Sunday Shakespeare Blogging

Over at the new-look Harry’s Place (where they have decided that the increasing problems with the site were those of form rather than content, style rather than substance), David T suggests that Ken Livingstone is a sort of Coriolanus figure, whereupon “mastershake” in the comments replies that “You have clearly never read, nor seen, Coriolanus.”

The disagreement raises a good question — just why is Coriolanus a tragic figure? If it’s just that he’s a great man brought down by his tragic flaw, which is his pride, as David T basically suggests, then we’d have to conclude that Coriolanus isn’t a terribly tragic tragedy, as his kind of pride is just odious, getting in the way of generating anything like the kind of affective sympathy for Martius which might make his predicament a compelling one. And it can’t just be that he’s a great man who just isn’t appreciated by an ungrateful mob or by two politicking tribunes, either. That would give us a dull right-wing interpretation of the play — which isn’t to say that it isn’t an interpretation that’s been offered many times in the past, and encoded into several well-known productions, including those staged in Nazi Germany.

But Coriolanus is a great play, and one of my very favourites (along with The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure). And the clue to the tragedy, it seems to me, comes in Cominius’s remark in Act Two Scene Two that “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver: if it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised.” “If it be…” — note the conditional. Martius’s tragedy is that valour is no longer the chiefest virtue in public life. He’s been brought up by his mum to be a typical Roman hero, but that kind of Roman hero is now an anachronism, for Rome is entering the phase of her existence in which the elite must master the skills of peacetime as well as the arts of war–which in practice means learning how to manage the domestic class struggle, just as it does for politicians today–and this is what Coriolanus is particularly badly-equipped to do.

Tony Blair — who is, happily, now one of yesterday’s politicians — used to like to talk about “traditional values in a modern setting”, though that was just by way of providing rhetorical cover for his left flank as he wrestled the Labour Party ever further to the Right. Coriolanus is the tragedy of what happens when you really are living out of your time, and the modern setting is a lot less hospitable to the traditional values than you’d really prefer it to be. And this general approach to reading the play is reinforced by Aufidius’s remark right at the end of Act Four, “So our virtues / Lie in the interpretation of the time”. (And it’s true; they do.)

So it’s hard to read the mayoral election through the lens of Coriolanus — if we did, we’d have to argue that Ken Livingstone is crucially an anachronistic figure, but that Boris of the Bullingdon is not. But it’s easy to see why the Decents might be attracted to this erroneous interpretation. The political confrontation at the heart of the play, after all, is that between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the plebs, who have some influence over public opinion, and who do everything they can to bring him down. And since Boris Johnson (Eton, Oxford, and David Cameron’s Conservative Party) can’t possibly be cast as a tribune, these are the parts to be filled by the scribes of Decency — Nick Cohen, Martin Bright, and their friends on the blogs — with their relentless campaigns against Citizen Ken.

Nick Cohen might have made a plausible T of the P back in his Cruel Britannia days; but it’s weirdly implausible to see him occupying that role today, with his campaigns for the return of the grammar schools and for the Labour government to be doing more for people on £100K p.a.. (See also today’s column, which, since we’re being Shakespearian, is something rich and strange.) But within the discourse of Decency, which is what matters here, Cohen remains firmly a Man of the Left, and casting him and his ilk as Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus gives the guys at Harry’s what they need — a perspective on the election that puts the vitriolic, personalised anti-Livingstone polemic centre-stage, and shoves the ultimate victor, Boris Johnson, firmly into the wings.

UPDATE [5.5.2008]: David T replies.

16 thoughts on “Sunday Shakespeare Blogging”

  1. There are another two characteristics possessed by Coriolanus that define him as a true ‘Tragic Hero’ because, with true Shakespearean irony they are virtues and yet in the society in which he lived they were to prove fatal flaws. The first was his honesty. The man could not bring himself to lie, and only the intense pressure of his monstrous mother, plus his political friends, induces him to go before the mob, show his scars to prove his courage in war, and beg for their ‘voices’. The mob (the People? the Proletariat?) being as stupid as they invariably are, allow themselves to be manipulated by their Tribunes and banish their best warrier from the their city with disasterous results to themselves. His second virtue was his courage in granting his city a reprieve in the full knowledge that he was signing his own death warrant. Yes, it is a political play but it is also an intensely personal one, too. Needles to say, it has absolutely nothing to do with the recent election for a mayor of London.

    And, yes, I know I’m banished, Coriolanus-like, from this particular citadel but the topic touched a nerve!

