A lifetime ago I can honestly say that I read all the plays. That in no way means that I fully understand or appreciate all the plays. Such has been the case with Coriolanus, which long stood in my memory as “The one about the super-soldier guy who gets talked out of invading Rome by his mom.” I’ve just finished the movie (review to follow), and a number of great lines leapt out at me that remind us just how great Shakespeare was at using his characters to tell his story.
- “You souls of geese, That bear the shapes of men, how have you run From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell! All hurt behind; backs red, and faces pale With flight and agued fear! Mend and charge home, Or, by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe And make my wars on you.” I love the foreshadowing in that last line. Coriolanus (still Caius Marcius, he’s not yet received his promotion) is rallying his troops for battle, about to charge through the enemy gate. He’s going, with them or without them – and about two seconds after this speech, when he charges through the gate and it closes behind him, his soldiers say amongst themselves “Foolhardiness! Not I (will follow him)” and are quick to report him as “Slain, doubtless” even though he returns to them shortly after. Later in the play when their illustrious leader does leave the foe (abandon the fight, that is, and join his enemy) to make his wars on Rome, they should have seen it coming 🙂
- “O, me alone! make you a sword of me?” At the battle of Corioles, Caius Marcius is asking for volunteers among his men to charge into what could well be a suicide mission. It took me a second to understand this line, as all of his soldiers raise their arms to volunteer and then you get this “me alone” reference as if they were sending him in by himself? Weird. But in the movie it does not come off like a question, but a command. He’s telling his men to put him forward into the line of fire, to use him like a weapon rather than a fellow soldier. Lead with him. (Of course, it’s quite obvious that had none of them volunteered he’s the sort of soldier that would have just gone into battle single-handedly anyway, so it’s less like his soldiers are using him as a weapon and more like he is dragging them along behind him.)
- “He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him.” / “Now it’s twenty-seven.” This exchange occurs between Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, and his advisor Menenius. It may have to be seen to be appreciated – I found it nauseating. They are talking about another human being, coming home from war, and they are practically gleeful at the idea of him having more battle scars to show the people. This is a mother saying of her son, “I hope he comes home broken and disfigured.” It is reminder that not only does Coriolanus see himself as a war machine, so do all the people around him. Since this is his mother we’re talking about, you immediately understand how he has been raised and what he’s always been told his purpose in life will be. (It is only now, as I write this, that I see a direct connection to what happens to Coriolanus at the end of Fiennes’ movie.)
- “You’ll mar all: I’ll leave you: pray you, speak to ’em, I pray you, In wholesome manner.” / “Bid them wash their faces And keep their teeth clean.” When somebody hands you a play and tells you that not only is it Shakespeare, but that it’s one of his lesser known works, full of politics, any high school student would be tempted to roll his eyes and assume a ridiculous amount of boring dialogue that has you reaching for the glossary every other word. But then you get a line like this that cuts right through and shows you what kind of men we’re talking about. Menenius has brought Coriolanus down among the people where he must walk among them and ask for their voices. This is an entirely political gesture, something you could imagine happening among presidential candidates today. It’s not a question of whether you want to or whether you’ll like doing it, it’s just a thing you do. Note how Menenius sets it up – he’s worried that his friend (client?) is going to screw it up by upsetting the crowd, and he begs him (note the repeated “I pray you”) to be nice. Coriolanus, for his part, shows exactly what he thinks of the crowd with his “tell them to wash their faces and brush their teeth” comment. You can’t misinterpret that. (Later, when his task is done, Coriolanus’ first question is to ask, “Can I change my clothes now?” which is no doubt both a reference to being uncomfortable in the fancy pressed suit they’ve dressed him in, as well as wanting to wash the stink of the common people off of himself).
- “Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads, Stain all your edges on me. Boy! false hound! If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there, That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli: Alone I did it. Boy!” You know, when we list some of the most bad-ass death lines in Shakespeare, I always lean toward Macbeth. But I may have to rethink that. Coriolanus, having made peace with Rome, is down among his enemies and assuredly knows what’s going to happen next. Aufidius, his mortal enemy-turned-friend-turned-enemy again, is mocking him for crying at the feet of his mother, and calls him “Boy of tears.” So what does Coriolanus do, standing amid his enemies? Reminds them that he alone defeated them at Corioli. I can’t decide whether that last “boy” should be interpreted as one last “How dare you call me boy?” or if it’s him throwing the insult back in Aufidius’ face. “Call me boy? I single-handedly took on all of you, and won. Who’s the boy?”
I may have misinterpreted some lines. As I said, I’m only just becoming reacquainted with the play. So, let’s talk about it. Did I miss any good ones? I deliberately left out the “common cry of curs” speech as I figured it was already done to death. Have I fundamentally misinterpreted anything I put on this list?