A Lesson in Rhetoric: Damian Lewis as Antony

To be filed in the category of “This is a guy who makes you want to go back to school”, we just learned and reported (on our lovely sister site damian-lewis.com) that Damian’s version of Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar, for The Guardian’s video series Shakespeare Solos, was featured in a seminar on rhetoric. This wasn’t an avenue for literary criticism or drama theory, but a newsletter on effective public speaking.

How is speaking any different from writing and reading, you may wonder? Well, there are components to classical rhetoric, when dissected, can show you what makes one speech different from another. Such an analysis would reach your brain (or at least attempt to). Alternatively, we can talk about how a speech makes you feel. Granted we’re not seeing much great oratory from our current elder statesmen, so examples are few and far between. But, there was a time, wasn’t there? In our not too distant history, when a leader spoke, it did a heart good to hear, didn’t it?

Suffice it to say, speech, hearing a story told or an argument made, reaches parts of our brain that simple reading and watching don’t. We can pick apart the words and analyze the bits to get meaning out of it, and we can wax poetical about the theoretical implications of it, but, the fact is, speech operates largely on a sensual level. Hearing great speech is a treat for the mind, but more than that, it is a feast for the senses, in ways that our conscious selves may not even be aware.

One great trick in making speech work to argue, convince, manage or regulate some situation, is to appeal to both brain and heart. Perhaps any universal truth that we can ever hope to find always lies in the intersection between the two, brain and heart. An effective speech will temper those extremes. It’ll speak reason to emotion in absolute balance with speaking emotion to reason. You may think that such a method of speaking would be all gray and fuzzy, a nebulous passive-aggressive mess. And, of course, it can be, often, when not in the right hands. But Shakespeare, well, his hands were absolutely the right ones to hold that balance. Arguably, no where was that balance struck more resoundingly than in the funeral speech from Julius Caesar.

So, yeah, Damian read a great speech. What’s the big deal, where’s the talent in just reading something that was already great? Well, it comes from understanding the words, for one. Further, it comes from weighing and distributing the emotion in a way that shows that understanding. You can tell when someone is reading something they don’t really understand, yes? I dare say that some of the actors who have performed this speech may be of those lot who sort of get the big picture of it, but not really the nuances or micro-emotion. Damian gets it, the big picture and the microscopic. Performances like his are the delta between watching and listening to something and living it.

And, so, here it is for us again to enjoy: Damian as Antony.

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For some context: Antony was Caesar’s closest friend, he was his go-to guy. On the one hand, Antony wants to protect his own ass in this speech by not angering the Senate with too passionate a defense of the man they just ousted by murder. On the other hand, he wants to honor and mourn his friend.

Damian starts Antony’s speech with a mild smile, conciliatory, apologetic even, showing empathy for the murderers.

Antony starts: Caesar was evil, they all know, and his evil will live on, but whatever goodness he had will be buried with him. That’s the way of the world. “So let it be with Caesar.” Subtext (which we won’t know till the end of the speech): Yes, I’ll agree with what you did, but not before I remind ya’ll that the guy wasn’t all that bad.

The noble Brutus hath told you that Caesar was ambitious.

Yep, he was, and that sucked. But, sure, fine.

Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all honorable men.

Pause and tone switch.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me.

Damian shows us Antony’s love for Caesar with his eyes. His voice and his eyes are inextricably bound. He repeats:

But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.

Here, Damian’s voice and eyes have become just a touch colder. He goes on: Caesar filled your coffers with loot, assuring all members of this nation wealth and prosperity. He wept for the poor and tried to assure that they’d be fed.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, but Brutus said he was ambitious and Brutus is an honorable man.

Anger is rising to the surface. Antony says: You all remember me trying to present him with a crown, right? Three times? And he refused it? All three times.

Was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and, sure, he is an honorable man.

This is the fourth time he’s repeated the same phrase. Anger has now reached the surface. There’s rage in the eyes, and the lines are delivered through gritted teeth. But let me check the anger, his face says. I’m not here to argue against what Brutus said or doubt his inherent honor. But, let me tell ya’ll what I “do know.” This is where the speech turns from emotion to reason. What I KNOW, with my mind, not my heart.

You all did love him once. Not without cause.

You all had reason to love him and to support him. So why not cry now that he is gone? Why not mourn for him now? You all have become animals wanting to tear him limb from limb and to defend his murderers!

Beasts!

You’re not thinking!

Men have lost their reason.

Emotion appealing to reason, reason appealing to emotion. Damian takes the anger to the very edge. Then: Hold on, let me pull this back. Damian’s smiling non-smile says: Sorry to lose my cool there for a hot minute.

Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin. There with Caesar. And I must pause till it come back to me.

My friend is dead and it hurts deeply. I need a minute. Antony out.

Granted, this is one of Shakespeare’s simpler speeches. Quite easy to dissect and understand the words and see the patterns: The repetitions, the counterpoint of the murderers’ “reason” vs Antony’s “heart”. Even the subtext is pretty obvious if you know the relationships and the story, including the power of this one speech to sway the minds of all “friends, Romans, countrymen” ultimately to Antony’s side.

There is no doubt of the structural soundness of the words. So, it’s solely the emotion behind the words which has varied from actor to actor. Some actors have bellowed the anger, letting their thunderous lungs do all the work. Some have twitched their mouths or shed a tear at the grief.

Damian neither bellowed nor cried. Instead, he used the closeness of the camera to great effect to deliver the anger in increments. He took the repetitions and scaled his release of the anger accordingly. He played the anger quite scientifically, governed by “reason”. Then for the grief, the “heart” part of the speech, he plays it as the undercurrent flowing beneath all the words, with his eyes and by letting his voice go soft.

So, an actor spoke the words Shakespeare wrote, and you now know, I hope, what the words meant. But what prompted the feelings stirred by the words? Well, that was pure Damian.

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson in Rhetoric: Damian Lewis as Antony”

  1. You write beautifully, and bring up two things aside of the main content of how masterly Damian manages to convey emotions in such a precise and subtle way. The first one is about something that’s quite forgotten, yes there was a time in which politicians and leaders used rhetoric as a way to influence reason and emotion. There was the time in which great men scientists, philosophers and the like occupied they all had more than one single study and they were bright indeed. Sadly those days are over and leaves us all with precarious minds like the president of my country that says infront of national TV that 10mins is less than 5….
    On the other hand, there’s one phrase that really left me thinking: “Caesar was evil….his evil will live on but whatever goodness he had will be buried with him”. This is so true, sometimes bad actions and memories live on, and the positive stuff dies away. Thus Shakespeare are so updated, dont you agree?

    1. Thank you!
      Yes, it’s often very surprising how tuned in Shakespeare was to the human condition, the aspects of it which persist over centuries and generations and across borders. Makes you wonder how much of the Western consciousness was actually constructed by his way of seeing things. I mean, what came first, humanity or Shakespeare?
      We had a president not too so long ago who appreciated the transformative power of rhetoric. Listening back to his speeches, you can tell he understood and believed in what he was saying. Sadly, one only realizes such things when they’re gone. Also, such skills are lost amid the onslaught of all the various voices we hear throughout our modern day. It was easier to convince in those days when not every tom dick or harry had a voice. Which perhaps leads to the question: Is democracy counter to rhetoric? Nah, there’s hope for us yet (one must believe!).

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