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Shakespeare: What Can a Great Poet Teach us About Clear, Concise Expository Writing? by Philip Yaffe

 

William Shakespeare was unquestionably one of the world's greatest poets and poetic playwrights. Arguably, his mastery of English far surpassed that of anyone else who ever put pen to paper.

So what can Shakespeare -- a genius at playing the language almost like a violin -- possibly teach us about expository (non-fiction) writing, where ideas must prevail and the language made as inconspicuous as possible? He can teach us that being a truly accomplished writer means knowing when to turn a beautiful phrase and when to speak plainly. Perhaps more than anyone else, a poet recognizes that the result must take pride of place, not the techniques used to achieve it.

Ask anyone to recite something from Shakespeare. Almost invariably you will hear either "To be or not to be, that is the question" or "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." The first is the famous Hamlet soliloquy where the young prince is contemplating suicide, the other the famous Marc Anthony soliloquy where Anthony laments the death of Julius Caesar.

Both are works of genius. However, the Hamlet soliloquy is very much of its time, composed of literary images, erudite allusions, and poetic turns of phrase. By contrast, the Marc Anthony soliloquy is almost painfully plain and seems as if it could have been written yesterday. Since Anthony's speech sounds more familiar to contemporary ears, let's analyze it to see just how Shakespeare made such an apparently "simple" text immortal.

Bear in mind that Anthony's hidden agenda is to turn the people against Brutus and the other assassins who have seized control of Rome, largely to popular assent. As a public relations gesture, Brutus allows Anthony to address to the crowd, but only to express his grief at the death of a friend. At the outset, this is apparently all that Anthony intends to do, until his ingeniously crafted words reverse the situation and send the conspirators fleeing.

With this as background, read the first nine lines of the soliloquy straight through. Then read the analysis that follows.
 
 

 

Sentence 1 : Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Sentence 2 :
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

Sentence 3 : So let it be with Caesar.

Sentence 4 : The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.

Sentence 5 : Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest – for Brutus is an honorable man; so are they all, all honorable men -- come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.

Sentence 6 : He was my friend, faithful and just to me. But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.

Sentence 7 : He hath brought many captives home to Rome, whose ransoms did the general coffers fill. Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

Sentence 8 : When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

Sentence 9 : Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.

Analysis of the Soliloquy

Sentence 1 : Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. This is the perfect introduction to a speech, i.e. “tell them what you are going to tell them.” It is also very simple language, suggesting that the speech will be neither polemical nor great oratory. It will be a heart-felt statement of bereavement.

Sentence 2 : The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
Once again very simple language, but something has already begun to change. Note the excellent use of contrast to stimulate and maintain interest. “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” in the first sentence, and “evil” and “good” and “lives” and “interred” in the second.

Sentence 3 : So let it be with Caesar.
Brutus has already denounced Caesar as a tyrant who had to be killed for the general good. Anthony suggests otherwise, raising expectations in the crowd, only apparently to definitively dash them, thus heightening their interest. This is an excellent example of the “separation” technique, i.e. breaking a sentence for dramatic impact.

Compare

As it might have been written
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones and so let it be with Caesar.
As it actually was written
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.
The difference is remarkable.

Sentence 4 :The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. Once again, Anthony reverses position. “If it were so . . .” clearly indicates that he disagrees with Brutus. We are back to the polemic.

Also note the power in the near repetition of “grievous” and “grievously”. The statement would have been significantly weaker had Shakespeare felt compelled to avoid such repetition, a grievous fault of many less accomplished writers.

Sentence 5 : Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest -- for Brutus is an honorable man; so are they all, all honorable men -- come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
Here comes the master stroke: “for Brutus is an honorable man; so are they all, all honorable men.” By now there can be little doubt that Anthony is using the word “honorable” ironically; he is in fact suggesting that Brutus and his co-conspirators are liars and hypocrites.

Sentence 6 : He was my friend, faithful and just to me. But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.
Here again Shakespeare works his magic by repeating both “ambitious” and “honorable.” This heightens the impact of the statement, which would have been seriously diminished by substitutes. For example: “But Brutus says he was tyrannical and Brutus is worthy of our trust.” The same thought, but nowhere near the same power.

Sentence 7 : He hath brought many captives home to Rome, whose ransoms did the general coffers fill. Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
Again repetition of “ambitious”. Also, Anthony asks a question rather than making a statement. The listeners are enjoined to answer the question for themselves, and of course the answer is “no”, just as Anthony wants.

Sentence 8 : When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Note the use of “cried” and “wept”. Not only did Caesar empathize with the poor; he felt their pain even more than they did themselves. Also note the near repetition, “ambition” rather than “ambitious”.

Sentence 9 : Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.

“Ambitious” and “honorable”. These two words now resound like a drumbeat. Anthony has effectively transformed their meanings. “Ambitious” now means “compassionate” and “honorable” now means “ignoble”. This drumbeat continues throughout the text.

Now read the soliloquy as Shakespeare wrote it, without interruption, keeping in mind the above analysis.
Also note the rhythm. Not only is the text clear, it flows almost like a poem without actually being one. Rhythm in expository writing is seldom mentioned, because when it flows so easily it is seldom noticed. However, it is there if you look for it. And you should, because it is one of the subtle things that convert an ordinary text into a great one.

(Anthony addresses the crowd)


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault. And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest -- for Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all, all honorable men -- come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me. But Brutus says he was ambitious and Brutus is an honorable man. He hath brought many captives home to Rome whose ransoms did the general coffers fill: Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Yet Brutus says he was ambitious. And Brutus is an honorable man. You all did see that, on the Lupercal, I thrice presented him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious. And, sure, he is an honorable man.

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love him once, not without cause. What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him? O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason. Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar and I must pause till it come back to me. But yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world. Now lies he there and none so poor to do him reverence. O masters, if I were disposed to stir your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage, I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong, who, you all know, are honorable men: I will not do them wrong. I rather choose to wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you, than I will wrong such honorable men.

But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar I found it in his closet. Tis his will. Let but the commons hear this testament -- which, pardon me, I do not mean to read -- and they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds and dip their napkins in his sacred blood. Yea, beg a hair of him for memory, and, dying, mention it within their wills, bequeathing it as a rich legacy unto their issue.

(The crowd demands to hear the will.)
.
Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it. It is not meant you know how Caesar loved you. You are not wood, you are not stones, but men. And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar, it will inflame you, it will make you mad. Tis good you know not that you are his heirs, for, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Anthony continues to display mock deference to the “honorable men”. This only stirs emotions further. When he finally does read the will, the crowd mutinies against the "honorable men" and sets off to kill them.

If there is any doubt that this was the objective of Anthony’s soliloquy, they are swept aside by two comments as the crowd begins to riot:
-- “Now let it work. Mischief, you are loose. Take whatever path you want.”
-- “Fortune is favorable, and in this mood will give us anything.”

The complete scene is too long to reproduce here. If you have never fully appreciated the Marc Anthony soliloquy, this is your opportunity to break out your Shakespeare, read the complete text -- and learn some valuable lessons.

Contributing Writer  Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com). For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe, Brussels, Belgium Email: phil.yaffe@yahoo.com









 

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