Bloodlust and Burning Love

March 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Coriolanus.

Reading next: Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems.

Perhaps it goes without saying, since he’s a tragic hero, but nevertheless: Caius Martius Coriolanus is one messed-up dude.  No matter how egregious your fatal flaw might be, though, no one gets messed up, much less dead, without a lot of help along the way.  And really, who better to help you along your way to a gruesome death at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob than your ambitious mother?

Volumnia’s the Lady Macbeth of this play, pushing her son to win glory and honor for his family on the battlefield and then in politics, by standing to become consul.  Coriolanus at least has the skill and inclination to perform amazing feats in war — though he’s a borderline berserker with little regard for tactical niceties.  Entering politics is something he has to be talked into, though, and Volumnia manages it.  It’s a bad idea.  It’s not in his skill set.  (He probably would’ve gotten away with it, though, if it weren’t for the newly appointed peoples’ tribunes.  Aside: it sometimes seems that our own government is composed mostly of people without the inclination for politics, and that in fact we’re looking for exactly the wrong sorts of people in our elections: those who actively scorn political processes and try to equate politics with bureaucracy and waste and faction, and therefore spend most of their time in politics trying not to let anything get done by exploiting the flaws in the system.  One of the most ingenious aspects of Obama’s campaign in 2008 was how he played both sides of this argument, explaining his dislike for bureaucracy and waste and faction but also making his case as a rational, level-headed participant who would operate efficiently in the political sphere.)

But she does talk him into it, and she is, in fact, even colder and more calculating than Lady Macbeth: she’s more concerned about his not embarrassing himself in combat than she is with his surviving battle unscathed (or at all).  You do get the sense, though, that she’s not just a stage mother or a striver.  When she saves Rome from her son at the end of the play, it kind of falls into place that she’s not just a fame-hungry monster, but also a consummate early Roman: republic before family.  Civic pride before flesh and blood.  Public honor before private grief.  Is the fact that the consummate early Romans were, in part,  fame-hungry monsters a big reason why they ended up ruled by Julius Caesar?  Well, sure, I’d guess.

It’s a weird relationship.  As in Lear, part of the weirdness comes from Volumnia’s widowhood and the utter lack of a mention of Coriolanus’ father.  Volumnia seems far more important to Coriolanus than his wife, who hardly ever speaks and whom Coriolanus never seems to consult for advice, sympathy, or much of anything.  It’s much more of a help-meet sort of relationship; there’s virtually nothing of maternal concern or even a sense of her age.

The fact is that there are two people in the play to whom Coriolanus seems to be married, and neither is his wife Virgilia.  Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general, is his rival, and they are obsessed with defeating each other.  When Coriolanus comes to Aufidius to propose joining to sack Rome, though, in 4.5, we get this pretty amazing admission from Aufidius:

Know thou first,

I loved the maid I married; never man

Sighed truer breath.  But that I see thee here,

Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart

Than when I first my wedded mistress saw

Bestride my threshold.  Why, thou Mars, I tell thee

We have a power on foot, and I had purpose

Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn

Or lose mine arm for’t.  Thou has beat me out

Twelve several times, and I have nightly since

Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me —

We have been down together in my sleep,

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat —

And waked half dead with nothing.

Shortly after, there’s this, from one of Aufidius’ servants: “Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with’s hand, and turns up the white o’th’eye to his discourse.”  (For “turns up the white o’th’eye,” imagine the smitten damsel gazing up  at her valiant knight, batting her eyes.)  So, yes: the homoerotic elements of Roman military culture are in full force here.  However, Aufidius is important to Coriolanus as a perceived equal or near-equal: he seems to view nearly everyone else in the Roman military with either contempt or disregard.  But then comes Aufidius’ admission of admiration and love.  And very quickly, Coriolanus is treating Aufidius as just another subordinate, not as the equal partner Aufidius expected to be.  Affairs don’t last, and most don’t end well.

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.)

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