Convincing the Masses: Rhetoric in Julius Caesar

byJennifer Vermillion


“For who so firm that cannot be seduced?” --Cassius [I,ii,305]

Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is a key skill for my sophomore English students to develop as it requires them to make connections between the classroom and the world surrounding them. This necessitates that they come to a deeper understanding of figures of speech and how they affect readers, how they are used to persuade, and how to use them oneself to effectively communicate. Rhetoric surrounds them every day as they interact with advertisements, political speeches, media coverage of current events, movies, art, and the classroom. While my students are quite savvy viewers and are aware that many images they see may be altered, they seem less critical of the written and spoken word. My unit seeks to develop in my students the ability to think critically, read analytically and speak and write effectively and convincingly. By exploring the connections among the speaker, the audience, and the subject within the given context, I hope to give my students the tools that will enable them to be aware of how those interconnections are played out in their daily lives. The analysis and use of the arts of rhetoric will empower my students to be better citizens, better communicators and more successful in their pursuits.

By teaching the fundamentals of rhetoric, I hope to create an awareness of its prevalence in advertising and political speeches, an appreciation for the power of language, and a sense that students can potentially harness that power. I want my students not only to become skilled at identifying rhetoric, but also to become proficient in using the art to strengthen their critical reading skills, speaking and writing. I plan to build on their understanding of logos, ethos and pathos, as Aristotle divided the parts of persuasive speech in his Rhetoric, while also strengthening their observation of basic rhetorical strategies like repetition, structure, symbolism, defining, describing, etc. While some time will be devoted to the classical canon of rhetoric - invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery- I do not intend to cover the tropes and figures in detail. My true aim is to develop critical thinking skills, utilizing challenging classroom activities to engage their interest and encourage civic engagement.

A number of different texts and video clips will be utilized to create a rich and comprehensive exploration of the use of rhetoric in modernity, but William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar will serve as my foundation text. This drama is based upon the historical figure Julius Caesar, who returns to Rome as a triumphant hero only to be considered a potential threat to the republic as a result of his consolidation of power. Several senators, led by his friend Marcus Brutus, conspire to assassinate him. After the bloody deed, Mark Antony masterfully turns the people against the conspirators and a vicious struggle for power ensues. Although the semantically dense language is a challenge, grappling with the text develops close reading skills and challenges students to really excel and perform in a rigorous manner. Students will carefully read the text with a focus on characters and themes, using a variety of activities.



Oak Grove High School encompasses a population of just under two thousand students who represent diverse ethnicities as part of the East Side Union High School District. 43% of our students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, as they qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, and our graduation rate is improving at 82.3%. Our struggles to graduate our population are evident: we are considered a Program Improvement site due to low Annual Yearly Progress, and the Degrees of Reading Power test reveals that approximately 45% of our incoming freshmen read at, or below, a sixth grade level.

In addition, our school is located in an area known for having an incredibly high cost of living, which often necessitates that our students contribute to the household finances by working. Additionally, parental supervision is often minimal, as the economy requires both parents to work. 56.4% of our students identify as Latino/Mexican and these students are especially at risk because many will be the first family members to earn a high school diploma, and often must do so with limited access to technology and even internet access in an area known for heavy gang activity.

The Common Core State Standards are in their second year of implementation in California, and the pragmatic approach to developing students who are able to engage in complex critical thinking activities is a challenge to implement. In the past, speaking and listening skills were largely limited in the classroom as they were not assessed in state testing, and they consumed valuable time that needed to be spent on basic reading comprehension and other skills. The Common Core has allowed us to become more holistic practitioners and I hope my unit allows our students to translate classroom skills to real world applications that benefit them personally, civically, and academically.

Rhetoric and Rigor

Julius Caesar could be viewed as an exploration of the uses and abuses of rhetoric as characters persuade one another most eloquently to engage in or excite violence. Using Julius Caesar as a foundation text, my students will learn about rhetorical devices.  As we decode the text and explore themes and characters central to the historical play, students will engage in a variety of activities that enable them to truly understand the differing perspectives that lead so many men to assassinate their leader and the turmoil that ensues.  One of the focuses at my school has been to require students to provide evidence from the text for any responses they provide in class.  This play will afford students ample practice in finding textual evidence to cite as there are distinct rhetorical styles evident, as well as sharply contrasting points of view, which allow for students to explore passages and interpret the text differently.  Grappling with facts in an attempt to gain a perspective or synthesize ideas is a valuable mental exercise, and even if the students forget the facts, they retain the value of the intellectual struggle.

