The Great Aunt Catherine Debates #1 : What Did Antony Mean?

As I mentioned here, the funeral service for my great aunt Catherine brought up a number of Shakespeare questions.  The priest read Antony’s line about “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones,” and then went on to explain how Shakespeare was wrong, how you should strive to do good in your life because your good deeds will outlive you.

My question to you is, how would you “correct” this interpretation of the line?  Why did Shakespeare have Antony say it?  Imagine you’ve just bumped into somebody who was at that service (my aunt’s, not Caesar’s), who’d never heard this line before and now thinks that “Shakespeare was wrong.”  What would you say to correct this person’s understanding of the passage, in context?

For example I tried to explain to my wife about the complexity of Antony’s situation at that particular moment. He’s been given permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral by the guys that killed Caesar in the first place. It’s not like he can get up there and say that Caesar was an awesome guy and it’s a shame he died.  He has to at least pretend that he agrees with them that Caesar was a bad dude.

6 thoughts on “The Great Aunt Catherine Debates #1 : What Did Antony Mean?

  1. Even just tying that line back to the one that immediately precedes it might help a lot to recontextualise. "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him" sums up what Antony claims to be doing, under Brutus's ostensible permission. So those next two lines are saying, "We're only going to remember the bad things he did, not the good."

    Of course, you could take the more childish tact and simplify matters by explaining that Antony was basically living in Opposite World for most of that speech. Whatever he says, you can be fairly sure he means the other thing. 😉

  2. Assuming that Shakespeare believes as his characters believe is a mistake. Antony says that the good is oft interred with their bones, not Shakespeare.

    And remember, Antony doesn't say "always", but rather "oft", which means that it is sometimes the other way around.

  3. First, we're all sorry for your family's loss.

    Second, the idea of William Shakespeare being "wrong" is simply irrelevant here. Shakespeare's character may be wrong in this instance, but Shakespeare himself isn't pronouncing this statement as a universal truth to which he ascribes. Was Shakespeare "wrong" when Macbeth said, "I lead a charméd life"? No! Macbeth was wrong, but Shakespeare was not even making a claim about himself.

    Third, the word "oft" makes Mark Antony closer to right than wrong here. The good is often forgotten while the bad is remembered. Perhaps that's not how it should be, but it is how it often (note: not "always") is.

    The theme is carried out throughout the rest of the play. Do we remember Brutus for the good he did ("the noblest Roman of them all" . . . "This was a [good] man") or for the evil he did?

    The answer seems to be, as in many cases in Shakespeare, "Both."


  4. I wasn't trying to copy you, Peter! Honest! I just hit the "Publish Your Comment" button one minute too late!

    In any case, I agree with Peter completely.


  5. Once again we have to ask, is Shakespeare simply putting words into the mouth of Antony based solely on the context in which Antony is speaking–simply furthering the characterization and plot? Or, is he doing much more in also dropping in an interesting and highly debatable philosophical comment?
    I tend to think it's a little of both in this case.

    Shakespeare has a propensity to ask huge questions of his audience while never answering them himself.

  6. Antony steps to the podium in front of an angry crowd. What is the reaction he wants to elicit? He would like to say something that has them all nodding their heads in assent. So he cites a proverb.

    The nice thing about the scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays is that they are usually quite good about basic research. That includes checking Tilley's "A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," which is methodically indexed to all of Shakespeare's works. (I checked the Arden Sh. edited by David Daniell.)
    For this line, Tilley cites: "Ten good Turns lie dead and one ill deed report abroad does spread." (citing Whetsone from 1578, who begins with "The Proverb says…").
    The sense is then: "One evil deed is more talked about then ten good ones (which are forgotten–dead)."
    Antony is saying that one's good deeds may well be forgotten, but the evil ones will always be remembered (and he may as well have added "as the proverb says").

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