Hail Brexit

On the morning after the EU referendum I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I couldn’t believe that Britain had voted to leave. I didn’t think it was possible. By the end of the weekend many Leave voters began to feel as if they had been stabbed in the back, as the leaders of the Leave campaign began the process of wriggling out of their promises. Remainers feel betrayed by the weak performance of the some of the left wing leadership, and Leavers feel attacked by their peers who are throwing around bitter insults. The valued members of our community from across Europe feel insulted and rejected. Wounded and confused, Britain has emerged from the EU referendum looking like Julius Caesar, with countless stab wounds, bleeding on the senate floor. Et tu Corbyn?

It is at this point in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that Antony responds with his famous speech: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. This speech is a masterclass in rhetoric. With it, Antony seizes all the opportunities that this moment of crisis affords and completely turns public opinion. Antony addresses a mob who have, moments before, praised Brutus for the assassination of Caesar, and enthusiastically agreed with all his reasoning. By the end of his speech the people who have just applauded Brutus and his co-conspirators are calling them “villians, murderers”, and “traitors”. What is most clever about Antony’s rhetoric is that he brings people with him.
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 honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable 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 honourable 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 honourable 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 honourable man. (III,2)
Antony begins his speech as if he is in total agreement with the crowd who have just applauded the assassination of Caesar. Antony does not begin by directly contradicting Brutus, who is a hero to the crowd. Instead, he seems to concede that, while he has a different opinion, Brutus’ honour has made him a fair judge of Casear. “He was my friend, faithful and just to me: / But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man.” Gradually, Antony moves away from this concessionary position, taking the crowd with him.  Each example of Caesar’s virtue is followed by a repetition of “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man.” As Antony’s praise of Brutus becomes a repeated refrain, its meaning begins to change. What first seemed like a balanced admission, soon becomes excruciatingly ironic. Brutus has claimed that Caesar was assassinated for aspiring to be a king, but Antony reminds the crowd of Caesar’s public and repeated refusal of the crown. The words “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man” now suggest the opposite. Brutus is dishonourable. His claims are clearly lies.

Following the above extract, Antony continues to play cat and mouse with his audience, whipping them up into a frenzy. After much rhetorical teasing, he reveals Caesar’s will, in which he has left lands and riches to the people of Rome. A voice from the crowd cries “Most noble Caesar! We'll revenge his death.” Antony fans the flames until all the people agree to rise up against Brutus and his followers. During his speech, Antony claims that he is “no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man.” His pose is that of one of the people. He is honest “plain” and “blunt”, but this is all a manipulation. The citizens leave, carrying Caesar’s body, and Antony reveals this knowing nature to the audience, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt!” Sure enough, Antony’s calculations are correct and the tide of public opinion turns in his favour. Of course Antony is a sneaky so-and-so, but he is good at what he does. Shakespeare's portrayal of the politician is uncomfortably astute, but his portrayal of the people is less comfortable still, as it so ungenerous. In so many of Shakespeare’s political plays the people are a vacillating mob, referred to with disdain. They are the crowd who switch allegiance from Coriolanus to his enemies with the slightest persuasion, they are called “slippery people” (Antony and Cleopatra I,2), and the “distracted multitude” (Hamlet, IV,3). When Shakespeare’s hero belittles the voting populace as “fragments” and “curs” (I,1) in Coriolanus, he seems to be supported in his lack of respect for them by the plot of the play. This depiction of the people as easily swayed, weak, and stupid comes up a great deal in Shakespeare, but is that really what’s going on? In Coriolanus the people are starving, and in Julius Caesar they are afraid (a political leader has been violently murdered and a strange comet has appeared in the sky). Shakespeare shows us, not that people are stupid, but that in extremity they are vulnerable to strong, charismatic rhetoric.

Julius Caesar’s murder might make the perfect political cartoon for Brexit. Imagine it: the figure of Britannia as Caesar, surrounded by Boris, Farage, and Gove, togas on, hands bloodied, and daggers out. Jeremy would be there too. Britannia’s speech bubble would say “Et tu Corbyn”, and he’d reply “honestly, I did campaign” sheepishly hiding a bloodied dagger behind him. We all know that now such a cartoon would be in the poorest of taste. The scene from Shakespeare now has other chilling resonances which cannot be ignored in a discussion of the EU referendum. Politician Jo Cox was shot and stabbed multiple times in the run up to the referendum. Her assailant shouted “Britain first” as he carried out the attack. Mair (the attacker) was mentally unstable, but what terrorist isn’t? It behoves us all to consider what climate of fear fomented this act of terror. In a statement to the press Jo Cox’s husband urged people to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.” We can all play a role in shaping the attitudes of society, and we must see it as our duty to do so. In the aftermath of the EU referendum Britain finds itself in a vulnerable position. We are all unsure about what will happen next, some people feel angry, and many people feel frightened. We are open and ready for a Friends, Romans, countrymen rhetoric that will bring us together. It’s a moment full of potential, but also fraught with danger. The question is, who will be Antony? Distastefully, Farage has already had a go, and as we all know, worry and uncertainty are a breeding ground for extremism and bigotry. What we need is an Antony (be that one person, a party, or a movement) with hopeful, inclusive, liberal values to step up to the plate before it’s too late. While the Labour party pull themselves together, I suggest that the 75% of young voters who wanted to remain use the social media at their finger-tips to get this positive rhetoric started. The generation of social media users have an enormous communicative power that could be mobilised for more than just Kardashian chat. We can use this amazing technology to combat messages of prejudice and fear with positive stories of inclusion and support. Antony claims that Caesar’s wounds are “poor poor dumb mouths” that cry out eloquently for revenge. We, as a society, must not let our wounds speak for us. We must use our voices to build the positive future that we want and need. 

Image by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett. Bradbury, Evans & Co, London, 1850s, Wikipedia Commons.


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