Content Objectives

My sophomores will have been introduced to Shakespeare in their freshman year through the text of Romeo and Juliet, so while the rigor of this unit is great, it is not their first encounter with the Bard. Additionally, the unit will not occur in isolation of their other academic courses. The English II students are required to concurrently enroll in World History, which focuses on Rome for the first six weeks of instruction, making this the ideal time for me to teach this unit. Beyond creating interdisciplinary connections between their classes, it creates a more authentic learning experience and precludes the necessity of providing background historical information about Rome and Julius Caesar.

Concerning Rhetoric

Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Greek philosopher Aristotle offered three means to persuade your audience: ethos, pathos, and logos.1 While ethos is said to translate to ethics, it really suggests the modern sense of image in that the speaker is relying upon their authority to convince the audience based upon our impression of their character. Considering ethos from both the perspective of analyzing how advertising or political rhetoric is meant to impact the audience, but also how a writer can use word choice and style to create their own ethos, is imperative. Logos, or logical argument, traditionally utilizes syllogisms, yet an exploration of inductive and deductive reasoning, logical fallacies and what exactly makes for effective reasoning will be a more appropriate for my purposes. The emotion aroused in audience, or pathos, is crucial to persuasion.  Negative emotions such as anger, fear and insecurity are the most effective and prevalent in modern advertising and politics.2

The Five Canons of Rhetoric

After determining the audience and context for an appeal, Cicero felt effective persuasion necessitated consideration of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.3 Familiarity with these canons is necessary to both craft a speech and to properly analyze the rhetoric of others. Invention tailors an approach for the audience and context: What is the most appropriate appeal and which words will one use to effectively convey that appeal? Arrangement requires the establishment of the credibility of the speaker via ethos, and then the use of pathos or logos to pursue the argument using a structure suitable for the audience and context; traditionally this order is: introduction, statement and proof, conclusion. Style is the choice of appropriate rhetorical techniques and figures of speech and of the construction of the argument, and may include diction, grammar, rhythm and metaphor. Memory is not necessarily rote recall of the words, but a familiarity with the speech that allows the content to seem natural and fluid upon delivery and can support or erode ethos. Delivery of the appeal includes body language and intonation, which profoundly affect ethos and the subconscious reaction to the appeal. Several famous speeches will be analyzed as both a text and a performance to familiarize students with these terms.


Produced in 1599, the play Julius Caesar is based on Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which Shakespeare undoubtedly used to create his account.4 While Julius Caesar could be considered a political revenge tragedy, it is hardly a biographical narrative. The content relating to his many military exploits and success as a general and politician is eliminated from the play as Shakespeare focuses on the end of his life and the turmoil that ensued after his murder. It is thought-provoking to contrast the historical figure documented by Plutarch with the leader in the play. Interestingly, Plutarch clearly states that Caesar was ambitious, the crime for which he was assassinated. “But the chiefest cause that made him mortally hated was the covetous desire he had to be called king.”5

The historical figure is a physically robust and mentally astute leader, whereas Shakespeare’s portrayal seems to evince a weaker individual. One example of this might be Cassius’ tale of Caesar needing to be rescued while swimming whereas Plutarch’s account demonstrates him to be a vigorous and accomplished swimmer. Plutarch cites that during the war in Alexandria Caesar:

leaping into the sea, with great hazard saved himself by swimming. It is said that  

then, holding divers books in his hand, he did never let them go, but kept them

always upon his head above water, and swam with the other hand, notwithstanding

that they shot marvelously at him.”6

Is this description of a man in the midst of a battle leaping into the sea while holding books above his head compatible with Cassius’ account, wherein it is Cassius who emerges as brave, strong and heroic?

