Accepting that Western society is predominantly literate it is difficult for us to recognize the oral roots upon which our culture is founded. In fact it would be near impossible to consider how an artifact from a previous culture impacts any society without first having an appreciation of the value of that artifact within the culture which it first existed. Ong suggests that those from a literate society would have great difficulty imagining what it would be like to live in a culture with no knowledge of writing (Ong, 1982). Such revisionist history is not always afforded due consideration in societies that believe themselves motivated by the desire to become technologically faster, better and/or more efficient. This failure to identify the traditions of pervious cultures is very much alive in our time. It can be understood then that societies often take for granted the elements from previous cultures which have led to their accepted definitions of normal.
Presently, in high school English classrooms across British Columbia Shakespeare’s plays are included as part of the course. A familiar question voiced in many of these classrooms is, “Why do we still study Shakespeare?” This question is really about the relevance of literature that is approximately 400 years old. Here lies another example wherein a society overlooks the importance of the oral traditions which came before. While there are a multitude of answers as to why educators still believe these plays are relevant, in the case of the tragedy Julius Caesar, one of the indirect outcomes of teaching this play is that it illustrates how praise in speeches is rooted in the formulaic expressions of orality (Ong, 1982), and that the power of rhetorical oration should not be taken for granted.
In Mark Antony’s speech at the forum (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii), formulaic oral expressions are used to persuade and entice the play’s citizens into action. Antony begins under the guise of having come to bury Caesar and not praise him, appearing to be in agreement with noble Brutus. Brutus is in fact mentioned throughout the speech, directly after Caesar in repetitious, poetic, juxtaposition with lines like “For Brutus is an honourable man” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii). Such blatant repetition in a speech can serve to emphasize the point being made but also harkens back to mnemonic patterns used in oral cultures. As Ong (1982) describes, the use of heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions enables to speaker to store and retrieve thoughts during oral delivery. In essence the citizens in the forum scene are treated to an example of this technique when Antony extols Caesar’s virtues and immediately contradicts them with the point of view of ‘honourable’ Brutus. So complete is the formulaic delivery and contrast of Caesar and Brutus in Antony’s speech that to omit Brutus from any of the four occasions where he is mentioned in the opening of the speech would serve to upset the rhythmic pattern, balance and impact of the words. The spoken words are structured so that the couplets beginning with “For/But/Yet Brutus” and “And Brutus” signal the close of an argument or idea to the audience and hint an introduction of some new train of thought with regard to Caesar.
Moreover, Antony uses rhetoric to publicly prosecute Caesar’s murders while he claims to uphold them for their honour. He agrees with the killers’ assertion that Caesar was an ambitious man but paints that ambition, through the artful use of persuasive rhetoric, as being in the best interest of the people. So well does he execute his intention that by the end of Antony’s speech, the citizens are impassioned, ready to invoke a mutiny and burn Brutus’ house in retribution for the murder to their ambitious, former leader. One of the most powerful tools at Antony’s disposal is that of oral testimony. According to Ong (1982), cultures that know literacy, but have not whole heartedly embraced it, are leery to accept the written word as truth but rather put greater credence into what people say because they can be challenged to defend their statements unlike those assertions or recollections found in text. The exchange between the four citizens while Antony pauses at the end of his first salvo (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii) illustrates the persuasive power of personal testimony. Having heard Antony’s examples the first citizen expresses his belief that there is “much reason in his sayings” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii). The other citizens follow suit and begin to formulate their opinion of what Antony has said based on the fact that there “[was] not a nobler man in Rome than Antony” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii) and that they had “Mark’d… his words” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii). In essence, Antony was a credible person so what he said had to be true.
Antony proceeds to appeal to the citizens’ emotions telling them it is good that they “know not that they were [Caesar’s] heirs” for it would “inflame” them (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii). He asks the assembled citizens if they “compel [him], then, to read the will” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii). Shortly thereafter he draws their attention to where the daggers ran through or where Brutus stabbed Caesar, calling forth vivid and violent imagery to turn the mood of the citizens. Evidence by their lines, the citizens are persuaded by his rhetoric and respond at the “piteous spectacle” of Caesar and express their anger at the “traitors and villains” promising to “be revenged” and “let not a traitor live” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, scene ii). In the end, Antony masterfully manipulates the citizens to seek revenge through his use of emotionally charged persuasion.
To the students who pose questions about the relevance of Shakespearean plays in this age, one might explore any number of answers. One answer of particular poignancy is that we as a literate society need to appreciate the underpinnings of communication that come to us from pre-literate societies in order to prepare ourselves for the rhetoric we are bombarded with daily. In Julius Caesar, we are privileged to witness Mark Antony utilize certain oral tools to instigate a riot in Rome. We must educate ourselves so that we can recognize these same tools at work on us when union leaders rally the troops, activists chant their slogans and politicians appeal to our emotions. If our students are aware of the impact and power of orality and rhetoric, then they are better prepared to critically engage in the discourses presented by the Mark Antony’s of our society.
Hylton, J. (1993). The Life and Death of Julies Caesar. Retrieved from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/julius_caesar/index.html
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, NY:Routledge.