Sunday, December 4, 2011

Garry Wills, Rome & Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Garry Wills has struck again, this time with his book Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In this slender volume Wills explores how Shakespeare, via Plutarch, grasped the essence of Rome at the time of the transition from republic to empire. Specifically, Wills explores the rhetoric of the leading characters. Of course, Antony's funeral oration is the best known of the set pieces in this play. (My continued apologies to Mrs. Vaughn for having complained about having to memorize this in sophomore English class). However, Antony's funeral oration is not the only example of rhetoric in the play. Before Antony speaks, Brutus addressed the crowd. Wills contrasts the rhetoric of Brutus, which centers upon "mine honor", against the more nuanced speech given by Antony. Antony responds to his audience, whereas Brutus expects his audience to respond to him.

Wills's love of Shakespeare is not new. His previous book on Macbeth demonstrates the care with which has explicates these texts. In addition, he has recently published a book on Shakespeare and Verdi, the great Italian opera composer who composed operas on some of Shakespeare's plays. I haven't read that book yet, but I have a hard time imagining that it could be better than this book. Wills is trained as a classicist and the opportunity to merge his love of theater (and Shakespeare in particular), along with his classical learning, provides us a real treat in humanistic learning.

I always enjoyed Julius Caesar (my complaints and sophomore English notwithstanding), and I think that it is an easily accessible play. In addition, there are a couple of good film productions of it that are well worth seeing, including one with Marlon Brando as Anthony. If you have an opportunity to see these productions or to read this play, Wills's book out would be an excellent introduction and perspective on the play.

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