Caesar said to me, “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now

Leap in with me into this angry flood

And swim to yonder point?” Upon the word,

Accoutered as I was, I plunged in

And bad him follow. So indeed he did.

The torrent roared, and we did buffet it

With lusty sinews, throwing it aside,

And stemming it with hearts of controversy.

But ere we could arrive the point proposed,

Caesar cried, “Help me, Cassius, or I sink.” [I,ii,102-111]

The fact that Cassius positions himself as the first to enter the Tiber having been dared, and then must encourage Caesar to follow him into the water is an interesting juxtaposition. He then demonstrates a huge ego when he compares himself to Aeneas as he saves Caesar from drowning. This tale is wholly believed by Brutus, along with other claims that Caesar was a physically weak, deaf, epileptic who demonstrates a superstitious nature and a vacillating opinion driven by a need for sycophantic devotion.7 This older Caesar is markedly different from the historical figure represented by Plutarch, but it is exaggerated so greatly by Cassius as to make his jealousy evident. Perhaps “Shakespeare weakens Caesar physically in order to suggest that his bodily vulnerabilities exemplify his psychological and moral failings.”

Similarly, Antony and Brutus are characterized differently by Shakespeare than the historical annals of Plutarch might suggest. Plutarch even suggests that Brutus is the illegitimate son of Julius Caesar and Harold Bloom contends that Shakespeare does not allude to this relationship as it “would have given Brutus too personal a motive for letting himself be seduced into Cassius’s conspiracy.”9

Elizabethan Theater

It may be useful to provide a sketch of the Elizabethan theater, where the common people clamored to see repertory performances in the afternoons in venues that could pack in up to 3000 theatergoers. There was no intermission, but the crowd did not sit attentively and quietly for three hours: they ate, talked and gambled. The nobility and upper middle class would sit in the galleries while the commoners, or groundlings, stood in the courtyard directly in front of the stage. As audience will be key to the reception of the funeral speeches, students should really be encouraged to visualize the theater and the proximity of the groundlings, whom Shakespeare transforms into the plebeians themselves being swayed by first Brutus and then Antony. The plebeians are easily swayed by effective oratory; thus, they are manipulated by Antony into a dangerous mob. This fickle responsiveness to rhetoric should serve as a warning to each of us that we too might easily fall victim to persuasive rhetoric. Brutus and Antony’s speeches not only sway the plebeians at the Forum, Shakespeare’s rhetoric is aimed at us as well.

While the play is typically considered to be one of Shakespeare’s histories, the very title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar begs the question, ‘whose tragedy?’ Given that the titular character is murdered in the third act, students must consider whether the tragedy is the loss of innocence that Brutus undergoes as politics and morals collide. In common with the Histories, however, concern over the throne, given that Queen Elizabeth was a female monarch with no progeny, is also a feature of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare may have had the English monarchy in mind as he wrote of this hero of the Roman Republic, whose sanctioned authority was tragically undermined when he was assassinated, leading to instability in the Republic. The stability of his reign was followed by turmoil, which may further evince tragedy as in a larger sense Rome fell into chaos and war.10 Given that Shakespeare demonstrated an awareness of how his works supported the legitimacy of the Tudors, and specifically the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the revenge for the untimely death of this iconic figure may reflect the fear of civil insurrection many Elizabethans harbored. The titular character may only appear in three scenes, but his immortality is attained through his achievements and our acknowledgement that the Roman Republic is headed for decline after these triumphs.11 Until her death in 1603, the play may have served as an argument for stability and civil harmony in that the social upheaval that preceded Queen Elizabeth and ominously loomed during her reign and the question of legitimate rule was always present in the minds of the people.

The Unit

Some of the skill building activities include using “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr., to instruct students on the most basic application of logos, ethos and pathos by highlighting the text in three different colors. They will watch a clip of the “I Have a Dream Speech” to focus not only on text, but also on the cadence and power of sound devices. As we review the literary devices (simile, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia, personification, hyperbole) and elements (genre, point of view, tone, audience, purpose, etc.) they were introduced to as freshmen, students will begin to apply these skills in a new manner. Students will view Nancy Duarte’s TED talk, “The Secret Structure of Great Talks” as it refers to Aristotle’s Rhetoric and analyzes the “I Have a Dream Speech” as well as a contemporary speech by Steve Jobs. Students will practice annotation while deepening their understanding of rhetoric as they read “Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Three Ways to Persuade.” ELL students and at-risk students will benefit from high interest activities designed to simultaneously create the appropriate academic language to discuss rhetoric as well as develop an awareness of its prevalence in advertising and politics. Some clips of YouTube will be viewed together with an activity wherein students view Super Bowl advertisements and categorize the types of persuasion each employs. 

