Unicorns May be Betrayed with Trees:

The Psychology of Persuasion in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar


By Jonathan D. Lewis



“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”; is there a secondary school student in the English speaking world who does not know the origin of these lines?  Precious few would be unable to identify the opening phrase of Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar.  Yet how many of these students would be able to recognize that the title of this presentation comes from that same play and contains the germ of my thesis, which is that Shakespeare had a marvelous understanding of the power of psychological persuasion.  Mark Antony’s speech is perhaps the most famous speech of persuasion, certainly in this play, if not in all English literature.  Yet it represents only one of many persuasive speeches contained in this play which are hidden in the umbra of this most famous of speeches

            Julius Caesar is described by some critics as a ‘problem play’, due to the difficulties and ambiguities involved in the identification of themes, images and purposes of the play.  This ambiguity, however, is not so much of a problem for the psychological critic who regards ambiguity as the basis for a multiplicity of rich and varied interpretations of the material.  What critics deem as ‘problematic’ becomes for the psychologist/critic an enriching and accurate reflection of the true state of human affairs, in which ambiguity and ambivalence are considered the essence of what it means to be human.  Shakespeare’s capacity to convey the great complexity of individual thought, feeling and behavior in the most beautiful English imaginable is one aspect of his genius.   

            It is in this spirit that I present an idea of Julius Caesar as a play about psychological persuasion, considering it to be a single facet of a complex piece.  A brief summary of the play will set the scene.  Caesar has returned victorious from a campaign against his rival, Pompey.  The Roman population is divided.  Caesar had been honored for his foreign conquests, but this latest conflict was an internecine affair between two prominent Romans.  Supporters of Pompey are embittered and fear that Caesar intends to make himself tyrant of Rome.  A group of conspirators, led by Cassius, plot to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March.  But first Cassius must persuade Brutus, who is highly respected by the Roman citizenry, to join the conspiracy to lend it credibility.  Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, alerted by dreadful dreams, pleads with Caesar to stay home on the Ides of March.  But Caesar is persuaded to go to the Senate, where he is killed.  There follow the speeches of Brutus and then Antony at Caesar’s funeral.  Finally, armies led on one side by Antony and Octavious, and on the other by Brutus and Cassius, face each other at Philippi.  When the armies of Cassius and Brutus are defeated, first Cassius, then Brutus commit suicide.  In the penultimate speech of the play, Antony honors Brutus with the famous line, “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”  With this short summary, I proceed to my theme, the psychology of persuasion in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Instances of persuasion abound and constitute the motive of the play, ‘motive’ in the sense of a force which moves the play forward.  Persuasion is the necessary element precipitating successive actions in the play.  At times, persuasion permeates the texture of the play and all its relationships.  An illustrative, but by no means exhaustive account of persuasions in this play include the following:

1)      Cassius must persuade Brutus to join the conspiracy to murder Caesar, in order to provide the conspirators with a respectable leader.

2)      After agreeing to join the conspiracy, Brutus persuades Cassius not to kill Mark Antony as part of the plot to assassinate Caesar;

3)      Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, frightened by dark dreams and omens, persuades Caesar to remain at home, rather than go to the Senate, on the Ides of March;

4)      Decius undoes Calphurnia’s persuasion, inducing Caesar to change his mind so that he goes to the Senate that day, falling into the hands of the assassins;

5)      Following Caesar’s death, Mark Antony’s servant persuades Brutus to allow Antony to meet with and speak to the conspirators;

6)       At this meeting, Antony successfully persuades Brutus to allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral, against Cassius’ attempts to persuade Brutus to reject Antony’s request;

7)      Brutus persuades the crowd of plebeians gathered at Caesar’s funeral that Caesar was ambitious and that Caesar’s death was necessary and justified;

8)      Finally we have Mark Antony’s speech in which he sways the crowd to the view opposite of that which Brutus has just induced in it.

These are the major episodes of persuasion which move the story along.  Throughout, the play is punctuated by minor episodes of attempted persuasions which fail in their purposes.  For example, as Caesar is on his way to the Senate to meet his fate, Artemedoris begs Caesar to read his petition, warning Caesar of the assassination plot.  He fails in his plea.  These failed attempts at persuasion, such as that of Artemedoris, are characterized by a lack of psychological underpinning.

