I have never had a whole lot of time for Ralph Fiennes. But the man deserves his props for making his Coriolanus movie.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus play, which T. S. Eliot regarded as the finest of the Bard’s tragedies, has hardly anyone in it for the audience to like.
The hero, frequently called proud, cannot justly be convicted of that vice; he bends his knees piously before Rome’s gods. But what he is is hard. And when the one person who can soften him—namely his mother—moves to do so, his softening costs Coriolanus his life (as he foresees).
This hard Coriolanus holds the unflattering title of being the favorite Shakespeare character of the Nazis, who distributed copies of the play to schoolboys.
Indeed, it is impossible for the audience to like Coriolanus, or his mother, or his wife, or his adversaries—neither his military nor his political opponents have any heartwarming qualities. The only sympathetic characters in the play are Coriolanus’ friends among the Roman nobility, particularly Menenius Agrippa.
Coriolanus, though fearless in battle, lacks the courage to accuse himself of his own faults. Menenius, on the other hand, over a glass of wine, manages to indict the craven Roman tribunes for all their foibles, while in the same breath he freely acknowledges all his own.
Brian Cox’s Menenius makes Fiennes’ movie. The ebullience of the longsuffering friend takes the edge off the Rambo theatrics of the battle scenes. Menenius’ suicide (only hinted-at in the play) signals the summary ending of the movie. From here, there is nowhere to go but downhill fast. Only a few minutes later, Coriolanus, too, is dead.
…Bringing us to my real point:
When only one instance of a certain artistic type exists, then it stands alone, sui generis. But when a second instance comes along, Aha! We now have a new genre.
Rarely does every line of a Shakespeare script manage to get itself spoken when one of his plays is produced.
Usually some, if not many, lines are “cut.” This practice shortens the running time, removes particularly difficult vocabulary or obscure references, makes it easier for actors to memorize everything they have to say, etc. When I performed in Macbeth in 1981, we cut the entire scene in which Malcolm and Macduff discuss the state of Scotland. In his movie version of King Lear, Orson Welles completely removed the charater of Edmund.
(Kenneth Branagh’s triumphant Hamlet movie, in which every line of the script is spoken, stands as the ‘anti-type’ of the genre I am preparing to describe to you.)
So: “Cutting” a Shakespeare script has constituted common practice for centuries. But what about when more than half of the lines get cut? More than 75% cut?
What about when: The actors speak lines from the original script and all the action follows the original plotline. But what is actually being produced is not so much Shakespeare’s play, but rather a stylized video, in which some of Shakespeare’s lines are “sampled,” to great dramatic effect, in a contemporary setting?
I would call this a new genre.
The idea appears to be: We will have a fast-moving movie depicting a Shakespearian storyline; chunks of the original script will be delivered by all the clever means we can devise (including using cable newsmen on tvs in the background, delivering crucial plot-developing lines); and we will wind up with something genuinely new.
In this new thing, every spoken word will have come from the pen of the Bard, and every frame of film will meet the standards of contemporary movie-making technique. We will draw audiences into an experience of Shakespeare’s poetry that no preceding generation has ever had. We just have to leave 85-90% of Shakespeare’s actual words on the cutting-room floor.
Just to prove my point about “sampling from”—rather than merely “cutting”—one example from each movie…
1. In Romeo + Juliet, Claire Danes, trapped into marrying Dave Paris, shows up desperate at Father Lawrence’s apartment. She cries: “Be not so long to speak. I long to die!” She has no more to say in this scene of the movie.
In the original script she adds:
O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O’er-cover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love. (Act IV, Scene 1)
2. In Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Menenius, via the t.v., chides the hungry crowd that they “may as well strike at the heaven with their staves as lift them against the Roman state.”
In Shakespeare’s script, Menenius goes on to tell the parable of the belly, just as Plutarch himself originally reported (in the source Shakespeare used to frame his play):
He said, namely, that all the other members of man’s body once revolted against the belly, and accused it of being the only member to sit idly down in its place and make no contribution to the common welfare, while the rest underwent great hardships and performed great public services only to minister to its appetites; but that the belly laughed at their simplicity in not knowing that it received into it all the body’s nourishment only to send it back again and duly distribute it among the other members. “Such, then,” he said again, “is the relation of the senate, my fellow-citizens, to you; the matters for deliberation which there receive the necessary attention and disposition bring to you all and severally what is useful and helpful.” (Plutarch, Life of Coriolanus)
Anyway: I love this new genre. (Not as much as I love reading Shakesepare’s scripts, but still–I love it a lot.) Long may “sampled Shakespeare” prosper.
In the final scene of “Romeo & Juliet,” three corpses litter the stage. In “Othello,” four. “Hamlet?” Four. “King Lear?” Five.
Wags have been known to mock the body count at curtain-fall in Shakespearian tragedies. Does this evoke reality, they ask, or is it just ridiculous?