Once a foundation for understanding and appreciating the power and fundamentals of rhetoric has been laid, students will engage with the text of Julius Caesar. During the process of parsing out the play together, students will be led to note the relationship between rhetoric and power as Caesar is able to express his will and his word is obeyed without question.  Likewise, students will note how Cassius employs the use of rhetorical questions to sway Brutus towards seeing Caesar as a threat to Rome and liberty.  The moment when Antony deceives the conspirators through clever double speak in order to address the people will be carefully analyzed to demonstrate the power words have to sway men's hearts and minds.  Most notable of the speeches will be Brutus and Antony's funeral speeches, which sway the crowd's opinion back and forth.  Comparisons of the delivery of these speeches in notable films will also be introduced by means of exploring the art of public speaking and effective speaking strategies.  The moral ambiguity of several characters will also be a key point of discussion. It is only after we have read, viewed and closely examined key passages from the play that I will invite students to engage in a Socratic seminar that will address key questions, such as why the tragedy is called Julius Caesar, given that he has so few lines and dies in the third act. Finally, students will compose a personal statement that requires them to demonstrate their mastery of the art of rhetoric. This culminating activity, based upon the NPR “This I Believe” format, will encourage students to consider the core values and beliefs that shape their characters and inform their decisions. Several fantastic models exist from individuals they are familiar with, such as Amy Tan, Elie Wiesel, Bill Gates and Muhammad Ali.

Analyzing the Characters

Caesar is introduced by the remarks of Flavius and Murellus, who may initially encourage skepticism among the audience about this returning military hero whose victory over Pompey has led the plebeians to celebrate during the Feast of Lupercal. The stage is set with one strong military leader replacing another and conflict in the streets between men of status, the tribunes, and the plebeians, themes that may resonate with my students as we approach a heated Presidential election year. Caesar appears on stage in Act 1, Scene 2, directing his wife to stand before Marc Antony as he runs in a race during the Feast of Lupercal to induce fertility.

Caesar.  Calpurnia.

Casca.  Peace ho! Caesar speaks.

Caesar.  Calpurnia.

Calpurnia. Here, my Lord.

Caesar.  Stand you directly in Antonio’s way

When he doth run his course. Antonio! [I,ii,1-4]

This choice is complicated and odd as modern science leads us question whether Calpurnia is actually the party responsible for the infertility.12 This scene furthermore introduces Caesar as a character who is given to a belief in superstition, such that he would command this ritual to take place. Nonetheless, Caesar is shown to be an absolute ruler whose will is obeyed without question and without delay. His power and respect are undoubtable, but perhaps there is also a hint of arrogance. He is clearly an astute observer of the character of others as he has suspicions of Cassius and has proven himself to be a heroic general and powerful leader. His supremacy and nobility are especially significant to establish, as this will later lend terror to the apparition of his ghost.13 Both Brutus and Cassius speak to Caesar’s spirit when they die, evincing the sense that his posthumous power is nearly invincible.   

There is a lot of rhetoric, but is there any evidence that this Caesar is the character Brutus and Cassius have constructed in their minds who would abuse his power? He does decline the crown three times, and Brutus acknowledges that he rules by reason as opposed to whim, yet his ambition is the supposed justification for the murder. Perhaps Brutus and Cassius dispute the political ideal as opposed to reacting to his individual reactions? He is called a serpent, implying he is a sly and vicious creature as well as a stag whose nobility shouldn’t be marred by slavering dogs tearing him to shreds. Students may perceive him to be a considerate husband who seeks to please his anxious wife when he vacillates upon his decision to go to the Capitol, or as a superstitious man driven by vanity. If he fails to go to the Capitol he might not only be mocked for listening to his wife’s superstitious nonsense, he may also miss his opportunity to be offered the crown. Does this ultimately prove that he is ambitious and therefore a threat who was justly assassinated? Conversely, is his final refusal to read Artemidorus’ letter evidence that he was an unselfish leader who ultimately held the needs of the people before his personal well-being?

