Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"The god of soldiers .. inform thy thoughts with nobleness .."

In the scene of partings
with his mother, wife and
son, Coriolanus addresses
the boy in terms republics
have constantly cited for
exempting soldiers of the
vices of their principals.
He urges the boy to virtue
made impossible by orders,
by policy inherently cor- 
rupted by the very idea of 

Shakespeare has written a
play involving the deep
genesis of the military-
political distinction, 
obliterating it and, with
it, the fallacy of capital 
sanctions. This lends a
double horror to his por-
trayal of ambitious moth-
ering; with this closing
of the natural last res-
ort, he shows the inescap-
able appeal of force. Pat-
ting our fanny in our jam-
mies on our way upstairs
to bed, why did she sing 
to us, Onward, Christian 

Tell me not wherein I 
seem unnatural, he says,
denying clemency to Rome.

Manohla Dargis’ appreciative review of the screen’s new Coriolanus summarises, in her praises, enough reasons for revoking one’s earlier vow to go and see it. Its writer is the author of the excellent play on Mark Rothko, Red, and this may well be an excellent movie in the same way - exploiting notoriety for its notorious elements, and spinning off an entertainment without other indebtedness. This will not have been the first time the Weinstein Company - the film’s producer - has parodied Shakespeare to great critical delight and gain, or the first time a Fiennes was involved in the undertaking. But we may as well start there.

The film has engaged the wrong Fiennes in the rôle of Coriolanus. He is, as more than one critic has stressed, youthful; and if nothing else, the Weinstein Company’s first Fiennes nailed that quality, cold. But he is not only youthful, he is mocked for the qualities of youth, and he is undone by his rage to be found out in them. A production of Coriolanus which misses the boy, misses the play. That would be enough, but the sight of Vanessa Redgrave, camping again as she did in Mission: Impossible over violence and betrayal - as we are assured she does in the part of Volumnia - would only further tarnish a hereditary credit to the stage. Volumnia is not a vamp for blood, she’s for the power to spill it.

I have suggested that the Sonnets are an especial key to this play, and this is not only for the aching loyalty in their roiling reservoir of passion - the sine qua non of any decent portrayal of Coriolanus - but fundamentally for their elective logic. They were written in the decade preceding this final tragedy, but were published close upon its production. I embrace internal evidence that they were written by the same man. In general comparison, I have never seen anything more fertile than Auden's treatment of the Sonnets in his lectures on the plays in their chronology. Coriolanus is that play in which the parti pris of Shakespeare's experience infuses the dramatic work with its defining moral energy. I do not accuse Shakespeare of pacifism; I accuse him of being one man.

The weak self that desires to be strong is hungry. The lonely self desires to be attached. The spirit desires to be free and unattached, and not at the mercy of the natural appetite. It also desires to be important, and that conflicts with its desire for freedom. The weak self wants other things to exist so it may encroach on them, the lonely self wants other existences to hold on to .. But the spirit wants to be only "I," wants its attachment to other things to be its free choice.

Something is more important than the allure of any film. This play has a tragic hero because its logic contests the sanctions of war and execution, never arguing for adapting to them with sophis-tication, much less with pop-ular consent. Those sanctions represent a specter whose im-manence, not treachery, is the chill behind his indif-ference to whom he serves. His wounds are not ornaments of the State, and their ache is not its to exalt. That is precisely the reason why Coriolanus is endowed with the Achilles heel of naïveté - of all things - so that his anger with his honours can be traced to a universal, in-trinsic, and all but divine. He craves approval he can trust, but lives in a world without it, where trust is embedded in the power to decide who dies.

This great theme, simmering beneath every speculation on republics, and boiling over in American debates in the adoption of their Constitution, is given point by the struggle of a destroyed child, for a mind that would be true and free, where such constraints would not shape its range. (A substantial body of opinion, sees his ideal as inherently anti-social, anti-communitarian. But these are con-structs rooted in approbation of force; and this Coriolanus plainly withholds, even as he wields it). There’s another one born, all the time, and still the question goes begging. 

Where is this god of soldiers?

William Shakespeare
Coriolanus, V, iii
op. cit.

W.H. Auden
Lectures on Shakespeare
op. cit.

Simone Weil
The Iliad, or
  The Poem of Force
op. cit.


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