Move the Stones of Rome to Rise:
Hearing Mark Antony

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
July 2008

[Rome. The Forum.]


I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts.

I am no orator as Brutus is,
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him.

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men's blood. I only speak right on.

I tell you that which you yourselves do know,
Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me.

                                 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.

William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar, 3.2.207-221  (circa 1599)

Memorizing Mark Antony

A section of my high-school English classes that I particularly enjoyed was reading Shakespeare's great tragic play, Julius Caesar. I already was a little familiar with the play, and I liked it very much.

One of the class requirements was memorization for verbal delivery. For my recitation I chose the climax of Mark Antony's great funeral oration for Caesar to the Roman people: a speech that was slyly ingratiating to the conspirators, subtly thankful to the dead Caesar, and nobly subversive of the assassins' cause.

But I ran into a difficulty of interpretation. Our teacher was generally fine; she was good at helping the students to appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare, to understand what he wrote, and thereafter show our understanding in our classroom declamations. And there was the rub.

The very stones themselves

The final lines above are not quite the very end of Antony's oration, but they are the emotional climax. As I read the lines aloud, and it seemed obvious to me, Antony's emphasis should fall as follows:

                            ... 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.

Thusly emphasizing that the very stones themselves, the plain cobblestones underfoot that paved Rome, perhaps even the marble building-stones that shaped her great buildings — not merely the distraught public listening now to Antony's words, but even those dull blocks would be so moved by Caesar's wounds that the stones themselves would rise and mutiny against the conspirators and assassins of Caesar.

Exhorting whom, or exhorting to what?

My English teacher didn't see it that way. Although sympathetic, she insisted that the emphasis should be:

                             ... and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

To me this was wrongheaded. Shakespeare surely wasn't suggesting that the virtuoso orator Mark Antony exhort the stones, and perhaps the hedges and flowerpots, to mutiny! — As distinct from the stones' and hedges' and flowerpots' usual muttering and parading-with-signs in protest at assassinations.

This was one of my earliest lessons in close reading and textual interpretation.

I tell you, if these were silent —

The rhetorical image was not altogether new, although I didn't have this bolt ready in my quiver at the time:

As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"

And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples."

He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out."

Luke 19:37-40
Revised Standard Version

Some years after that truly pleasant English class, I seized an opportunity to see a production of Julius Caesar staged by The Royal Shakespeare Company in London. I was gratified that this authority, at least, heard the drama in Antony's climactic lines in the same way as I had in high school, and spoke them so.

A speech of masterful rhetoric. Even the cobblestones agree.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

JMF assisted on this.

Scene and line numbering as in
The Norton Shakespeare

Mark Twain discusses the tradition
of the stones of Jerusalem in
The Innocents Abroad

Rhetoric or Else
persuasive speech, or — ?


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