Brutus is the most morally pure character in that he truly believes his motivation for murder to be the protection of the Republic. His first lines are therefore rather ironic as he interceded in the exchange between the soothsayer and Caesar to report that “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March” [I,ii,19] given that we know he will deliver the final blow that defeats Caesar physically and eliminates his will to live. His first soliloquy focuses on the necessity to murder Caesar and the justification for the action, as opposed to a moral dilemma over the murder of his friend or a logical debate over the fallacies in Cassius’ justification.

Cassius seems motivated by petty revenge--he feels slighted by a man he saved--as opposed to a purely political motivation. He manipulates Brutus through the use of rhetorical questions to convince Brutus that Caesar was a threat to Rome and liberty, yet his rhetoric is not particularly clever and one must wonder why it is so easy for him to convince Brutus to murder his friend. While he claims to be interested in discoursing on the topic of honor, a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays, he actually seeks to launch an attack upon Caesar. He cites evidence of epilepsy and the near-drowning to draw attention to Caesar’s lack of physical strength and then proceeds to compare the names Brutus and Caesar by way of demonstrating that Caesar is no more deserving of honor and titles. His first soliloquy is delivered in such a manner as to reveal that he is merely using Brutus to establish public respect for his agenda. The very fact that this scheming character considers Brutus worthy of manipulating due to his morally pure reputation cements our impression of Brutus as being motivated by pure ideals, leading to complexity in character interpretation. Cassius’ scheming is ultimately ended when he ends his life (with the help of Pindarus) and the natural order is restored as he proclaims: “Caesar, thou art revenged, Even with the sword that killed thee.” [V,iii,45-6]

Antony is initially introduced as this vigorous young man running a race in honor of his friend Caesar, and his first line is a loyal response, “Caesar, my Lord?” [I,ii,5] after which Caesar conveys his request that he touch Calpurnia during the race. Antony responds “I shall remember. When Caesar says, ‘Do this,’ it is performed,” [I,ii,9-10] reflecting his absolute obedience and subservience to Caesar’s will. Antony demonstrates self-control and an ability to manipulate when he responds to the murder by flattering Brutus’ character, sending a servant to Brutus with instructions to prostrate himself and say “Brutus is noble, wise, valiant and honest,” [III,I,126] and suggesting that he will submit to Brutus’ justification if he demonstrates sufficient reason for killing his friend. He then deceives the conspirators, using clever double speak in order to address the plebeians.


While we focus on each character, there are also many opportunities to explore the power of rhetoric through particular scenes. Creating students who read with intelligence, using their mental faculties to explore text, necessitates choosing challenging content. Exploring character and motivation through the lens of rhetoric with a focus on first lines and soliloquies will lead my students to a more nuanced and complicated analysis of character, motivation and persuasion. Taking note, for example, of the moment when directly after slaughtering Caesar, Cinna declares “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! Run hence! Proclaim! Cry it about the streets!” [III,i,78] demonstrating an immediate control of the spin on the action and embedding the justification in the declaration.

Another passage that may encourage interesting discourse is the reconciliation between the conspirators after they argue over funding the military venture. The very nature of friendship and criticism of one’s character flaws is the subject of the dialogue between Cassius and Brutus.

Cassius.  You love me not.

Brutus.  I do not like your faults.

Cassius.  A friendly eye could never see such faults.

Brutus.  A flatterer’s would not, though they do appear

As huge as high Olympus. [IV,iii,88-92]

Portia always seems to interest my students as she proves her loyalty to her husband and her determination by actually stabbing herself in the thigh. Her interchanges with him demonstrate a fascinating dynamic and her use of rhetoric to urge Brutus to divulge what’s troubling him includes many strategies. Her bold claim that she is no more than “Brutus’ harlot, not his wife” [II,i,288] if he fails to disclose his plans to her shock both Brutus and the audience.