Does such art imitate life? Most people go to bed at the end of the day–perhaps mildly dissatisfied with things, but with the coffeepot set up for the morning nonetheless.
Let’s admit that, viewed from one perspective, the wags have a point. But Shakespeare rings true in this: He telescopes the timing, but the fact of the matter is that, in real life, everyone does wind up dead, eventually.
The stage at the end of a Shakespearian tragedy resembles a family cemetery at the end of a century: All the dramatis personae lie lifeless, the epic struggle over.
Now, before you think that I am sinking into morbidity again…I actually just want to explain an idea about the surprising emotional effect of Shakespeare’s tragedies. They do not produce feelings of nostalgia or regret. Quite the contrary, they leave one feeling purified and renewed.
How, why is this? A simple answer: Easter.
Shakespeare did not write ‘Christian’ stories. He did something more ingenious. He wrote human stories that make sense only from a Christian point-of-view. He does not ‘teach’ Christian doctrine. But his tragedies force the audience to greet the play’s action with Christian faith.
When we do–and Shakespeare simply assumed that we would–the dark endings actually glisten with light and hope. The curtain may fall on a stage full of dead bodies. But the life of the characters actually makes the lasting impression.
Hamlet’s relentlessly intelligent words resound, not his death at Laertes’ hands. Lear’s ultimate humility, sweetness, and Job-like conquest resound at curtain-fall, not his death from grief. Somehow Othello lives on as a lover even after his suicide.
The vigor of Shakespeare’s tragic characters overcomes their demise. Yes, the dramatic logic of the action forces them to die. But their deaths feel more like a beginning than an end. The cemeteries of Shakespeare’s closing scenes presage a resurrection.
–Keith Urban. Nice song. (Click on the play button on the right of the linked screen to listen. I would have linked to the video, but it is beyond tedious. I almost lost all enthusiasm for the song when I watched 15 seconds of the video. Better just to listen.)
If it were my song, which of course it is not, I would add a phrase to the words “you better start livin’.”
In Christ would fit nicely. “You better start living in Christ.”
Here’s another good DVD to watch. It’s Shakespeare. It’s an extremely clever “modernization.” It is a Leonardo-DiCaprio movie without too much nasty violence. It’s from back when Leo was young and skinny and absolutely to-die-for. It is PG-13, so if you are a child, don’t even think about pressing the play button below.
The preview makes the movie look more violent and racier than it actually is. There is one scene worthy of a serious wince. (Which isn’t even listed on the IMDd.com parents’ advisory page–as if a man dressed as a woman is not something we would want to be advised about.) On the whole, though, it is a refreshingly clean movie, and splendidly done.
The NBA season begins, and the Moses beards are proliferating.
…And, getting back to the subject of “Deus ex machina”…
A good plot should contain all the elements necessary to resolve itself. Introducing characters late in the game, or unknown facts that change the whole situation–this is dramatically unsatisfying. Hence the perjorative phrase, “Deus ex machina,” God coming out of a machine to fix everything. Lame.
But, of course, Deus Himself has the prerogative to come out of the machina. It is not “Deus ex machina” for God Himself to intervene in history. He actually is Deus. He is allowed.
Is this what He has done? Is the salvation of the human race by Jesus Christ a case of “Deus ex machina”?
We had fallen from grace. We were condemned to death. We were living pretty miserable lives, punctuated by occasional glimpses of goodness and beauty. Very occasional.
People seasoned their dried fish with ashes. Other people threw babies into volcanoes or spilled out birds’ innards to foretell the future. There were not many virtues being practiced. And there was no hope for eternal life.
Then the perfect man came, lived the perfect life, offered the perfect sacrifice, and promised the perfect gifts to those who believe in Him.
Seems like a bolt out of the blue. Seems impossible to anticipate. Deus ex machina?
Well…there WERE prophesies. Many of the Jews hoped for the Messiah. Even non-Jews looked for Him. The coming of the Messiah was not completely unexpected.
But we have to try to go deeper, back to God’s original Creation of the world.
It is certainly true that the coming of Christ was by no means inevitable. His coming was a free gift, a total surprise, never earned, never merited–purely gracious. No one could have anticipated that God Himself would become a man.
But the following is also certainly true: His coming is the fulfillment of Creation. Christ did not enter the world as a foreigner. He came to “what was His own.” All of creation is “for Him.” (quoting Sts. John and Paul) He came not to destroy, but to fulfill. This (in my humble opinion) is the great insight that makes St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching so profound and so true.
The coming of God as a man is NOT Deus ex machina. It is the exact opposite: The coming of Christ makes everything else make sense. The plot was jumbled and confused BEFORE. Now it unfolds cleanly; now it fits; now it is beautiful.
…In other news: The Wizards just managed to lose their opener at home to the lowly New Jersey Nets. Good grief!
On the other hand: The Phillies just won the World Series!