Sunday, December 4, 2011

Coriolanus and the things people say

The modern audience for Coriolanus will vividly comprehend that it is watching the playing out of events, some years later, foretold in a child's violent separation from a sled called, Rosebud. The distinctions, that he excelled in the violence and that the wrenching away had been gradual, are immaterial.

We are well advised to resist inflicting the terms and definitions of our time upon the Renaissance, but at the same time, a manifest tragedy which stands outside established models, and arrives at the moment when individual freedom is acquiring the rudiments of a freestanding conception, and which points so starkly to the performance anxiety at the core of the rise of mercantile values, has the Age of Money written all over it. And when did that expire? Coriolanus is our first occurrence, to my awareness, of the man who refused to be rich. In this he is the kind of conservative that Charley Kane was. The fortune thrust upon him is aggravatingly trivial to him.

The life force which wrenched Charley Kane from his sled was not a character trait of his; it was embodied outside of him, and was the formative, persistent, and quite self-conscious author of his character. It was his mother. Volumnia is a wonderful new thing. Ambitious, she is not Lady Macbeth; complicit in patricide, she is not Gertrude. She is the powermommy whose passions and interests, to coin the phrase of republicmakers in every age, are focused on one thing - her boy, the term of mockery precipitating the dénouement of this play. Here, the insight of WH Auden is only too clear: all he must do, is to desire to excel, and crave approval.

In Coriolanus, these are what we call, "character flaws," because he must reject any coinciding of excellence and approval; their definition is not his own. He will revile or waste the one if he is denied the other, and he will loathe popularity. He tries, in the deb party formulation, too hard. Adherents of the Myers-Briggs hypothesis would cite him as an ENTJ: inordinately driven. A triathlon-training painter friend of mine is an ENTJ, Adolf Hitler was, Charley Kane wrote the book on him. He resents.

As a practical matter, his satisfaction is always in suspense, his disappointment always haunts him. Shakespeare's affection for him is something other than what it is for Lear, or even for Shylock. He gives Coriolanus absolutely nothing beautiful to say, as how could he? He gives us the man of conspicuous parts, whose heart has been extract-ed, not broken. Tragedy had never adopted that anatomy, before, and this has led to much dispute that this is what we are seeing. In political terms, this is a Classical tragedy. In artistic terms, it is a requiem for a man never allowed to exist. It is imperishable.

William Shakespeare
op. cit.

Herman J. Mankiewicz
  and Orson Welles, screenplay
Citizen Kane
Mercury Theatre/RKO, 1941©

W.H. Auden
Arthur Kirsch, compiler
  and editor
Lectures on Shakespeare
Princeton University Press, 2000©

Stephen Greenblatt
Shakespeare's Freedom
University of Chicago Press, 2010©

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