The dramatic scene in which Caesar is alternately concerned about Calpurnia’s dream wherein he is sacrificed, and vaingloriously eager to meet his fate when Decius Brutus explains that he is the metaphorical fountain of freedom, nourishing the people, is fascinating. Students may declare him to be superstitious and will find ample evidence in the text to support that claim, while others may interpret his choices as an attempt to honor his wife and his civic duty. This is an important passage for analyzing his character and ensuring student comprehension prior to the murder and funeral speeches. 

Teaching Strategies

Essential Questions

Who is the speaker and how do they establish ethos?

What is the speaker’s intent?

Who is the intended audience?

What is the rhetorical situation?

How does an author use rhetorical devices to communicate characters’ point of view?

How do the form and content of the message interrelate?

How can you effectively use rhetoric to challenge current thought and bring positive change to the world?

How do we interpret, evaluate and analyze content in our world to discover our own thoughts and opinions?


Learning to annotate text in a careful and deliberative manner is perhaps the most essential skill I will impart to my students, as these notes will inform their writing, thinking and conversations. “Reading Rhetorically” is a text that provides strategies for reading critically to support writing and conversation about a text with a focus on determining the audience, purpose and genre. Educators are incessantly asking students to analyze a text, but what does that really mean? Analysis means that an understanding of the rhetorical strategies used by the author is evident and that they are evaluated in light of the author’s purpose; it is a marriage of both the ideas explicit and implicit in the text and your opinions about those ideas. “On the one hand, you will be expected to represent what the text said accurately and fairly. On the other hand, you will be expected to offer your own analysis, interpretation, or critique in a way that enables readers to see the text differently.”14

The initial read-through of a piece of text should be active, involving students noticing and circling organizational signal words such as however, therefore, or likewise. Additionally, students will put a question mark next to words, terms or references they are unfamiliar with, and return to them after the initial reading. Bracketing ideas that seem difficult of confusing will also allow students to continue reading through their confusion and later pose questions or determine whether the passage is more clear once they have completed the reading. As students are completing this initial read, they should annotate the text by highlighting main ideas and evidence that supports the writer’s assertions, draw arrows to significant word choices and otherwise note questions, objections, and connections. Once they have reviewed their questions, looked up vocabulary, analyzed the impact of specific word choice, and discussed the reading with their peers, the second reading should occur. This is the point at which I ask them to engage in descriptive outlining. On the left margin they will write a note for each segment that addresses what is said--a summary of the content--and on the right what is done, a statement of how that segment interacts with the whole, usually preceded by words such as describe, explain, or argue.15 This strategy will be useful for students to practice close reading skills, but will be predominantly used with the “Logos, Ethos, Pathos: Three Ways to Persuade” article and the sample personal essays, such as Joseph Epstein’s "The Divine Miss H, Revisited” and Horace Miner’s “Body Rituals Among the Nacirema”, which students will review prior to writing their final product

They Say I Say

Developing students who are able to speak clearly and effectively to communicate an idea is incumbent upon educators. The authors of They Say I Say have created an approach to classroom conversations that is rooted in the idea that they are not merely preparing to discuss the author’s argument, but also the arguments it is responding to. Students become active and critical readers as they seek to parse out “not only what the author thinks, but how what the author thinks fits with what others think, and ultimately with what you yourself think.”16 In order to help students learn how to express their ideas, this strategy offers sentence frames to help them utilize appropriate academic language that focuses on ideas.  The frames can be categorized into groups such as those that capture authorial action, such as “X demonstrates that _____” or “X urges us to ______.” Disagreeing, with reasons, might lead to the use of the frame: “X’s claim that _____ rests upon the questionable assumption that _____.” Agreeing with qualifications could be aided by the use of the frame: “I agree that ______, a point that needs emphasizing since so many people believe _____.” Agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously could be expressed through the frame: “Though I concede that _____, I still insist that _____.”17


This acronym (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject and Tone) is intended to help students consider and evaluate an argument through a series of questions. Students will ask themselves, who is the speaker and what personae they have created, with a focus on ethos. Next, the occasion can be understood in terms of time, place, context and background information. Audience necessitates consideration of the intended audience, which may only be a segment of the population with access to the rhetoric, as well as the three rhetorical appeals utilized. Purpose is the implicit or explicit intention of the speaker. The worldview, assumptions and philosophies that inform the subject of the text must be carefully considered. Tone requires students to consider the attitude of the speaker towards the subject and perhaps even the audience.

