Analyzing Julius Caesar through the lens of Ong’s Orality Framework

In his investigation of oral cultures in Orality and Literacy, Ong (1982) attempts to identify knowledge-sharing characteristics unique to these pre-literate societies. Many conclusions are drawn from literature that has been produced from “residually oral cultures,” cultures in which most of the population is illiterate (p.45). Among the referenced literature is the work of William Shakespeare, particularly Julius Caesar. An investigation of the text in Marc Antony’s infamous funeral oration in this play highlight several oral features identified by Ong in his book, characteristics that contribute to its success as a model of persuasive rhetoric.

Ong (1982) states that one of the main features in oral culture is the use of mnemonic patterns to express thinking; thought must come alive “in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings (the assembly, the meal, the duel, the hero’s ‘helper’, and so on), in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form” (p. 34). The speech made by Marc Antony in Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, especially when heard rather than read, highlights a certain rhythmic pattern that makes this address so effective. The rhetoric also includes examples of repetition and antitheses. Antony repeatedly stresses that Brutus said Caesar was “ambitious” and that Brutus is an “honorable man” (Hylton, 1993, Act III, Scene ii). However, these words follow evidence that portrays Caesar as a good friend, a great leader, and a selfless servant of the people rather than a power-hungry leader. The repetition is therefore intended to make the audience question, as Antony does so aloud earlier in his speech, why Brutus’ claim should be trusted. The orator also uses alliteration and assonance in lines such as “to such a sudden flood of mutiny” (III, ii) so that the words linger with his audience.

In addition to these main features of oral text, Ong (1982) states that oral culture emphasizes personal relations within the context of human struggle, and that “…praise goes with the highly polarized, agonistic, oral world of good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes” (p. 45). During the course of his speech, Antony effectively uses praise to shift the attitudes of the mob, convincing them to see Caesar as a tragic hero and thereby vilify the traitorous Brutus and his conspirators who are responsible for the great leader’s demise (Hylton, III,ii). He initially follows along with the crowd, who have just been told by Brutus that they would have been slaves under Caesar but now are free, and states that he is simply here to bury his friend while praising his killers. However, as the aforementioned evidence is presented in favour of the fallen Caesar, he carefully plants seeds of doubt among his listeners as to which character is good and which is evil. Antony then goes on to say that he is not here to stir up a mutiny, but then does exactly this by mentioning to them his finding of Caesar’s will, which he greatly builds up and initially refuses to read aloud for fear of inciting hatred toward Brutus and Cassius. Throughout this passage, praise is injected in the text, not only offered by the speaker Antony, but also by members of the audience. Flattery is apparently a very powerful persuasive tool in oral societies.

Ong also stresses the importance of empathy and participation in oral text (p. 45). Rather than distancing themselves and others from the content in order to provide objectivity, speakers aim to include themselves as well as the audience and characters so that they are all a part of the story. The reader, or viewer, is made to feel like a member of the crowd at this funeral, and some characters from this group of people are given voices to convey the sentiments of the mob in reaction to Antony’s words. Everyone feels included in this moment. Furthermore, by having the mob empathize with himself and Caesar, Antony is able to stir up the targeted feelings of sorrow, hatred, and revenge among his audience before even having to read the contents of the will (Hylton, III, ii). Having the crowd gather around the body, and imagine Caesar’s breaking heart as he is killed by those closest to him, is enough to persuade the crowd to weep for Caesar and attack the villainous conspirators responsible for his murder. Emotion remains a key oral component in persuasive speech; the ability of the orator to share feelings with the audience and convince them to feel a certain way is still critical to success in persuasive rhetoric.

Rhythmic and literary devices to aid memory, constant use of praise, and emphasis on empathy and inclusion are specifically oral features that stand out in this infamous passage from Julius Caesar. These components within cultures comprised of a largely illiterate population contribute to its exemplary standing in persuasive rhetoric. While analyzing literature from oral societies and finding evidence to support Ong’s assertions may prove insightful, the reliability of his conclusions about oral cultures and rhetoric cannot be assured with any certainty.

It is important for students nowadays to learn about the features employed by great persuasive speakers in predominantly oral cultures of the past, as they can trace the origin of characteristics that are still predominant in successful speeches of the modern era, and also learn how rhetoric has changed over time. 

References:

Hylton, J. (1993). “The life and death of Julies Caesar.”  The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Retrieved from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/julius_caesar/index/html.
Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, NY: Routledge.

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