Rome & Rhetoric & Us

We lawyers are a wordy lot. As our culture changes, under the influence of movies, television, the internet, we shift more and more to a culture of images rather than of words. We lawyers may have to trim our enthusiasm for words. Yet, for now, they remain our stock-in-trade. To this extent, we have few betters guides to the persuasive use of words than Shakespeare and Classical rhetoric, especially via the mind of a master writer like Garry Wills.

In a sense, the Funeral Orations from Julius Caesar are like a trial, although not couched in that format. The jury is the crowd, and both Brutus and Antony must woo them to their judgments. Are we so different? The fiction notwithstanding, I suggest that we have some important lessons to learn here.

Rome & Rhetoric coverGarry Wills has struck again, this time with his book Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In this slender volume Wills explores how Shakespeare, via Plutarch, grasped the essence of Rome at the time of the transition from republic to empire. Specifically, Wills explores the rhetoric of the leading characters. Of course, Antony’s funeral oration is the best known of the set pieces in this play. (My continued apologies to Mrs. Vaughn for having complained about having to memorize this in sophomore English class). However, Antony’s funeral oration is not the only example of rhetoric in the play. Before Antony speaks, Brutus addressed the crowd. Wills contrasts the rhetoric of Brutus, which centers upon “mine honor”, against the more nuanced speech given by Antony. Antony responds to his audience, whereas Brutus expects his audience to respond to him.

Wills’ love of Shakespeare is not new. His previous book on Macbeth demonstrates the care with which has explicates these texts. In addition, he has recently published a book on Shakespeare and Verdi, the great Italian opera composer who composed operas on some of Shakespeare’s plays. I haven’t read that book yet, but I have a hard time imagining that it could be better than this book. Wills is trained as a classicist, and the opportunity to merge his love of theater (and Shakespeare in particular), along with his classical learning, provides us a real treat in humanistic learning.

I always enjoyed Julius Caesar (my complaints and sophomore English notwithstanding), and I think that it is an easily accessible play. In addition, there are a couple of good film productions of it that are well worth seeing, including one with Marlon Brando as Anthony. If you have an opportunity to see these productions or to read this play, Wills’ book would be an excellent introduction and perspective on the play.

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