Sunday, October 03, 2004

Friends, Americans, Countrymen...

The New York Times
October 3, 2004

Friends, Americans, Countrymen...

Two bitter rivals stand up to address an immense, anonymous crowd. The rules have been set in advance: they will speak from the same platform; they will not address each other directly; they will limit their discourse to certain set topics. The stakes are immensely high: no less than the fate of the nation and of the whole world.

Sound familiar? The scene is from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," written and first performed more than 400 years ago as the opening play in the newly built Globe Theater. Brutus and Antony stand over the corpse of the assassinated Caesar. Nothing will bring Caesar back. The question is the future course of the damaged republic.

It is worth noting that Shakespeare lived in a monarchy, not a republic. Elizabethan society had little or nothing comparable to what observers of modern democratic societies call the public sphere - the shared space where competing views on politics, economics, foreign policy and moral values are aired. (Parliamentary debates were closed to the public, and transcripts were strictly prohibited.)

This makes it all the more striking that Shakespeare depicts the world's destiny as determined by the rhetorical performances of two men standing up at a pulpit and speaking out to an agitated populace that demands a public reckoning: "We will be satisfied! Let us be satisfied!''

The crowd wants to know why Caesar has been murdered. The honorable, principled Brutus addresses himself to the wisdom of his listeners. Assuming that his audience is capable of assessing and rationally judging his actions, he lays out a complex and seemingly contradictory argument: "As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honour for his valour, and death for his ambition."

In the heat of the moment this is a lot for anyone to process: how could Brutus have shifted from friend to foe? Are his deeds the mark of inconsistency or thoughtfulness? How could he be for and against the same man? How is it possible to keep in focus the noble principle for which he says he has acted?

Antony takes a different tack. He addresses not the listeners' heads but their gut feelings. And, weeping ostentatiously, he puts his own feelings on display: "Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar." Never mind that anyone looking closely and coolly should be able to see through the pretense. The wily politician Antony manages to convince the crowd of his absolute sincerity: "I am no orator as Brutus is - But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man."

His cunning speech appeals at once to his listeners' fears, aroused by the ghastly spectacle of violence, and to their greed. To every Roman citizen he gives 75 drachmas. The handout, absurd at such a moment of public crisis, is magically effective. The mob erupts and, as Antony had calculated, Rome is plunged into a cycle of violence that he can exploit for his own political ends.

Did it have to end like this? What if Brutus had honed his message more successfully? And what if the crowd had glimpsed something in Antony's face when he did not know he was being observed that gave away his cynical scheme? The course of history - the collapse of order, years of bloodshed, wasted lives and treasure, the loss of liberty - would have been startlingly different.

Have we learned something about listening to political oratory that Shakespeare's "friends, Romans, countrymen" did not know? Thursday night's debate seemed to me surprisingly revealing. I expected boilerplate, and of course was not totally disappointed in that, but there was something more. To my surprise, substantive differences between President Bush and Senator John Kerry emerged.

One man, the incumbent, insisted again and again on the need at all costs to avoid mixed messages. Everything for him was reduced to an apparently simple war-making strategy and a single enemy. The other man, the challenger, had a more complex account of the task. He expressed commitment to winning the war, but doubted its wisdom; he honored the sacrifice of our troops, but lamented our relative isolation from the rest of the world.

And then something entirely unexpected happened: the lengthy rulebook had called for the television cameras to focus exclusively on whichever man was speaking, but the networks flouted the ban and allowed the audience to see how each candidate responded to his rival's words. The effect was startling.

Senator Kerry principally addressed his remarks to the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and when President Bush was speaking he watched attentively and jotted occasional notes. The president, for the most part, seemed more effective at facing the camera directly when he spoke; he understood that the task was not to persuade Mr. Lehrer to vote for him but to persuade the crowd. However, as many have noted, when he evidently thought he was unobserved he disclosed an astonishing range of emotions: confusion, annoyance and something like rage.

It was a revealing and unnerving sight, something like seeing into Antony's head when he addresses the Roman crowd. Will it make a difference to have seen what we have seen? I believe it will.

Stephen Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard, is the author of "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare."