I Am Ralph Fiennes

Not really, but I am a total bardolator. I worked as a security guard in 1978-79, a year I took off between my master’s and doctorate, and while “working” could basically do whatever I wanted as long as I kept my butt in the seat. The two self-improvement projects I completed that year were reading all the Shakespeare plays and analyzing all the Beethoven quartets (by “analyzing,” I don’t mean any more than formal and Roman numeral analysis, but I did get to know them). In the 1980s I watched the BBC productions of Shakespeare on TV, and have since collected all the DVDs, many of which aren’t published for Region 1, so I had to get an all-region DVD player. I collect all filmed versions of the plays except the most Hollywoodish and inept-looking, and I never pass up a chance to see Shakespeare onstage nearby. (My wife works for The Acting Company, which specializes in Shakespeare, so the free tickets are a nice perk.) I have some soliloquies memorized.

And now the media is in a total boil over why Ralph Fiennes picked Shakespeare’s worst tragedy (translate: one they haven’t read) to film, and I seem to be the only person on the planet since T.S. Eliot to hold Coriolanus as his favorite Shakespeare play. My Riverside Shakespeare calls him “the one Shakespeare hero no one can identify with,” or some such, and he’s the character I’ve always identified with most. I have the same overdeveloped superego, the same arrogant feeling that having accomplished something I shouldn’t have to go sell my accomplishments, the same churlish impulse that if not appreciated I’ll pick up my marbles and go elsewhere. I particularly thrill to the lines:

Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear,
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to’t:
What custom wills, in all things should we do’t,
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heapt
For truth to o’er-peer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honour go
To one that would do thus.

And I guess it explains why I am, to so many, a similarly unsympathetic character (even though – paradox of my life – a total populist in my own music). (Yet perhaps it’s not a paradox at all, perhaps populism is my version of fighting to defend Rome, the good deed for hoi polloi that I misguidedly expect to be thanked for.) But Coriolanus is a great, taut, spring-wound play about the inability of a brilliant introvert to negotiate society’s petty demands, and I find it comical and revealing that the world seems so antipathetic toward it. Will sent me and my kind a love letter by writing that one.

While I’m at it, my favorite Shakespeare comedies are also unpopular choices: the darkly nihilistic Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens, which will add to my curmudgeonly bonafides. [UPDATE: Oops – just realized Timon is a tragedy. I just think of Apemantus’s sardonic jesting, like Thersites in Troilus.] I’m not a big Lear fan, I have to confess: too gruesome and painful. But while I used to think that all copies of Titus Andronicus should be burned, I learned upon seeing film versions of it that it’s less horrifying to watch than it is to read, and one’s sympathies actually get caught up in it. The one play I can hardly stand now is A Winter’s Tale: Leontes just seems too mentally ill to take seriously. Hamlet I love, of course, and am fond of Pericles and Cymbeline, but the ones I watch over and over in sequence are all the consecutive histories from Richard II to Richard III, even the watery three parts of Henry VI included (“tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” – and that’s not even Joan of Arc). Haven’t seen the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus yet – only because it hasn’t yet hit a theater in my neighborhood.



  1. says

    Hmm, Troilus (which I love) isn’t a comedy either. It’s considered a tragedy and/or one of the problem plays. I did props for a wonderful production of Troilus one summer (I worked in a Shakespeare festival a number of summers). One of my life goals is to direct Measure for Measure, another “problem” play.

    KG replies: Well, Troilus is certainly a problem play, but Riverside calls it a comedy. I think for a tragedy the hero has to be dead at the end, not just horribly disappointed. I also love Much Ado about Nothing well enough that I’ve always wanted to write a piece called “Kill Claudio,” which is my favorite line. Have to be a more dramatic piece than I usually write, though.

    • says

      First Folio lists Troilus as a tragedy (although listed as a history in quarto). And really, although not the title character, the real hero, Hector, is dead at the end – one of the noblest characters, both in Shakespeare and Homer, imho. Also, as long as “Kill Claudio” doesn’t refer to Monteverdi…. You could always slide over and set Marlowe’s Edward II death scene – fitting into our contemporary appetite for macabre means of death.