his heart, he says, something draws him out to the street. The citizens begin questioning Cinna aggressively, asking him his name, his destination, where he lives, and if he is married. Cinna answers that he is a bachelor on his way to Caesar’s funeral. However, when he reveals his name, the citizens mistake him for Cinna the conspirator and raise the terrible cry:
Tear him to pieces.
Even though Cinna repeatedly insists that he is Cinna the poet, the citizens attack and kill him to satisfy their bloodlust. “Firebrands” in hand, they split into groups to burn down the homes of the conspirators.
The speeches of Brutus and Anthony, each masterful in their own way, illuminate their speakers’ individual natures, as well as different aspects of human nature. Even before the speeches are delivered, the very decision to let Antony into the proceedings casts a long shadow on Brutus’s fate. Brutus’s inability to assess Antony and the danger he represents is a mistake he is bound to repeat over the course of the play. Perhaps Brutus, an intellectual, underestimates Antony, a soldier and man of action.
Brutus’s speech to the audience is built on the assumption that if only they understood why he did what he did, his deed would appear commendable to them. To this end, Brutus lays out his reasons for thwarting Caesar's growing ambition and delivers a defense of freedom, which he considers indispensable to Romans. Brutus’s tone is measured, his arguments rational and straightforward. Though the crowd agrees with Brutus, their choric “yes” and “no” responses to his speech suggest mindless acquiescence rather than a thoughtful engagement with his speech.
Unlike Brutus, who addresses a largely friendly crowd, Antony encounters a hostile group swayed by Brutus’s words. Yet, he begins to control the crowd from his very address, which urges them to action. Antony is a natural orator, a master of rhetoric who uses not only his words but his entire body to affect his audience. He jumps down from the pulpit to deliver his speech surrounded by people, weeps openly, uses props such as Caesar’s rent garment to move them, and deploys language rich with hypnotic repetitions. The phrase “Brutus is an honorable man,” repeated throughout, begins to underscore Brutus’s dishonorable acts, while the conjunction between Caesar and ambition begins to undo that association. Shakespeare’s assessment of the dangerous power of political oratory prefigures the popular dictators of the twentieth century. By the end of Antony’s speech, the crowd is howling to kill the conspirators. The crowd’s volatile, aggressive mood offers a prescient commentary on the pitfalls of missing nuance and existing in an echo chamber.
The murder of Cinna the poet illustrates the way the human mind can work when part of a mob. Fear and rage take over like a fever, and the mob loses all rationale, ignoring Cinna’s cry of “I am Cinna the poet.” Why does Shakespeare make Cinna a poet? The choice is deliberate and meant to examine a poet or writer’s role in society. Through Cinna, Shakespeare seems to be asking his audience the same questions he would have often faced: is art useful? What purpose does poetry serve? Tellingly, even after learning his true identity, the crowd kill Cinna for his “bad verses,” highlighting an artist’s precarious position in Elizabethan society. “Tear him up,” the crowd chants, as if what they also want to destroy is pages and manuscripts. Again the deliberate choice of phrase draws the reader’s attention to Shakespeare’s anxiety about his position as a writer.
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