  2. I agree with most of your political/intellectual points, but is Measure for Measure *really* one of your favourite Shakespeare plays? I thought it was all a bit silly, and as for the whole ‘lets all just get married’ thing at the end, well…

  3. Cheers for mentioning me. David T now has a response to this piece in which he claims that Coriolanus’ flaw is actually a ‘lack of hubris’, which goes directly against the ‘pride’ claim. Now he’s claiming that he got the words wrong and he actually mentioned ‘humility’, but this is still wrong isn’t it?

    What i found weirdest was the apparent endorsement by David T of the demands of the mob to see his war wounds – David T seemed to be suggesting that this was exactly what the HP lot wanted Ken to do, but he refused.

    not only does this go against Ken’s clear popularism, and the frequency with wihch he plays to the crowd, but it also suggests that the HP writers are the equivalent of the baying mob with its base desires. I’m not sure that’s what David would have wanted to say, but it’s certainly the sentiment of the piece. The strength of the play relies on the tension between the audience’s knowledge that coriolanus would be much more successful if he only adhered to this kind of tedious popularism, but that it’s not actually an inherently good thing.

    I’m guessing David T won’t be using this kind of analogy again.

  4. I think David T is switching roles quite neatly. During the campaign, he was one of the tribunes, energetically telling the mob why Ken shouldn’t be consul. Now it’s all over, he can play the literary critic and tell us that Ken’s a tragic figure with a certain grandeur about him.

    And, yes: Ken’ a populist, which makes the Coriolanus analogy a weak one.

  5. That’s George Galloway on the masthead of the new-look Harry’s Place? Hating Galloway isn’t much of a position around which to gather.

  6. Mr. Brooke, I shall test your patience and good nature one more time if only on the grounds that I am in agreement with you – for once!

    ‘Cliche Guevara’, you are right to point up the flaws in “M for M”, but even so, it is a terrific play. It is part of the trio of ‘comedies’ known as “the problem plays”. The denoument in which everyone is married off was simply Shakespeare complying with the classical rules of comedy which insisted that all the lovers be betrothed by the end. Normally, of course, that should read “happily betrothed” but WS was in a dark mood when he wrote it, I guess. The self-evident fact that everyone was likely to be exceedingly *un*happy, including (perhaps, especially) the silly old Duke who suddenly pops the question to the iron-maiden nun, was, perhaps, his unspoken commentary.

    The play can be read, rather as Lear can be, as a subtle attack on the notion of an all-powerful God. If that is to read too far and too much into the character of the Duke, then it is certainly an attack on those we now call the ‘Great and the Good’, those well-meaning plonkers who blight our lives by insisting that they know best what is best for us. It is, I think a somewhat broken-backed play in that the first half, as WS develops his plot, is better than the 2nd half when he has to try, somewhat desperately, to tie up all the loose ends.

    Finally (before I try our host’s patience too far), I would recommend it on two grounds. First, the two scenes between Angelo and Isabella are Shakespearean dynamite! Intellectually stimulating for the debate between the need for the law to rule, as against the (subversive?) notion of Christian mercy; but also for the sudden irruption of a pathological sexuality in Angleo as he admits that only the desire for a virgin woman is able to stimulate him. Secondly, the rascal Lucio is, Falstaff apart, the funniest man in Shakespeare; especially the scene in which he slags off the Duke to an unknown friar not realising it is the Duke in disguise. I once played Lucio and even after weeks of rehearsal I still had trouble trying not to ‘corpse’ as I played it. Give it another try, ‘CG’!

  7. It’s quite fun to see all the hoops to be jumped through to justify enjoying Shakespeare from so far leftwards. It’s obvousy just about possible but I fear the great man remains a subtle, challenging and creative conservative nonetheless.

  8. I thought “traditional values in a modern setting” was a phrase coined by Prescott, although I suppose he was himself part of Blair’s bulwark against the left flank of the party.

  9. Indeed, and, recalling one of Prescott’s conference speeches, ‘traditional values’ were referring to traditional socialist values rather than the ‘traditional values’ the old dears at the Cons conference would recognise.

  10. Simstim: Yes — it is a phrase of Prescott’s, isn’t it, from 1994, and then Blair only starts using it a coupe of years later. I was remembering Blair’s fondness for the phrase, and either forgot (or never knew) the Prescottian original.

    ChrisC: Well, yes, obviously.

  11. Ah, sorry, yes, point already made. I was confusing ‘traditional values’ in a New Labour context and ‘traditional values’ in Shakespeare…

  12. Thanks for the sensitive and perceptive original post. 30 years on Alan Howard’s performance still lives strongly in the memory.

  13. Thanks for the clip. Howard’s ’78 performance was in what was the then RSC house-style of leather gear and lots of blood. Didn’t get in the way of his acting fortunately.

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