Ugly, But Not Irrelevant
March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare.
Because I really know very little about this play, I’m feeling my way through it, and it’s interesting to read a play by Shakespeare where my preconceived notions and expectations are so few. A few notes from the first three acts:
-I’ve never been a person who focused much on the cues to class and status in Elizabethan style, but Shakespeare really uses the transition between verse and prose here to great effect. There’s a lot of prose, here, in a variety of styles and registers. The patricians only versify with other patricians, the plebeians only speak prose amongst each other, but it’s really interesting to see how and when Coriolanus employs verse with the commoners he despises, and how the peoples’ tribunes shift between the two forms, consummate politicians speaking in the various registers depending on whether they need to sound like representatives qualified for their roles or sons of the soil.
-It’s always tempting to read Shakespeare as one great big tale, and so I can’t help but notice that this play, in some ways, picks up where King Lear leaves off. In the last lines of Lear, Edgar exhorts his fellow survivors to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” And so, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives us a protagonist who does just that. It just so happens that he’s pretty full of himself, and loathes the common folk, and tells them about it after they’ve been given the power to object to his rise to power. Oops.
-This is probably the ugliest Shakespeare I’ve read. The language is not pretty, and the play’s remarkably outward-focused, with very little introspection. The major metaphorical tropes are cannibalistic, militaristic, and body-political. It’s not exactly a recipe for a gorgeous play.
-And yet, is this the Shakespeare play most emblematic of the 2000s? A tragic protagonist, eager for war, sure of the propriety of his ideals and the might of his military, unwilling (or unable?) to examine his own motives, scornful of a populace he’s forced to grovel to if he wants to gain power; a populace, in turn, which gives us very little cause to doubt the protagonist’s assessment of them as a dangerous, disinterested, gullible rabble; a bunch of middle-managing representatives of people and moneyed interests, less interested in the good of the republic than the power to be grabbed and clung to at all costs. No one to root for, really. No one rising above their own desires. Ugly, yes. Irrelevant, no. (Just for fun, and so as not to end on such a down beat, my votes for other representative plays of the last 50 years: 1960s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 1970s, Troilus and Cressida; 1980s, The Tempest; 1990s, Romeo and Juliet.)