Lend me your ears: the power of rhetoric

I often think about the way rhetoric is designed to be convincing through emotional manipulation rather than factual information. Most often when I’m watching political speeches on TV. Classical sources (and Shakespeare!) are still used to craft speeches today. Yes, speech writers still read this old stuff, even if the politicians they are writing for do not. One of my favourite speeches is the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a very famous piece and still studied by speech writers today. I can watch Marlon Brando (as Antony) delivering this monologue all day. I’m that boring. So here’s some spark notes on Antony’s speech and a quick background, if you’ve forgotten your Shakespearised Roman history. Yes, I’m pretty sure ‘Shakespearised’ is a real word. And why bother reading about a bunch of dead Romans from the point of view of a dead Elizabethan playwright? Because these are the dead guys who are still shaping the speeches you hear on your TV today.

I've said it before, Brando is a great Mark Antony...

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum (not)

I don’t think it would be much of a spoiler if I divulged that Brutus and his supporters assassinate Caesar (most powerful man in Rome) in Pompey’s senate house. You don’t have to know it’s Pompey’s senate house, that’s just an interesting piece of trivia. There’s much stabbing and staggering around speechifying (et tu brute?). Antony, realising his life is also in danger (as an ally and friend of Caesar) feigns friendship with the assassins and then politely requests to speak to the Roman people. Brutus agrees (he’s a pretty likeable fellow despite the whole murder thing) but we soon realise that Antony plans to incite the crowd to riot against the murderers.

He comes out upon the steps of Pompey’s senate house and stands above the body of Caesar. When he first appears, the crowd is muttering against Caesar, in favour of the assassins. After all, Caesar was a dictator and the republic was meant to protect the Roman people from the rule of one man. To put it simply, the Romans really freaked out over the concept of kingship. At this point Antony is in danger from the crowd as well as the conspirators. You’re probably familiar with one of his opening lines:

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’. He continues ‘Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest – / For Brutus is an honourable man; / So are they all, all honourable men –  / Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral’. Repetition. One of the most used techniques in speech writing… It’s worth repeating.


Repetition is a feature of just about every influential political speech you can think of. As Bush put it: ‘See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.’ (Greece, N.Y., May 24, 2005). Apparently his speech writers had been trying to give him some lessons in rhetoric. Or (perhaps more movingly) take Obama’s South Carolina victory speech (2008):

‘Yes, we can. Yes, we can change. Yes, we can. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can seize our future… And where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words — yes, we can.’

Through repetition ‘Yes, we can’ has already gathered rhythm and impetus before it appears as the final phrase. In addition to this an opposition is set up between ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ – as if these extremes are the only possible options. Obama is pretty up front in creating this dichotomy. Antony is sneaky. He creates an opposition but it is a more subtle one, between the spoken claim that Brutus is honourable and the image Antony is gradually weaving through his glowing description of Caesar. An image which gradually forces the audience to consider how honourable his assassins could possibly be: ‘When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: / Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: / Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; / And, sure, he is an honourable man.’ Irony begins to build. Antony never strays from stating that Brutus is honourable, but he manipulates the crowd to the point where they finally shout out ‘traitors’ as he again uses the word ‘honourable’.

Rhetorical questions

Can you afford to miss this opportunity? Rhetorical questions force you into a particular answer, giving you the sense that you are in agreement with the speaker. Here’s a good example from JFK – ‘Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?’ (1961). Perhaps not perfectly rhetorical but, well, you’d feel like a bit of a jerk if you said ‘no’. Antony says: ‘I thrice presented him a kingly crown, / Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?’ What can the crowd say but ‘no’? He quickly follows up with: ‘Yet Brutus has said he was ambitious. / And Brutus is an honourable man.’

Hang on, thinks the crowd…

All the world’s a stage: props

Antony brings out a prop. There’s nothing politicians love better than a good prop and Antony’s no different. He says it is Caesar’s will ‘which pardon me, I do not mean to read’. Of course, the crowd can now think of nothing else. He’s engaged their curiosity and they insist on him reading it. Antony is determined he mustn’t read it, it will inflame them. They’re twice as interested now. Antony pretends to move on, but obviously wants them to insist that he read. However, he’s not finished with his props yet. Handily, Caesar’s body is lying right there on the steps of the senate house (or the rostra, really). Antony points to Caesar’s cloak – to the particular tear made by Brutus’ dagger. Brutus, who Caesar loved. ‘This was the most unkindest cut of all’. Finally he reveals Caesar’s body, appealing to the sympathy of the crowd. At this stage, the people completely do their nut (not a Shakespearean term) and cry out for revenge against Brutus and the assassins. They try to rush off for revenge but Antony calls them back, pretending to restrain them.

awesome prop number one: Caesar's will

I’m just a plain speaker

This is a classic one. Antony says – wait a moment, these are honourable men. They are wise and will give you good reasons for their actions. I’m no orator, just a ‘plain, blunt man that loved my friend’. ‘I don’t have the power of speech to stir men’s blood – I’m just going to tell you what you already know.’ How often have we heard this from politicians? The opposition leader is playing with words, but I’m a simple man and I’m just going to say it how it is. Clearly he’s not a plain speaker. His claim to simplicity is a further manipulation.

His final incitement is to read the will, in which Caesar gives money to every citizen and his private gardens for public use. And what better way to finish than with a rhetorical question? ‘Here was a Caesar. When comes such another?’

And then ensues all the blood and mayhem of the proscriptions and the civil war.

So next time you hear a politician on TV (whether you agree with them or not) see how many of these techniques you can find. Often the formula is more important than the message. And have a good think about that before you rush off and join an unruly mob.


The first part of Antony’s speech to the mob (Marlon Brando, 1953). And critics were worried Brando wouldn’t be able to pull off Shakespeare… http://youtu.be/7X9C55TkUP8

A later section of the speech (over Caesar’s body) http://youtu.be/tRceRJAz6_Q

Rhetoric is an alarmingly complicated subject. Here’s an entry on repetition: http://rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/groupings/of%20repetition.htm


3 thoughts on “Lend me your ears: the power of rhetoric

  1. Great post. Speech writers would have no job security if politicians were intelligent enough to write their own (oops, did I say that out loud?) Worked for Lincoln on the train to Gettysburg, as I recall.


    • It would be very interesting if all politicians were deprived of their speech writers and advisors for a few days… interesting or scary.


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