Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy

By Irving Ribner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Final Paradox: Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus

In Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus Shakespeare returned to the theme of damnation he had probed in Timon and Macbeth, but he did so with a further question. Need the destruction of man be sordid and fearful? Could there not be in an evil choice itself some heroic quality with which we instinctively sympathize? While rationally we censure a wrong moral choice which must lead to destruction, can we not emotionally second that choice, and thus participate more fully in it than ever we could in the jealousy of Othello or the ambition of Macbeth? In these final Roman plays Shakespeare probed the paradox of a road to damnation which might be heroic and awe-inspiring.

This is not to say that these plays are un-Christian, or that they exalt a pagan morality. They are based upon Christian assumptions, that lust in the one instance and pride in the other are ways to damnation. There is never any question of the evil which the hero in each play has chosen. It is nevertheless true also that in neither of these plays does Shakespeare stress the after-life or the soul's ultimate fate. We have tragic waste and loss, but the emphasis is upon the destruction of the things of this world, of glory, honour, reputation, self-esteem.1

We begin in each play with a hero deeply flawed, one who has already accepted an obvious and easily identifiable type of evil. Antony and Cleopatra were symbols of lustful appetite centuries before Shakespeare approached the subject. Coriolanus is a symbol

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1
See J. F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill ( London, 1952), p. 149. The omission of the religious dimension is deliberate, Danby holds, 'because after King Lear there can be no doubt that Shakespeare knew exactly where he was in these matters. Both Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus follow North's Plutarch without benefit of clergy.'

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