      The outcome of each persuasion is essential for the forward movement of the play.  Had Cassius not persuaded Brutus to join the conspiracy, Brutus would not be the central figure he is and the murder might not have taken place.  Conversely, if Cassius had been successful in convincing Brutus that Antony should die along with Caesar, or that Antony should not be allowed to speak at Caesar’s funeral, we should have quite a different play to analyze.

      I now wish to examine in some detail one of the most intricate persuasions in this play, in order to illuminate the psychological components of persuasion.  I take as our starting point the complex persuasion of Brutus by Cassius to join the conspiracy.  This persuasion extends over the length of Act I, scene ii, and is completed only in the first scene of Act II when Brutus resolves his ambivalence about joining the murder plot and seals his bond with the conspirators (II, i, 114).

      Cassius begins by placing Brutus on the defensive, chastising him and thereby evoking a feeling of guilt in his subject:

      (I. ii. 32-36)     ‘Brutus, I do observe you now of late;

                              I have not from your eyes that gentleness

                              And show of love as I was wont to have;

                              You bear too stubborn and too strange a hand

                              Over your friend that loves you.’

Brutus responds in a defensive manner, explaining that if he appears irritated lately, it is because he is vexed with himself, not with his friends.  He apologizes to Cassius.  Cassius accepts the apology and then throws Brutus off guard by asking him a peculiar question.

      (I. ii. 51)          ‘Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?’

                  Brutus responds,

      (I. ii. 52)          ‘the eye sees not itself…’

Cassius laments that Brutus does not view himself with the same esteem in which other Romans hold him.

      Brutus now realizes that Cassius is flattering him for a reason and becomes suspicious of what Cassius is urging him towards;

      (I. ii. 63-65)     ‘Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,

                              That you would have me seek into myself

                              For that which is not in me?’

      Cassius tries to allay Brutus’ suspicions of him and urges Brutus to allow him to be his mirror, so that he might see himself as others do.

      This tête-à-tête is interrupted by a shout from the nearby crowd and Brutus says,

      (I. ii. 78-79)     ‘I do fear the people

                              Choose Caesar for their king.’

Cassius seizes upon this comment, especially the word ‘fear’;

      (I. ii. 80-81)     ‘Ay, do you fear it?  Then must I think you  

                              would not have it so.’

This gambit, offered in order to feel out Brutus’ attitude on the subject of the conspiracy, once again stimulates suspicions in Brutus;

      (I. ii. 83-84)     ‘But wherefore do you hold me here so long?

                              What is it that you would impart to me?’ – he asks of Cassius.

Brutus then introduces a theme which reverberates throughout the play, the theme of honor.  Honor is the characteristic that Brutus values most highly and upon which his self-esteem is based.  Ultimately, it is the very thing which leads to his downfall.  Skipping ahead for a moment to Antony’s funeral speech, recall that Antony uses this theme of honor in an ironic fashion, against Brutus and the co-conspirators:

(III. ii. 84-84)        ‘(For Brutus is an honorable man,

                              So are they all, all honorable men)’

Thus, the word, ‘honorable’, returns to haunt Brutus, as Anthony uses this trope in his funeral speech over and over again, and eventually, Brutus is hoisted on his own (honorable) petard.

                  But the notion of honor is first introduced by Brutus in this dialogue with Cassius:

      (I. ii. 88-89)     ‘I love/The name of honor more than I fear death’, he tells Cassius.

Cassius, knowing how proud Brutus is of his honor, again seizes upon Brutus’ words, taking them up as a standard to lure and seduce Brutus into the way of thinking that he wishes him to follow:

      (I. ii. 90-92)     ‘I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus,

                                    As well as I do know your outward favor.

                                    Well, honor is the subject of my story.’

Cassius then continues to plot, portraying Caesar as a dishonorable man in that Caesar is hypocritical, representing himself to the people as a god, while in fact, he is weak, sickly, infirm and cowardly.

            (I. ii. 135-138) ‘Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

                                    Like a Colossus, and we petty men

                                    Walk under his huge legs and peep about

                                    To find ourselves dishonorable graves.’

            Here again, up pops this word, in its negative form, now in the context of condemning those who would not have the courage to oppose Caesar.  Cassius then compares Brutus with Caesar to flatter him, showing Brutus to be as good as Caesar by any reckoning.  Finally, he invokes the spirit of Brutus’ relative who helped to found the Roman Republic.

