Monday, February 27, 2012

Make You a Sword of Me

This weekend Mighty Reader, TG, TG's wife AD-G and I went to a showing of Ralph Fiennes' film version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. A few months ago our foursome could be seen in the audience at one of the Seattle Shakespeare Company's performances of this very play. Between watching the play and seeing the film I've shifted myself to actually read the play as writ by Mr Shakespeare. So while I'm not an authority on Coriolanus, I claim a healthy nodding familiarity with the work. I could pick it out of a lineup if need be.

Coriolanus, the film, is probably the best movie I'll see in 2012. It's probably better than anything that walked away with a little golden statuette at last night's Academy Awards. If it comes to a theater near you, you should go see it. It's certainly an abbreviated version of Shakespeare's text, losing maybe 50% of the dialogue, but you get the protagonist's dramatic through-line pretty solidly and the acting is all very good (Vanessa Redgrave is Best In Show) and Mr Fiennes certainly understands how Shakespeare's speeches should be delivered (a certain Mr Branagh could learn a thing or two about that). Anyway, quite a good film and we recommend it.

But I am not writing today to review a movie, which is why the above paragraph is so cursory in dealing with Ralph's labors. I will say that at several moments during the movie I was moved to think, "Oh, poor Voldemort!" I amuse myself. But where? Oh, not a review. This is not a review.

What I'm actually thinking about is how, in his best plays, Shakespeare's characters are clear about their opinions; everyone gets to state his case with eloquence and usually at some length. You believe that these characters believe, because William respected his characters. Most of the time, too, every character is shown to have strong beliefs that are at odds with reality, which is where the drama comes from. What you don't see so much, is Shakespeare's opinion. Oh, I'm sure it's in there and if one were devoted to scholarship the way I'm not, one could make informed claims about the author's feelings regarding the issues faced by his characters and the reactions made by those characters. Yes, I'm sure of it.

Or maybe I'm not. It seems to me that one of the strongest things about Shakespeare's work is how successfully it resists understanding. We know that we're seeing the true heart of humanity before us on stage, but just as in real life, that heart remains opaque and essentially a mystery. There are a multiplicity of possible meanings to any of Shakespeare's serious plays, and you assign only one to your peril. I've done a fair bit of reading about critical reception of "Hamlet," and I was at first surprised by the lack of consensus as to the meaning of nearly every line of the play. Nobody can state with any real authority how the play should be interpreted, or what the author thought about the story. Which is just as it ought to be. Real life is full of contradictions and situational morality and relativism (even, yes, among those who decry moral relativism), and this is one way that Shakespeare's plays mirror real life. You can watch Coriolanus and maybe announce how you feel about it, but you'll never be able to say how Shakespeare felt about it, and the person in the seat next to you at the performance will not necessarily be able to agree as to what the "meaning" of the play was, because such "meaning" isn't present in Shakespeare. Which is, as I say, one of the enduring strengths of the plays.

Which is not to say they are empty works. Far from it, they are overfilled with ideas and contending moral systems and philosophies. It's just that the overriding philosophy seems to be that life is a complex of battling morals, ideas and desires. Most fiction seems to simplify life, to illustrate the author's prejudices and morality; Shakespeare seems to complicate, to decry the primacy of any moral system, because Shakespeare was telling us how we are, not how he thought we should be. Which is what makes Shakespeare's plays so difficult, such works of terrible beauty, for the plays do not flatter us; we are held up to a mirror, the players are the brief and abstract of the times no matter what the times may be, we do fret and strut upon the stage full of sound and fury. But what is signified is more than nothing; it's everything.

Anyway, yes, I know: all of this is obvious. Everything I write is obvious; I only see that after having written. Maybe that's why I write.

