To Act, or Not to Act

Nicolas Poussin, Coriolan, 1652 - 1653
Nicolas Poussin, Coriolan, 1652 – 1653

The final section (XII) of Harold Goddard’s essay on Coriolanus found in his brilliant book The Meaning of Shakespeare screws a brilliant reading to the sticking place (to steal a line from Lady M.). Basically, Goddard wants you to think on the last acts of Hamlet and Coriolanus and measure them as representative of human wisdom–or the growth of a character’s understanding.

Nothing illuminates the end of Coriolanus like the end of Hamlet. Each has been a tragedy of revenge. In each the protagonist dies after a burst of anger. Hamlet translates his fury into death delay to the King with an envenomed sword. Coriolanus presents his own body to the swords of others. The difference is abysmal. The old Coriolanus could have held off a dozen assassins, slaughtered them all perhaps, or a the very least sold his life dear. But he does not. And that he does not demonstrates that he is another man. His old self may echo in his last words. But his last act–or failure to act–is that of the new man created by Virgilia’s kiss and the love of his child. It is the best commentary on those who laud Hamlet’s final red of rashness as the accomplishment of a great purpose and hold that a divinity shaped the end he had so rough-hewn.

That is so insightful it’s almost hard to fathom; indeed abysmal.

Hamlet spends a play not acting and then acts in a way that seems overwhelmingly chaotic and thoughtless; Coriolanus spends his hour almost as an automaton of militaristic masculinity and then ends by not acting.

Does this “read” Hamlet far more deeply (and simply) than any other commentary has?

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