            At this point, Brutus acknowledges that he now has an idea of what Cassius is urging him towards, and promises to think it over carefully but begs Cassius not to pressure him further.

            Shortly thereafter, learning that Caesar has been presented with a crown, they part.  Cassius soliloquizes:

            (I,ii. 308-312)  ‘Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see

                                    Thy honorable mettle may be wrought

                                    From that it is disposed; therefore it is meet

                                    That noble minds keep ever with their likes;

                                    For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’

            This last line is the sentiment that sounds our theme; any man, Shakespeare seems to be saying, no matter how noble, no matter how honorable, may be swayed, may be seduced through flattery, persuasion and manipulation.  Cassius has utilized a wide variety of techniques to persuade Brutus to his cause.  He begins by inducing guilt (I love you, but you don’t love me the way you used to); he continues to put Brutus on the defensive by knocking him off his guard (can you see your face?); he flatters him (telling him how all the best Romans admire him); he empathizes with him, and finally, allies himself with that aspect of Brutus’ character that Brutus values most, his honor.  It is honor that Brutus holds in highest esteem, such that his self-esteem depends upon his continuing to think of himself as an honorable man.  This is the leitmotif that Cassius plays upon.

            For Shakespeare, the essence of persuasion and psychological manipulation lies in flattery.  It is from this central theme of the power of flattery to sway men that my title is derived.  It comes in a speech by Decius in which he describes his ability to persuade Caesar to come to the Senate, where the assassination is to be carried out:

            (II.i. 203-208) ‘I can o’ersway him; for he loves to hear

                                    That unicorns may be betrayed with trees,

                                    And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,

                                    Lions with toils, and men with flatterers;

                                    But when I tell him he hates flatterers,

                                    He says he does, being then most flattered.’

            And flattery, Shakespeare demonstrates, consists of allying oneself with the ideals held by the person one wishes to flatter.  Brutus idealizes honor; the honorable self is for Brutus the highest form of development in a man.  For Caesar, the idealized self is one that is strong and powerful.  When Decius wishes to persuade Caesar to come to the Senate, he plays upon Caesar’s view of himself as a powerful and benign leader.  He also uses Caesar’s fear of shame at being considered superstitious and cowardly in order to manipulate him.  Caesar abhors weakness, especially in himself.  Any perception of weakness must be excluded from his view of himself and any chance that he might appear weak to the Senators moves him to immediate action.

            Knowing the Calphurnia has persuaded Caesar to stay at home that day, Decius first flatters Caesar then shames him into changing his decision:

            (II.ii. 93-101) ‘And know it now, the Senate have concluded

                                    To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.

                                    If you shall send them word you will not come,

                                    Their minds may change.  Besides, it were a mock

                                    Apt to be rendered, for someone to say

                                    “Break up the Senate till another time,

                                    When Caesar’s wife shall meet with better dreams.”

                                    If Caesar hide himself, shall they not whisper

                                    “Lo, Caesar is afraid”?’

            Caesar responds immediately to this brilliant ploy, turning to his wife and saying;

            (II.ii. 104-106) ‘How foolish do your fears seem now,


                                    I am ashamed I did yield to them,

                                    Give me my robe, for I will go.’

            And so, Caesar goes to meet his death.  Notice how Caesar denies any suggestion of fear in himself, it is Calphurnia’s fears that had moved him to remain at home, not his own.  Repeatedly, it is only those persuasions that are based upon a psychological understanding of the person being manipulated that are successful.  Attempts to persuade which use no psychological insight are singularly unsuccessful.  For example, when Artemedoris urges Caesar to read his petition which is designed to warn Caesar of the assassination plot, he does so in a straightforward manner.

            (III.i. 5-6)        ‘O Caesar, read mine first, for mine’s a suit

                                    That touches Caesar nearer.  Read it, great Caesar.’

There is no psychological ploy involved in this plea and Artemedoris is rebuffed.  Not only is he pushed aside as he persists in his petition, but for his pains, Caesar calls him ‘mad’.

            When the conspirators approach Caesar at the Senate with their own petition, that Caesar pardon Publius, they also use no sophisticated psychological techniques, for their aim in this instance is not to persuade Caesar, but simply to get close enough to him to kill him.

