Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unbecoming Coriolanus

The title is not as redundant
as it sounds. The blogger on
his birthday has already here
asserted the prerogative to
claim the great gift of his
readers' indulgence - this is
of course the driving clamour
of Shakespeare's hero. Now
that we're being given a new
Coriolanus for the screen, 
it will be timely to recall
our acquaintance with him;
and to note the distinction 
between an unbecoming man, 
and unbecoming him.

I will go to Mr Fiennes' movie and pay attention to it. I'm taking it for granted that we all know this is intriguingly a political play, a considerable discourse on alternative theories of governing, which were of great interest to the Renaissance and which have certainly never been settled. But this is William Shakespeare, and the play occupies the political sphere with that almost indifferent (although famously cautious and astute) and versatile genius with which, we know, he could have set it in a vineyard or a dough-nut shop, and have come up with the same issues to illuminate his real subject. We don't forget Mozart, whose prettiest music involves a pair of phony Turks, an old roué, and an animal-magnetist maid.

Coriolanus boasts some 27 wounds, which puts him in the casting call for a Mel Gibson biopic; and given the grosses our Roman thrillers entail, it will probably be enough for Mr Fiennes to show them. But this hero is no Philoctetes, no Amfortas. His real wounds are not visible, and they stretch all hope to regard as curable.

Moreover, you and I know, this is not a writer who will ask a man his occupation, to discern his character; and you and I greet that intelligence as a breath of fresh air - if not as air, itself - in our specialist times, with all their naïve and tiresomely vain claims to exculpations of expertise. We will be curious to discover if Fiennes' Coriolanus is a man necessarily involved in politics, or one of the stock deformities that we mistakenly attribute to that calling, itself, only to call it a day. But we have known pâtisseurs who were Coriolanus. And who hasn't, in the stale doughnut?

Coriolanus is a stale man, and has cultivated himself to be so. We think of this as unbecoming, who invoke the features of Mr Young to suggest an unfitness for the law. But there you have it; his distinct unbecomingness is derived not from ordinary vanity, but from disdain of intimacy. He is famous (to hear him say it) for great, single-handed conquests, and he is grudgingly feared, because he has capabilities that he uses for himself. Yet he is maladroit in what drives him and proficient in militant offense; and this is not conquest as he conceives of it.

This is far from being one of Mr Shakespeare's more appealing plays. Brilliant people have found its language, gorgeous, and disliked it (Auden); others have found its language, base, and adored it (Eliot). These are not polarities, however, so much as they are arguments over a tragedy of original impression, not derived from Greece and not derived from the play's literary sources, but from themes so indebted to the Sonnets, that they furnish one of its most certain keys. Coriolanus is hideous and draws fear and pity from a truly Shakespearean crisis. If this movie fails to break the heart, either we don't know how to look at movies anymore, or a tale too often dismissed with contempt will have been deferred again, unforgivably. And that is exactly what Coriolanus did to himself.

William Shakespeare
after 1605, before 1610
Philip Brockbank, editor
The Arden Edition of
  the Works of William Shakespeare
op. cit.


  1. I was most pleased to see it at the CIFF. The screenwriter was there to introduce the movie, with a good joke about the title.

    The film does some really interesting stuff--social media and its privilege is most interestingly deployed.

    Loved it.

  2. Care to give us a hint? What did they use for a title?

  3. I don't hink I have ever read such clarity of an unclear Man .
    Paens and Kudos to thee

  4. I feel your paean, but I'm crazy about your kudos. (Ho). Perhaps this was the screenwriter's jest at CIFF ~ anyway, I thank you for eliciting it ~