Beef-witted lords

Thersites:  The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
beef-witted lord!

–      From Troilus & Cressida by William Shakespeare, II, i

 One problem with keeping a blog that I really should have foreseen when I started it is that they are not quite as transient as they are often thought to be. I see in the various bits of statistics that WordPress so kindly provides for me that my earlier posts often get quite a few hits. And so, I turn back to those earlier posts to remind myself what I had written, and, quite frequently, I turn red with embarrassment. “I didn’t write that, did I?” I ask myself. “What must people reading this think of me?”

 Well, one can’t re-write the past. I know, for instance, that I have written some very foolish things about Jane Austen. I still am not a fan of Austen, and perhaps never will be, but I do know that the problem is not Austen’s writing but with my reading: my temperament is such that I find her brand of artistry difficult to come to terms with. But so what? Is this really something to write about? Why should I expect complete strangers who happen to chance across this blog to give a toss whether or not I liked Austen? The question surely is not whether I happen to like or dislike Austen, but, rather, “Do I have anything to say about Austen’s writing that may be of interest to anyone?” For if I don’t, I really should shut the hell up. The older I get, the less I am interested in mere opinions – even my own.

So, having got that out of the way, imagine how I felt when I turn back to the piece I had written on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and find that I had started with this sentence:

 Coriolanus is possibly Shakespeare’s most disappointing play.

Dear me! Will the reputation of this play ever recover from such trenchant criticism, I wonder? I do go on to say, with some generosity I may add, that it’s not a bad play as such, but alas, the damage has already been done: that’s Shakespeare’s Coriolanus damned for ever.

The question, once again, should be not whether or not I liked the play: that really is of no interest to anyone. The question is what I understood from the play that may be worth recording. And since I clearly didn’t understand enough, I felt it was time to give this another go.

For, whatever my personal opinion of the play may be, it is a finished work – in a sense that Timon of Athens isn’t. Coriolanus does not give the impression of a play hurriedly cobbled together; neither is it a play (like Henry VIII, say) that appears to be a careless patchwork of the work of different hands. It is a highly polished play written by the possibly world’s greatest writer at a stage in his career when he could achieve more or less whatever he wanted to achieve. This is what he wanted to achieve. And for that reason alone, it demands our careful attention rather than casual put-downs.

But what is one to make of this beef-witted lord? When Shakespeare had presented us with beef-witted Ajax in Troilus and Cressida, and had presented him as a comic figure – a big hunk of muscle, a mere fighting machine with no brain, no sensitivity, no self-awareness. What was Shakespeare thinking in making such a figure a tragic hero?  

I remember Orson Welles saying once that when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, he realised how difficult it was to present as tragic protagonist an intelligent character, and that, thereafter, his tragic protagonists were all fools. Welles was exaggerating, but there is more than a grain of truth in this. If we follow the sequence of tragic dramas starting with Julius Caesar and Hamlet, and ending with Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, we find the protagonists increasingly unintelligent, increasingly un-self-aware. Antony and Cleopatra, even by the end, do not win any measure of self-awareness; they have never entertained a serious thought in their lives, and, when they are faced with their own mortality, Antony is merely puzzled, while Cleopatra takes refuge in a mythology which, although magnificent, has little bearing to the reality we have witnessed. And finally, at the end of this trajectory of increasingly unintelligent protagonists, we have Coriolanus – the comic Ajax whom, Shakespeare now insists, we must see in a tragic light.

Why is this? I really don’t know. But it seems worth investigating. And it seems worthwhile to read in conjunction with this another tragic drama about the original beef-witted lord – Sophocles’ Aias. So that’s currently my reading project – trying to figure out just what Sophocles and Shakespeare were on about. Should I reach even some tentative conclusions, I’ll put them up here: otherwise, I think it would be best to just shut up!

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on October 5, 2012 at 3:27 am

    That is a very astute observation, that does indeed seem to be true, regarding the diminishing mental capacity of these characters. Could it be that by that by creating such a mentally dynamic character such as Hamlet, he had no where to go but down? With the same happening with each successive persona and play? Or maybe, like myself, as Shakespeare got older he began to notice the less intelligent and their impact on the world more?


    • I wish I knew the answer. That Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists became increasingly unintelligent and un-self-aware seems incontrovertible, but as to why … well, who knows what went on in that mind? Even Lear is allowed moments of insight and revelation; even the mass-murderer Maceth is aware of what he has lost. But Antony, Cleopatra and Coriolanus do not even have this. I don’t know the answer, and I doubt there’s a straightforward answer to this, but it seems to me worth at least tracing the trajectory of Shakespeare’s changing vision.


  2. Is this the play where the queen gives birth rather embarrassing to a black baby


  3. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on October 9, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Can’t a lack of self-awareness add to the tragedy? Do we always need to be concerned with the ‘intellegent’ as being significant in a literary text?

    In my opinion this does not need to be the case.


    • Oh I quite agree: intelligence of the protagonist in itself does not contribute to the literary quality. But Shakespeare seemed to push himself further in this direction with each succeeding tragic drama. Othello and Lear think foolishly, and act foolishly, but by the end, through suffering, they acquire a measure of self-awareness. this does not diminish their suffering – if anything, it accentuates it – but they do gain some degree of self-awareness. Even teh mass-murderer Macbeth is aware of what he has lost. But Antony and Cleopatra don’t even gain any greater knowledge of themselves. Antony is merely puzzled by the end as he confronts the question of who and what he really is, whereas Cleopatra almost self-consciousy mythologises herself. And by the time we get to coriolanus – Shakespeare’s last tragic protagonist – Shakespeare seems to have gone another step further: not only does Coriolanus have no greater understanding of himself, he does not even realise that there is anything that needs to be understood. he dies as he has always lived – a mere, unthinking, unreflective fighting machine. We don’t even feel any sense of loss at his passing. And I do find it fascinating that Shakespeare should see tragic potential in such a character.


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