Act III in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is known for the funeral speeches given by the characters of Brutus and Marc Anthony. The speeches are so notable that this year, to teach argument and rhetorical devices, we added the play to begin the American Literature unit.
Obviously, the play is not American, and historically, Shakespeare took liberties with the assassination of Caesar in this 400+-year-old play. But the different rhetorical devices Shakespeare used in these funeral speeches allow the English teachers a means to highlight how well the characters demonstrate their rhetorical skills of persuasion using the appeals of ethos, logos, pathos. These rhetorical elements form a rhetorical triangle and were first defined by Aristotle:
- Ethos: the speaker appeals to the audience as credible (or not).
- Logos: the speaker appeals to the audience’s rational or logical thinking.
- Pathos: the speaker appeals to the audience’s emotions.
Understanding these elements will help students later when they analyze the American speeches that are in the curriculum such as Jonathan Edward’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, or William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.
In the play, the first up to eulogize Caesar is Brutus who makes use of rhetorical device antithesis:
“Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?”(3.2.22–24)
Brutus uses rhetorical questions:
“Who is here so base that would be a bondman?…
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?…
Who is here so vile that will not love his country?”
He appeals to the crowd’s ethos as he tells them, “Believe me for mine honor.”
He appeals to the crowd’s logos as he argues, “Would you rather that Caesar be alive and you be slaves?”
And he appeals to the crowd’s pathos as he states, “I did love Caesar, but I loved Rome more.”
Antony appeals to the crowd’s logos by offering “proof” that Caesar was a war hero, who “thrice refused the crown.”
In a final bow to the crowd’s pathos, Antony shows his own emotion, saying:
Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Antony’s repeated use of the phrase ”but Brutus is an honorable man” cleverly implies an opposite meaning, stated just before he shows the people Caesar’s bloody corpse and connects the stab marks with conspirators.
Shakespeare’s Act III scene ii’s “speech-off” ends with a fired-up rabble of Romans ready to riot, as the blunt honesty of Brutus’s prose is upended by the poetic craftiness of Marc Anthony’s rhetorical style.
1700 years later, the context for comparing and contrasting the McCain eulogies could not be more different. These speeches, given in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., were not part of a political contest but given as a tribute to an American icon, Senator John McCain, when a malignant brain tumor caused his death on August 25, 2018.
McCain was a Vietnam War hero who twice lost a chance to be President of the United States. He lost the 2000 Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush, who then won the White House. He lost the 2008 presidential race, running as a Republican against the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama.
The only similarities between the eulogies for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to the larger-than-life McCain is that both that both sets of speeches have excellent examples of rhetorical elements and both sets of speeches were publically delivered in the same venue by political rivals.
It was McCain’s rivals, former presidents, Barack Obama (Democrat) and George W. Bush (Republican), who addressed a crowd gathered at his funeral on September 1, 2018.
The transcripts of these speeches are available on numerous websites including the CBS News website or the NYTimes website along with videos of the speeches (Obama 19:26 and Bush 7:53).
These videos and transcripts can give teachers an opportunity to have students analyze the speeches for the elements from the rhetorical triangle that these politicians used in paying tribute to an American icon.
For example, students may note how Obama, who spoke first, described McCain by using the rule of thirds, “a warrior, a statesman, a patriot.”
They can call attention to Obama’s appeal to ethos, as he explained how McCain authorized him to speak at this occasion.
“So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor.”
And they may note how Obama used an antithesis in his tribute saying,
“It’s not based on where our parents or grandparents came from, or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed: That all of us are created equal.”
Then, in Bush’s speech, students may notice an appeal to ethos,
“He [McCain] was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared.”
They may notice Bush also used repetition stating:
“If we are ever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.”
Or Bush’s use of a rhetorical question, “Where did such strength of conviction come from?”
Giving students copies of the transcripts of these speeches lets them find the evidence where the speaker:
- uses an emotional appeal?-pathos
- uses an appeal to reason?-logos
- establishes his credibility?-ethos
- uses a rhetorical question?
- uses humor?
- uses repetition?
- uses antithesis?
After finding the evidence, students could be asked to analyze each eulogy, before judging how well Obama and Bush used the elements of ethos, logos, and pathos.
In this example, students go as far back to the definitions of Aristotle and the examples of Shakespeare to study rhetoric. Then they can go back and analyze the speeches of two former Presidents of the United States of America.
But even the best of these literary tributes to John McCain fall short. History has already portrayed him as a man who only spoke “right on”, and one who let his actions speak louder than any rhetoric used to define him.