Verbal Irony in Julius Caesar

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but means another. In William Shakespeare's ''Julius Caesar'', we can find many examples of verbal irony.

Getting Away with Murder: Saying What You (don't) Mean with Verbal Irony

'Caesar's basically a jerk. Do you want to stab him a bunch until he dies?' This would have been one way for Cassius (one of the men plotting Caesar's assassination) to convince Brutus to join in the murder. Chances are, Brutus would have quickly defended his friend Caesar and turned Cassius over to the authorities to be ripped into four parts. Instead, Cassius and many other character's in Julius Caesar use verbal irony to get their points across. Irony allows a character to be sneaky. By saying one thing, while meaning another, a character can make a point without being too aggressive. Verbal irony can by broken down into three categories: understatement, overstatement and sarcasm.

Overstatement and Sarcasm

One of the first examples of verbal irony is when Cassius is speaking to Brutus in Act I scene ii. Cassius tells Brutus about the times when Caesar came across as a weak man. He even says that one time when Caesar was sick, he begged for a glass of water and cried like a young girl. Caesar was so ill that he was shaking, explains Cassius. He tells Brutus, 'Tis true, this god did shake.' Cassius spends most of the conversation painting a very weak picture of Caesar. So, when he labels Caesar a god, he is using verbal irony as we know that Cassius absolutely does not think of Caesar as a god. Since Cassius exaggerates Caesar's character, this type of verbal irony is called overstatement.

Another example of overstatement is during Caesar's funeral. Mark Antony, who is one of Caesar's closest friends, speaks at the funeral. Mark Antony's speech contains two examples of verbal irony. The first example is when he refers to Brutus and the other murderers as 'honorable men.' We know that Mark Antony does not think Brutus or the other assassins are honorable; he planned for his speech to cause outrage about the murder of his friend. Since he is insulting Brutus, this type of verbal irony may be seen as sarcasm depending on the way it is read. Because Mark Antony is also overstating or exaggerating his opinion of the conspirators, calling them honorable is also an example of overstatement.

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