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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

For Brutus Is An Honourable Man

... Or how to get Gabbar going!

Today is the Bard's 396th death anniversary, also believed to be his 448th birth anniversary. Most people who have studied English cannot deny the impact ole Will has had on them. Personally, I have always regarded Mirza Ghalib and William Shakespeare as my two literary Gurus - so much so that I have even twinned them with a moniker: Mirza Shakespeare!

On this 23 April, I am sharing an earlier blogpost which, like the Bard, is still relevant, I believe. 

In my current work-in-progress I am working on a Mephistophelean character who is (mis)leading his people towards the fulfillment of his evil design. Any effective villain needs facility of speech, so I am trying to make his elocution powerful, and rhetoric is a surefire way to add muscle. Since none does rhetoric better than the Bard, I spent some happy hours poring over my fave passages from Julius Caesar. Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is a masterpiece in the use of rhetoric, so of course I had fun monologuing it. It is brilliant prose packed with several memorable phrases. Indeed, the power of the passage becomes clearer when compared with the speech of Brutus (which comes earlier in the same Act 3).

For a while I was transported back to the days of Standard 9 and 10 when our preparation for ICSE involved memorizing literally the entire dramatic work of Shakespeare that we were assigned – in my case, The Merchant of Venice. Caesar, however, had got his hooks into me earlier when my elder sister was preparing for her ICSE and I was mesmerized by the passages she read aloud from Julius Caesar.

As always, the Bard had much to show and I had much to learn. My re-education revealed the following:

-         “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!”
This is Mark Antony’s opening line when he is facing an angry mob convinced by Brutus and cohorts that Caesar’s killing is justified. Probably one of the most recounted lines from Shakespearean canon, a bit like one of the several from Sholay (Ab tera kya hoga Kaliya, or, Kitne aadmi the?!) It follows the rhetorical convention of one-two-three syllable progression. To understand its power, speak it aloud, and then compare it with Brutus’s opening line, "Romans, countrymen, and lovers". The latter negates that convention and further breaks the rhythm with the addition of a conjunction. Nada.

-         “For Brutus is an honourable man”
Antony speaks on the condition – given to Brutus – that while he may praise Caesar, he’ll not decry Brutus and his cohorts. In the speech he uses this particular phrase – For Brutus is an honourable man – four times, managing effectively to convert it from a noble assertion to a repetitive inquisition. Repetition of a critical phrase – another reliable tool of rhetoric.

-         “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar”
Antony was known as a general, a great soldier and not famed for his oratory, of which Brutus was the uncrowned supremo. Yet, at the funeral Antony manages to deliver a far more powerful oration that changes the mind of the mob. How does he do it? One tool he uses is Passion. Unlike Brutus, whose speech is logical, cold and factual, Antony unleashes upon the public his passion for his slain friend. He culminates it with a theatrical pause near the end of his speech when he says: “Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar and I must pause till it comes back to me.” Note how effective this would be on stage where the audience gets a respite from the long delivery, and the mob gets the opportunity to air their newly-changed perceptions.
Therefore, whip up passion.

-         “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept”
Antony is keenly aware that he is speaking to an illiterate mob. He attempts to galvanize them towards Caesar by evoking Caesar through imagery that has resonance with the people. The recall of Caesar’s generosity fuels their guilt, and Antony finishes it superbly when he adds: “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff”.
As always, a picture speaks a thousand words.

Mark Antony’s particular oration is a first salvo against Caesar’s assassins. By the end of the speech the mob has turned against Brutus and the conspirators, and the stage is set for a confrontation between the Senate and the Public.

So go ahead, read the passage or watch it on Youtube where a young Marlon Brando delivers a deadly Antony. Delectable!

Alternately, you could watch Lallu in action or on video. Not so delectable.

P.S – It is always good practise to read aloud passages from your narrative, certainly the longer ones, or an exchange of dialogue. A well-tuned ear will pick up what may not reveal itself on paper. And how do you get a well-tuned ear? Why, by reading Shakespeare, Watson.


  1. I first read Julius Caesar when I was 10. I am not sure whether I grasped the full intent of Mark Antony's speech then but I vowed and went on to earn a post-graduate degree in English Literature.

    That was a striking analysis of the moments (of Caesar's funeral)you've done. Somehow, you remind me of Professor R. N. Srivastava!

    And yes, those remain one of the best speeches I've ever come across anywhere. Apart from that, I am quite taken by Et tu Brute!

    The following quotes will also haunt me forever:

    "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
    " -Macbeth

    "The rest is silence."" -Hamlet

    I am sorry, I must stop here! It is your blog, not mine!

    1. I enjoy reading your comments - they are always considered and well-written! I guess the Bard got us all young :)

      Thanks for the reference to your professor; I guess I am not doing too badly :)

      The Macbeth piece is beautiful.


  2. The Bard is still alive and kicking and continues to inspire story writers and on screen adaptations all over the world! Each of his creations are unique:)