Thersites: The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
– 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!