Many a college student has had to write a paper comparing the speeches of Brutus and Antony after Caesar’s death in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 2). Both men speak to the crowd, attempting to sway them. It is said by many scholars that Brutus appealed to reason and Antony to emotion. (See list of links below.)
One of the most famous lines in Brutus’s speech is this:
If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather that Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?
There are far more well-known lines in Antony’s speech, which starts with, perhaps, the second most quoted line from the play: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” (The most famous is surely “Et tu, Brute?” also rumored to have been said by the real Caesar upon realizing Brutus has betrayed him.)
Antony goes on to address the claims of Brutus against Caeser, listing Caesar’s good points and then saying “But Brutus says he was ambitious and Brutus is an honourable man.” He shows the crowd the cloak Caesar had on when killed, recalls when Caesar first wore it, a summer’s evening, then shows the tears made by daggers, providing those personal details that listeners love so much.
It’s a great speech. You get a real sense of how he used words and the images they conjured and conveyed to bring people to his side. I’m not a big Shakespeare fan but if you haven’t read this, you should.
But what has this to do with modern politics? As regular readers will have noted, I enjoy political autobiography, not so much for what truths may be revealed but for what these men and women have to say themselves, how they define themselves, their lives, values, and worldview. And sometimes contrasts and similarities strike me.
Take, for example, two of the Democratic candidates for president. Hillary Clinton seems to be widely regarded as brilliant but not very good at reaching people. Barack Obama is widely admired for his speaking ability and inspiration, but is, by some, perceived as lacking in political experience. These contrasts can also be found in their writings. And, like Antony and Brutus, one touches the intellect and the other the heart.
Using one topic, children, as a demonstration, see for yourself.
From Obama’s Audacity of Hope, on legislation (p. 59):
And sometimes our ideological predispositions are just so fixed that we have trouble seeing the obvious. Once, while still in the Illinois Senate, I listened to a Republican colleague work himself into a later over a proposed plan to provide school breakfasts to preschoolers. Such a plan, he insisted, would crush their spirit of self-reliance. I had to point out that not too many five-year-olds I knew were self-reliant, but children who spent their formative years too hungry to learn could very well und up being charges of the state.
Despite my best efforts, the bill went down to defeat; Illinois preschoolers were temporarily saved form the debilitating effects of cereal and milk (a version of the bill would later pass). But my fellow legislator’s speech helps underscore one of the differences between ideology and values: Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.
From Clinton’s Living History, on legislation (p. 64)
In New Bedford, Massachusetts, I went door to door trying to identify the source of a troubling statistic. At CDF [Children’s Defense Fund], we took census figures of school-age children and compared those numbers to school enrollments. We often found significant discrepancies, and we wanted to determine where these unaccounted-for children were. Knocking on doors was revelatory and heartbreaking. I found children who weren’t in school because of physical disabilities like blindness and deafness. I also found school-age siblings at home, baby-sitting their younger brothers and sisters while their parents worked. On the small back porch off her family’s home in a neighborhood of Portuguese-American fishermen, I met a girl in a wheelchair, who told me how much she wanted to go to school. She knew she couldn’t go because she couldn’t walk.
We submitted the results of our survey to Congress. Two years later, at the urging of CDF and other strong advocates, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, mandating that children with physical, emotional and learning disabilities be educated in the public school system.
From Obama’s Audacity of Hope, describing a daughter’s birthday party (p. 350-351):
As a grand finale, after all the pizza was eaten and the juice boxes drunk, after we had sung “Happy Birthday” and eaten some cake, the gymnastics instructor gathered all the kids around an old, multicolored parachute and told Sasha to sit at its center. On the count of three, Sasha was hoisted up into the air and back down again, then up for a second time, and then for a third. And each time she rose above the billowing sail, she laughed and laughed with a look of pure joy.
I wonder if Sasha will remember that moment when she is grown. Probably not; it seems as if I can retrieve only the barest fragments of memory from when I was five. But I suspect that the happiness she felt on that parachute registers permanently in her; that such moments accumulate and embed themselves in a child’s character, becoming a part of their soul. Sometimes, when I listen to Michelle talk about her father, I hear the echo of such joy in her, the love and respect that Frasier Robinson earned not through fame of spectacular deeds but through small, daily, ordinary acts – a love he earned by being there. And I ask myself whether my daughters will be able to speak of me in that same way.
From Clinton’s Living History (p. 93):
In 1982, with Chelsea on my hip or holding her hand, I walked up and down streets meeting voters. I remember meeting some young mothers in the small town of Bald Knob. When I said I bet they were having a good time talking to their babies, one of them asked, “Why would I talk to her? She can’t talk back?” I knew from my Yale Child Study days – and from my mother – how important it was to talk and read to babies to build their vocabularies. Yet when I tried to explain this, the women were polite but dubious.
From Clinton’s Living History (p. 81):
Beryl [Anthony] and I presented expert testimony about the stages of a child’s development and the degree to which a child’s emotional well-being depends on the presence of a consistent caregiver in early life. We persuaded the judge that the contract the foster parents had signed – agreeing not to adopt – should not be enforceable if its terms were contrary to the child’s best interests. We won the case but our victory didn’t change the sate’s formal policy about foster children’s placement because the state didn’t appeal the decision. Thankfully out victory did serve as a precedent that the state eventually adopted.
From Obama’s Dreams From My Father (pp. 231-2):
She laughed cheerfully and walked me into the hallway where a wobbly line of five- and six-year-olds was preparing to enter a classroom. A few of them waved and smiled at us; a pair of boys towards the rear spun around and around, their arms tight against their sides; a tiny girl struggled to yank a sweater over her head and got tangled up in the sleeves. As the teacher tried to direct them up the stairs, I thought how happy and trusting they all seemed, that despite the rocky arrivals many of them had gone through – delivered prematurely, perhaps, or delivered into addiction, most of them already smudged with the ragged air of poverty – the joy they seemed to find in simple locomotion, the curiosity they displayed toward every new face, seemed the equal of children anywhere. They made me think back to those words of Regina’s spoken years ago, in a different time and place: It’s not about you.
“Beautiful aren’t they?” Dr. Collier said.
“They really are.”
“The change comes later. In about five years, although it seems like it’s coming sooner all the time.”
“What change is that?”
“When their eyes stop laughing. Their throats can still make the sound, but if you look at their eyes, you can see they’ve’ shut off something inside.”
It is not to say that one is a more effective legislator than the other. Nor is it to suggest there are any other comparisons between the senators and the Shakespeare characters. I merely noted the differences in their writing styles and it reminded me of the Antony / Brutus dichotomy.
Should you be more interested in knowing how blog posts are inspired, I will tell you that while Mr. J and I were watching “Persuasion” on Masterpiece Theatre last weekend he noticed that the actor playing the nefarious Mr. Elliott also played Brutus in HBO’s “Rome” series and then it was just a mental skip over to Brutus and Antony and then Clinton and Obama. I’m sure so very many of you took the same mental journey [sad smile in recognition of my own geekiness].
Clinton, Hillary. Living History. NY: Scribner, 2003.
Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope. NY: Crown Publishers, 2006.
Obama, Barack. Dreams From My Father. NY: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. The complete works of William Shakespeare. (Cambridge text). London: Octopus Books Limited, 1981.