Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Every broken Coriolanus revived

It is often said that we know nothing of Shakespeare’s personal views. This is largely because he had such a genius for expressing almost every possible human type from within... and [we] cannot know what a man thought who was able to see every question from every possible angle, and who never once appeared in his own guise... Moreover, his plays show moral problems; they do not preach their solutions... I think, however, that the unknowability of Shakespeare’s views can be exaggerated. We can safely deduce... that he was not puritanical in his views, but neither was he an amoralist. In politics... he was neither a utopian nor a complete cynic. Moreover, since the dramatic effect of his plays depends on the plausibility of his depictions, when he shows the crowd as foolish, fickle and frenzied, we must suppose that he thought this to be at the very least a plausible depiction. Shakespeare was no friend of tyranny, but neither did the multitude ever appear heroic in his works. In his last tragedy, Coriolanus, Shakespeare examines political life in as unsparing and unsentimental a way as Machiavelli. Coriolanus [is] devilishly proud and utterly disdainful of the lower orders... Unfortunately, after his great victory at Corioli, Coriolanus stands for the office of Consul. [To] be elected he needs the approbation of the plebeians...

Shakespeare [has] not simply made a mistake with Coriolanus, in showing him to be an empty vessel filled up by activity. He is showing us a type that appears to me to becoming more common: someone for whom public adulation [is] a kind of scaffolding that keeps the whole edifice of the personality upright, that prevents the ego from crumbling into nothingness... Coriolanus does indeed hold the people in contempt; but it is not true that he wishes to establish his own dictatorship, as the tribunes later pretend. And the tribunes, while goading the people on, pretend that they are moderates, intent upon holding the people back. Has political life really changed very much since Shakespeare’s day...? If anything, it seems to have regressed towards it...


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