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I am wondering about the meaning of the word "poor" in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2:

Antony But yesterday the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the world; now lies he there.
And none so poor to do him reverence.

(Line 1665 in Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech.)

As a native Italian speaker, I see it commonly translated with words referring to (low) moral standards, which somehow puzzles me. I appreciate such use could just be mirroring the irony used while referring to Brutus as honourable. Indeed if Brutus were honorable, anybody mourning Caesar might well be villainous.

The Cambridge Dictionary reports meanings such as:

  • having little money or few possessions or lacking something important
  • not good or operating well, or of a low quality or standard
  • of a very low quality or standard; not good

It seems nevertheless tempting to consider it related to a condition of suffering, conveying the sense "nobody is suffering enough to pay him tribute", analogously to the common usage of the adverb "poorly" in British English to refer to poor health conditions or a state of psychological suffering.

What is then the correct interpretation of the "word" poor in Antony's speech?

3 Answers 3

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Samuel Johnson glossed this line as follows:

And none so poor—] The meanest man is now too high to do reverence to Caesar.

Samuel Johnson (1766). The Plays of William Shakespeare, volume 9, p. 58, footnote. Dublin: A. Leathley.

To “do reverence” to someone is to pay homage or show respect to them, as people of lower rank are required to do to their social superiors. So Johnson says that we should take “poor” in the sense “mean, lowly, inferior in rank and status” and interpret the line as saying that Caesar has fallen so low (by being assassinated) that the lowliest man is now superior to him (by virtue of being alive). Antony contrasts Caesar’s current state with that of the day before, when he was master of the world and everyone had to pay homage to him.

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The phrase "none so poor to do him reverence" is really "none so poor as to do him reverence" with "as" omitted. E. A. Abbott gives several similar examples elsewhere in Shakespeare.

In Richard III, act 3, scene 2:

I wonder he is so fond
To trust the mockery of unquiet slumbers

In The Merchant of Venice, act 3, scene 3:

that thou art so fond
To come abroad with him at his request.

In Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1 even "so" is omitted:

Be not fond,
To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood

("Be not so fond as to think that ...")

"Poor" has its ordinary modern meaning. Glossaries of Early Modern English such as Onions's don't even bother to include the word.

Based on this, Antony is saying that no inhabitant of Rome (not everyone living in Rome was considered a citizen) was so poor that they wanted to pay their respects to Caesar. (In other words, not even the poorest wanted to pay their respects.)

For the meaning of "poor" as "having little money or few possessions" or "lowly", it is helpful to look at the wider context in the play. In the first scene, the commoners celebrated Julius Caesar's triumphant return. In this famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, Antony reminds the commoners that

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept

In this scene, Antony is speaking to these same commoners, who now don't pay their respects to Caesar. "None so poor" refers to these same commoners. In the entire play, the adjective "mean" is not used a single time. (The verb "mean" and the noun "means", which are semantically unrelated to the adjective, are used several times.) Some characters, especially the patricians, may understand "poor" as "lowly", but Antony's audience is more likely to interpret it as "possessing little".


References:

  • E. A. Abbott: A Shakespearian Grammar Third edition. London: Macmillan, 1871. (Old, but still cited in modern scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays.)
  • C. T. Onions: A Shakespeare Glossary. Enlarged and Revised Throughout by Robert D. Eagleson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986
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  • thanks, your answer seems to suggest an interpretation different than the first answer, "even the poorest inhabitants of Rome (not everyone living in Rome was considered a citizen) wanted to pay their respects to Caesar" , could you please clarify? The first part regarding the missing "as" is clear, but I might miss its relevance to the question.
    – Smerdjakov
    Jul 23, 2022 at 5:28
  • @Smerdjakov I seem to have inverted the logic of what I wanted to say. I have corrected it now.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 23, 2022 at 14:25
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    ok makes sense thanks, but yet when you say ""Poor" has its ordinary modern meaning" you are not referring to the most ordinary meaning, i.e. poor in financial means, are you? The first answer suggests "poor" in this context is to be seen as "mean, lowly, inferior in rank and status". Thanks again
    – Smerdjakov
    Jul 23, 2022 at 15:41
  • @Smerdjakov I think the meaning of "poor" depends on what class you belong to in the play. I have expanded my answer to explain this.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 24, 2022 at 14:07
  • @I see very useful and interesting thanks
    – Smerdjakov
    Jul 25, 2022 at 8:16
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Shakespeare is referencing paid mourners. So there is no one so poor in Rome that they need the money that would be given to mourn Caesar.

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    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. This is a very useful and interesting answer. To work well with the site's conventions, though, supporting evidence would be helpful. Are there sources that show the prevalence of paid mourners in Caesar's time? Or Shakespeare's; it could be another of the play's anachronisms, like the striking clock. Have scholars interpreted the line in this way? Please elaborate on your answer with such supporting evidence. Thanks!
    – verbose
    Mar 8, 2023 at 22:47
  • It would also be helpful to explain how this interpretation fits into Antony's speech. In the usual interpretation, the line emphasizes how low Caesar has fallen, as part of Antony's rhetorical strategy to make the audience pity Caesar and hate Brutus, but in this interpretation Antony makes an aside about the prosperity of the Romans which does not seem to be part of his argument. Why does he make this aside? Mar 9, 2023 at 12:11

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