Edited to add: For all of you people who've come to this post after googling "make you a sword of me meaning," I suggest that when Coriolanus (still called Marcius at this point) has returned from behind enemy lines after fighting his way alone back to the Roman position and he asks for volunteers to go again with him into battle, he likens himself to a sword, which is an unquestioning tool of war. Look at his speech there: "If any think brave death outweighs bad life and that his country's dearer than himself...wave thus (waves his sword)...and follow Marcius." The soldiers all wave their swords, volunteering for what might be a suicide mission. Marcius' heart swells and he exclaims, "O, me alone! make you a sword of me?" He wants to be an unquestioning tool of war; that is his sole desire, to be pure and simple and deadly. Will his soldiers, his country, use him properly? He so wants to be nothing but a sword for Rome. He has contempt for any man who does not. Marcius believes himself to be a mythological figure. He is not only a warrior, he is the living symbol of warriors, a metaphor for himself. His soldiers are good brave men, but he is better and more brave and he knows it and he thinks it makes him superior. Look at all of the many many uses of the word "sword" in the play.

There is also the image of a sword, a blade held out before you as you fight, the weapon pointing at your opponent's heart etc. Marcius is asking his volunteers to follow him as a warrior follows his sword forward; a sword feels no fear and has but one purpose. "O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?" He will be the weapon placed between them and the enemy. They are to follow him, to use him, to make him their sword. Plus, it's an amazing line, one of those moments of Shakespeare's absolute brilliance where he gives us the whole of a character in a handful of words. "O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?" That is Coriolanus in a nutshell. Things go awry when he has to be a politician and a citizen, not a sword. That scene outside the gates of Corioles--where Marcius appears covered in blood before the Roman troops and begs them to return with him to the fight--is a thing of beauty. It's as pure as Marcius wants to be.


  1. May I ask you a question, Mr. Bailey, (and this really has nothing to do with the above, which you wrote so intelligently, or quite possibly it does, I'm not sure...)

    When you are completely finished writing a book, when all the edits and revisions, and whatever else you want to do to it are done -- do you ever read it again?

  2. Anne: Last week I had a look at one I finished in 2010 and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. The language seemed to evaporate off the page before my eyes, or it seemed like it was in Martian. Else I can see nothing but flaws and it's depressing. So I try very hard to leave books in the past, almost as if I'd never written them.

    Anyway, the latest book is always way more interesting than anything I've done before. It's the only book that matters.

  3. Okay, so perhaps my question did have something to do with Shakespeare.

    Perhaps Mr. S. wrote with such a passionate fury, and purged his soul of the voices in his head, he let it all bleed on the page, therefore allowing whomever chose to examine it deeply, to interpret it in their own fashion.

    And as you say, there has been more than one opinion on his works, and interpretations abound and no one has the exact same one(Mr. Branaugh and Mr. Fiennes notwithstanding).

    Shakespeare was telling us how we are, not how he thought we should be

    And if we ARE this unholy mess of creation, then perhaps we are doing exactly what he meant we should do all along -- to interpret his works the way WE see them. The way we ARE.

    And the reason I asked you the previous question -- I have never read a book of mine, nor a short story, once it's "out there". I cannot bring myself to for any reason. And in so saying, I don't care what anyone thinks of them, good bad or indifferent, because I'm allowing my readers their own interpretation and letting my own ideas of said interpretation go.

    Does this make any kind of sense, or am I just rambling trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about when I discuss Wild Bill.

  4. "Wild Bill" is good. I'm stealing that.

    The thing is that Wild Bill had to live with his plays for some time after he wrote them, because they were performed by his own troupe, and he performed in them. There's evidence that he revised the performance scripts during runs of the shows (and let's not forget that the scripts were also revised by the actors who performed the roles and by the friends of Shakespeare who had the plays published afer Wild Bill's death). But mostly, Shakespeare didn't have the luxury of forgetting about the plays the moment he wrote exeunt, carrying protagonist's corpse at the end of Act Five. He was still involved with the plays for months and years afterward.

    I'm sure that the mindset of a playwright is different from the mindset of a novelist. When I read Mamet's Writing in Restaurants or Chekhov's letters, I know that I think about my novels in a way that substantially differs from the way these guys think about their plays. So I don't know. What I do know is that Wild Bill made his fictional people complex and real and self-contradictory and incomplete and stumbling with pride and shining truths and shining lies and, you know, just like his audience. What's life about? It's anyone's guess, and we'll all guess wrong forever.

  5. Interesting discussion you two! I've always wanted to create this sort of fiction. I strive to do that but often fail. But I'm drawn to it because this is my understanding of the world. Then, sometimes I play with the idea of evil and that ends up throwing me off too.