            But whenever there is a serious attempt at persuasion in the drama, psychological techniques are inevitably employed.  When Brutus gives his funeral oration, he bends the crowd to his view utilizing the techniques I have described.  He allies himself with the values and ideals of the Common Man, especially in the plebeian’s desire to view himself as a free man rather than a slave.

            (III.ii. 21-35)   ‘Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves,

                                    than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?...

                                    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?

                                    If any, speak; for him have I offended.  I pause for a reply.’

            What Roman would be so simple as to admit to being base, rude and vile; who would be a slave under a Caesar portrayed as tyrannical, rather than a free man, as a consequence of Caesar’s death?  Is it surprising that no one in the crowd responds?  Mark Antony now has his work cut out for him if he is to undo the effect of Brutus’ speech.   Of course we already know the outcome of his efforts, so suspense is not an element of our fascination with the text; rather it is the question of how Mark Antony accomplishes his goal that preoccupies us. 

To this end, I shall make a brief digression into Freudian territory.  This digression requires no extensive background in psychoanalytic theory, nor does it require any firsthand knowledge of Freud and his works.  Freud’s ideas and concepts have become so much a part of our cultural heritage, and are so interwoven with our intellectual life that any educated person can arguably said to be a Freudian. Freudian terminology such as ‘ego’, ‘Oedipus complex’, ‘anal-retentive character’, have become common parlance and are generally used quite accurately, even by those unfamiliar with the origins of the terms they are using.    

Particularly, it is the concept of the ‘superego’ that I am concerned with in this presentation.  We may think of the superego as our conscience, that part of the mind that judges every action and metes out self-praise or self-blame.  Freud loosely divided the conscience into two parts, ideals and prohibitions.  Self-esteem is regulated by a constantly changing dynamic related to our perception of how well we have lived up to our ideals and conformed to our prohibitions.  We are proud when living up to our ideals but feel shame if we fail to do so.  On the other hand, transgressions against prohibited activities lead to guilt. Remarkably, Shakespeare understood these concepts 300 years before Freud wrote of them. 

                        Brutus and his co-conspirators have perpetrated the greatest of transgressions, they have committed murder.  Not just any murder, they have committed  a form of patricide, the murder of Caesar.  They have enacted the first part of the Oedipal crime.  They are now consumed with guilt and consequently fear that the mob could turn on them to extract vengeance for putting into action that Oedipal fantasy which Freud discovered lay in the recesses of the mind of every little boy who envies his father’s special relationship with the mother he adores. How best to divest themselves of this debilitating guilt?  Shakespeare brilliantly and artfully fashions the oratorical skills of Brutus to shame the mob into inaction. (III. ii. 21-35)  ‘Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves,…Who is here so rude, that would not be a Roman… Who is here so vile, that will not love his country?’  That’s shame for you.  Shame, as the analyst Léon Wurmser observed, is the most contagious of emotions.  Brutus’ evocation of shame spreads rapidly through the mob and in order to ward off this painful affect, the plebeians readily allow themselves to be persuaded that the conspirators acted wisely and justly in killing Caesar. 

One reason why Brutus’ speech is so brief, compared to Antony’s, is the rapidity of the contagion of shame.  Shame is so powerful in its effect that it takes very little time to sway the crowd to the idea that Caesar’s death was necessary in order for them to maintain their self-esteem as free citizens of Rome.  Shakespeare clearly understood the power of shame as a motivator.

Mark Antony must now reverse the effect of Brutus’ speech on the crowd.  He can not influence the crowd as quickly as Brutus, he must take his time. Let us analyze Antony’s technique in some detail in order to appreciate Shakespeare’s magnificent command of psychological persuasion.  Antony begins by seemingly allying himself with Brutus.  Knowing that he must not directly contradict Brutus’s contention that Caesar was ambitious, he lays the foundation of an opposing position by utilizing the subjunctive mode in his speech.  Appearing to praise Brutus, Anthony says (III, ii, 79-82),

“The noble Brutus/ Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.

 If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Caesar answered it.”

Antony then begins to sow the seeds of doubt in the crowd, saying of Caesar,

((90-94) “He hath brought many captives home to Rome,

                Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill;

                 Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

                 When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;

                  Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”

Antony adduces evidence that contradicts Brutus’ contention that Caesar was ambitious and then begins to induce in the crowd an even more subtle sense of doubt about Brutus himself: (95-96) “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

                              And Brutus is an honorable man.”

