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.)

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

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