Classroom Activities

Character Analysis

As the students read the play, they will fill out a graphic organizer that has several characters (Antony, Brutus, Caesar, Calpurnia, Cassius, Portia) for whom they must address questions such as: What do other characters say about the focus character? How do they represent themselves with words to others? What are the character’s private thoughts? What are their actions? This activity is designed to demonstrate how much evidence there is in the text relating to character, and how the evidence may point to conflicting interpretations. Effective classroom conversations cannot occur without adequate preparation for both the rituals and routines of the discussion, as well as the appropriate language for the discourse, in addition to ample textual evidence to support opinion. The graphic organizer is one way to support and scaffold students towards effective conversation.

Funeral Speeches

Close reading requires that students have the opportunity to annotate and really work with the text. Hence it is useful to provide worksheets that will allow students to write, highlight, circle and otherwise annotate. As they are examples of some of the most notable rhetoric in the play, the funeral speeches afford ideal opportunities for students to perform close textual analysis. As indicated in Appendix B, the side-by-side format allows students to respond to questions and be led through close textual analysis. The initial speech by Brutus would be heavily teacher directed, whereas Antony’s speech might be analyzed in small groups.

Brutus’ idealism has been perverted by Cassius, yet he still fails to recognize his tenuous position as he addresses the audience. His relatively short funeral oration is a masterful example of carefully constructed verse that demonstrates balance, yet comes across as cold and too logical with over 30 figures of speech crammed into a relatively short monologue, in the face of his supposed regret for the necessity of murdering a man he loved. His speech seems almost entirely informed by ethos as he commands the crowd to “hear” and “believe” him. He repeatedly refers to his own honor, as if to suggest that it is an unquestionable attribute, which demonstrates his idealism and perhaps his naiveté. His emotional distance is evident when he expresses his regret for the necessity of murder “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him” [III,ii,23] as opposed to expressing his own love for Caesar.18 Brutus calls Caesar “fortunate” and commends his valor, but condemns his “ambition” and uses that as justification to the amassed crowd for the murder. He asks the rhetorical question, who is so “vile” that they don’t love the Republic and asks that individual to step forward, which of course has the effect of silencing any dissenter. In sum, Brutus’ speech demonstrates stilted rhetoric and moral narcissism, and ultimately his focus on ethos (his honor) will be turned against him. Although he tried to kill a political idea he feared, he necessarily had to commit a murder. However, he distances himself from the actual physical murder by making it a symbolic act and even refers to Caesar as a sacrifice, a “dish fit for the gods” [II,I,174] when planning the deed. His guilty conscience still troubles him when he commits suicide at the end of play and declares “Caesar, now be still, I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” [V,v,52-53]

When Antony addresses the crowd at the Forum, they initially are respectful only because Brutus has instructed them to be so. His audience is not necessarily hostile, but they seem hardly malleable, yet while Brutus commanded them most masterfully, Antony coaxes them through a progressive series of rhetorical devices that build upon one another. Antony immediately sets himself apart from Brutus by using prose and taking the conversation from the ethereal level to the very physical, evident especially in his use of the actual corpse to illustrate his perspective. Antony proves capable of harnessing his emotions in order to sway the opinion of the crowd in a seemingly natural manner by using prose, yet it is rife with irony, questioning, and logical appeals that gradually persuade the audience. His appeal seems motivated by genuine grief as he carefully leads the audience to question Caesar’s ambition, then tantalizes them with the will while continuing slyly to refer to Brutus’ honor. His use of pathos and logos, while continually sarcastically referring to Brutus’ ethos--“But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man” [III,ii,85-86]--are delivered in segments with pauses for the crowd to respond and generate pity for Caesar and then righteous indignation after they learn of Caesar’s bequests in the will. Eventually their passions are so inflamed that they are incited to riot. Antony is perhaps the most masterful orator. He has convinced the crowd that he is “a plain blunt man” [III,ii,208], but my students will understand through their analysis that his is in fact, the most calculated and devious deployer of rhetoric in the play. This may lead to a discussion of an audience’s dislike of being manipulated by a rhetorically gifted individual and in inherent reaction to resist the content of what such a person says. Antony’s last speech might respond to the question who is truly the tragic hero of this play. With no benefit to derive from dissembling, Antony states that Brutus “was the noblest Roman of them all” [V,v,68] and his judgment stands as a summary thought for the audience. Still considering the effects of rhetoric, students may also choose a historical interpretation that focuses on the chaos that ensues when the legitimate ruler is usurped.

