In one corner: Brutus, wearing trunks of bloody red. In the other, wearing gold: Mark Antony, friend of Julius Caesar. These two areabout to square off before a mob at Caesar’s funeral. Whose oration wins and why? In "Julius Caesar" William Shakespeare offers lessons in persuasion for lawyers.
Round I: Always request, never command. Persuaders respect their audience by setting the right tone at the start. What does Brutus do? He tells the noisy mob to shut up: "Be patient till the last./Romans, countrymen, and lovers!/hear me for my/ cause, and be silent that you may hear. . . ."
What about Antony? At the start of his oration, he invites the mob to listen: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; . . ." He then re-uses the technique midway through his oration. He is in a pulpit above the crowd. Wanting to be among the crowd when he reads Caesar’s will, he must first walk down a set of stairs. But first he asks permission: "Shall I descend? And will you give me leave?" Which technique works?
Apply this to the courtroom. I was trying a multi-plaintiff age discrimination case. During opening, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers yelled at the jury about a company policy on reductions-in-force that the company allegedly didn’t follow: "And the company violated this sacred pledge!" He spoke to jurors like he would talk to unruly teenagers. I cringed inside. The jury was unmoved. Here is a better approach: "May I suggest to you . . ." or a variation.
Winner of Round I: Mark Antony.
Round II: Show, don’t tell. This is a fundamental rule of persuasion. Brutus tells, while Antony shows. Brutus tells the crowd: "As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;/as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was/valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I/slew him." That’s it. With no facts and no examples, he essentially asks the audience to trust him.
Compare this to Antony. He starts with a general proposition that most people accept as true because it taps into their pre-existing belief system: "The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is oft interred with their bones." You can see the mob members, like jurors, thinking, "Isn’t that the truth?"
But Antony, like a skilled trial lawyer, then provides facts that are so notably absent from Brutus’ oration. Caesar "hath brought many captives home to Rome/Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:/Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? . . . You all did see . . . I thrice presented him a kingly crown,/Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?"
He then adds a twist that allows the mob to believe him without having to disbelieve Brutus: "I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,/But I am here to speak what I do know."
Antony also shows instead of tells by using demonstrative evidence: the riven cloak Caesar wore when stabbed. He reminisces about the first time Caesar wore it, then shows where each conspirer struck: "Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:/See what a rent the envious Casca made:/Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d; . . ."
That’s genius. Round II goes to Antony.
Round III: Rhetorical questions are powerful, if used correctly. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action." And we see Goethe’s truth in how Brutus fumbles the powerful technique of a rhetorical question and how Antony deploys it to deadly effect.
Brutus asks the crowd: "Who is here so base that would be a/bondsman? If any, speak; for him I have offended./Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If/any, speak; for him I offended. Who is here so/vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;/for him have I offended. I pause for a reply."
Big mistake. Rhetorical questions make listeners come to their own conclusions. The speaker doesn’t convince the listener; rather, the listener convinces himself. Brutus asks each person in the mob to speak up — but only if he is base, rude, vile or any combination thereof.
It reminds me of one voir dire I sat through while waiting to pick a jury in my client’s case. It was a wrongful death claim. The plaintiff’s spouse claimed that a pesticide was sprayed over his work area, causing incurable cancer.
The defense lawyer asked prospective jurors, "Do you think you will be able to understand the complicated medical testimony in this case? By your silence, I take it that you will."
What juror would want to raise her hand to say she was too dumb to grasp the information? What mob member would be glad to tell Antony and the world that he is "base" or "stupid"? Does the line form to the right?
Contrast Brutus’ approach with Antony’s. Antony states facts — Caesar filled coffers with ransom and refused a crown — and then asks whether this is evidence of ambition. Members of the mob then convince themselves that it isn’t. ("Methinks there is much reason in his sayings," "If thou considered rightly of the matter,/Caesar has had great wrong" and "Mark’d ye his words? He would not take the crown;/Therefore ’tis certain he was not ambitious.")
After hearing these statements from the mob, Antony ties everything together at the oration’s end when he tells the crowd: "I tell you that which yourselves do know . . ."
Round III goes to Antony.
Round IV: Stay humble. Brutus is a nobleman and Antony a soldier. Brutus foolishly assumes that his rhetoric and the self-evident reason for Caesar’s assassination will win the day. He arrogantly tells Cassius, who is worried about Antony’s oration: "By your pardon;/I will myself into the pulpit first,/And show the reason for our Caesar’s death: . . ."
The box score of references to himself in his short oration: He uses "me" four times, "myself" appears five times, and "I" shows up 14 times.
In contrast, Antony stays humble, heartfelt and simple, saying Caesar "was my friend, faithful and just to me."
One evening I was having drinks with a plaintiff’s lawyer. He mentioned a case where the defense lawyer, while the jury was deliberating, shook his hand and told him, "You did the best you could with what you had."
Well, at least after the jury came back, the defense lawyer didn’t have to impale himself like Brutus. Round IV to Antony.
Round V: Be professional. In "Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar," Garry Wills writes that ancient Romans never questioned the intentions of their adversaries — their actions, yes, but not their motivations.
Listen to Antony upon learning of Brutus’ death: "This was the noblest Roman of them all:/. . . and the elements/So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up/And say to all the world ‘This was a man.’ "
If Brutus had won, he would say the same of Antony. Round V is a draw.
Unlike them, lawyers do not die if defeated. Instead, we drink a beer and go to CLEs. That’s just as well. But, in the great cycle of litigation, today you get sliced and diced, and tomorrow you do the slicing and the dicing. Now, there’s the making of a lawyer’s Caesar salad.