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.
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
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;
Following Caesar’s death, Mark Antony’s servant
persuades Brutus to allow
At this meeting,
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
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 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.
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;
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,
Choose Caesar for their king.’
Cassius seizes upon this comment, especially the word ‘fear’;
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;
What is it that you would impart to me?’ – he asks of Cassius.
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
(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:
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:
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.
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.’
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
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
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
“The noble Brutus/ Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.”
((90-94) “He hath brought many
captives home to
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.”
And Brutus is an honorable man.”
As we recall,
(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,
(153-154) “I fear I wrong the honorable men
Whose daggers have stabbed Caesar; I do fear it.”
The crowd is now completely won
(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.”
(228-232) “But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an
Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of
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.
Note: All quotations and line notations are taken from the Signet Classic Edition of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, 1963.