As we recall, Antony’s repetition of this theme of Brutus’ honor and the honor of all the conspirators, which he restates each time he gives evidence that contradicts them, slowly works to place doubt in the minds of the plebeians about this honor.  And doubt, Eric Erickson demonstrates, is the partner of shame.  So as Antony induces the crowd to begin to doubt the words of Brutus, so does he initiate a sense of shame in them that that have allied themselves with the murderers.

            Again, Antony speaks in the subjunctive mode, saying;

 (123-126), “If I were disposed to stir/ Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,

                                 I should do Brutus wrong and Cassius wrong,

                                 Who, you all know, are honorable men”.

This constant repetition, contrasting the words of Brutus with the deeds of Caesar, coupled with the ironic repetition of the term ‘honorable,’ works its intended purpose on the crowd, so that by the time Antony dangles Caesar’s will before them, hinting that they are Caesar’s beneficiaries, the crowd has already begun to turn against the conspirators.  As the mob clamors to hear the will, Antony’s irony places another nail in the coffin of the conspirators;

(153-154)        “I fear I wrong the honorable men

                                    Whose daggers have stabbed Caesar; I do fear it.”

The crowd is now completely won over by Antony, as one of them shouts, ‘they were traitors.  Honorable men!’ and another, ‘They were villains, murderers!’  But Antony is not finished with his task of persuasion.  He gathers the crowd around Caesar’s corpse to display the wounds made by Cassius, Casca and by Brutus.  With this action, Antony makes the bond between Caesar, the crowd and himself complete;

            (192-195)  “O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!

       Then I and you, and all of us fell down,

       Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.”

            Antony seals this bond, saying that he is but a ‘plain, blunt man’ (220) not an orator such as Brutus.  Again using the subjunctive mode, Antony says;

 (228-232) “But were I Brutus,

       And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony

       Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue

        In every wound of Caesar that should move

        The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.”

 At this, the mob’s mood has become mutinous and they are ready to seek out the conspirators and exact revenge on them.  They have come full circle.

            Antony’s rhetoric, his persuasiveness is based upon Shakespeare’s understanding of psychology.  Antony knows from the outset that he cannot win over a hostile mob until he can inculcate doubt in them, then proceed subtly to shame them for sympathizing with Caesar’s murderers.  In their desire to rid themselves of this painful feeling of shame, the crowd now becomes willing not only to switch their allegiance to Antony, but to place all blame on the conspirators, whom they now brand as traitors and murderers.  All sense of shame is thus transferred to the conspirators.  Shakespeare reveals deep understanding of the psychology of persuasion, cloaking this understanding in the most beautiful language.  The expert in persuasion, Shakespeare demonstrates, manipulates his subject through flattery, and flattery depends upon building up the self-esteem, then inducing shame in the object of persuasion, such that the only way the subject may alleviate this painful shame is to follow the path laid out by the persuader.  As a final illustration of Shakespeare’s profound understanding of the use of shame as a persuasive devise, I am reminded of the words of my first great teacher of psychology, Bruno Bettelheim.  Bettelheim was fond of pointing out that ‘the end is in the beginning’.  He meant that if one listened carefully to the patient’s very first words to the therapist, it would be later discovered at the end of treatment, that everything one needed to understand the patient was contained in the opening statement of the problem.  All the remainder of treatment was an exposition of the problem.  If we look at the very first scene of this play, we find that Bettelheim’s axiom holds true.  The play opens with a crowd of workers, having left their work places, celebrating Caesar in the streets of Rome.  Two noblemen, Marullus and Flavius proceed to shame these celebrants, saying to them in effect, ‘you celebrate Caesar’s victory over Pompey, where in previous times you strained to catch a glimpse of Pompey in the streets and worshiped the very ground upon which he walked.  Shame on you, go to the Tiber and weep tears for Pompey, then go home in shame’.   So the end is indeed in the beginning.  Shakespeare’s masterful understanding of this power of shame to persuade and move men, makes him, in my estimation, not only one of the greatest writers in the English language, but also, one of the greatest psychological thinkers of all time.


Note: All quotations and line notations are taken from the Signet Classic Edition of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, 1963.