I hope to demonstrate how Brutus’ funeral oration is ultimately flawed as a result of his dependency upon ethos and style. It is a beautiful piece of rhetoric comprised of repetition, reverse interchanges, the pairing of opposites, and rhetorical questions, but it ultimately demonstrates his narcissistic reliance on his own honor as a justification for murder, and the haughty rhetoric alienates him from his audience. In marked contrast, Antony’s speech is a testament to his apparent emotional trauma. It uses irony and manipulation to firstly convince with logos and then play to the crowd’s emotions with ethos. After close analysis, students will compare and contrast the speeches of Brutus and Antony to reveal the marked contrast between prose and verse, reliance upon ethos as opposed to logos, brevity in contrast to breadth, and careful composition versus an emotional appeal.19 Although there are a number of questions that direct attention to significant uses of rhetoric, there are also many opportunities to conduct further and deeper analysis. Students may benefit from completing a Venn Diagram that compares and contrasts the speeches of Brutus and Antony (length, prose vs. verse, reaction to the death, commanding vs. coaxing, rhetorical strategies employed, etc.), followed by a discussion of how those differences affect the audience, given the speaker’s purpose. Ultimately it is my hope that students will concur that the masterful use of a variety of rhetorical devices develops logos, ethos and then pathos in Antony’s speech, making him therefore the more effective rhetorician. “He passes the only test that matters in classical rhetoric---audience response.”20 Film versions of the key speeches by Brutus and Antony will be viewed and compared to demonstrate how delivery profoundly alters perception of the content and to explore the art of public speaking and effective speaking strategies.  

Mock Trial

Conduct a mock trial of Brutus for the crime of assassinating Caesar. Assign roles for Brutus, several prosecution and defense lawyers, a judge, and witnesses. The remainder of the class will serve as the jury. Students will prepare for their role in the trial. At the end of the trial the jury members will each write a paragraph explanation of their opinion on the guilt or innocence of the defendant and the evidence that swayed them. The judge will deliver an appropriate sentence, having acted as moderator for the process.

Socratic Seminar

A Socratic seminar is a structured conversation between students that demands they use evidence from the text to support their assertions and interact utilizing a constructive model. I tend to use an inner circle of confident speakers to engage in debate while an outer circle takes very specific notes on the types of interactions students engage in: Do they they pose a question, ask another student to elaborate, refer to another student’s ideas when making a point, or use evidence from the text? Posing questions that are highly debatable and don’t necessarily have a correct answer is a favorite strategy to help students prepare for meaningful classroom conversation. When is murder justified? Is assassination morally less reprehensible than murder? How is the treatment of the wives (Portia and Calpurnia) parallel? Is Caesar’s excessive use of his own name and the third person evidence that he is vainglorious or merely that he is cognizant of his own authority? Was Caesar a threat to Rome or just a fallible man? If the conspirators were right to fear Caesar’s power, were they right to kill him? Did Brutus betray Caesar? Why do Cassius and Brutus kill themselves on the battlefield? Do the ends justify the means? Can positive change result from violent action? What is the function of soliloquy? How does the relationship between Brutus and Cassius change over the course of the play?


Students will create a six panel storyboard to convey the most significant plot points of the play. This activity requires students to demonstrate sequencing skills as they determine which are the most significant moments. They will indicate the main ideas and include a caption with a quotation from the text. This activity will be especially engaging for students as they work in groups and will help my English Language Learners remain engaged.

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