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From the movie remake of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, during a battle scene, he said to his soldiers before leading them into a frontal assault:

  • Make you a sword of me

How to interpret this sentence?

  • I (Coriolanus) make you (his soldiers) a sword of his?
  • I (Coriolanus) make myself into a sword of yours (his soldiers')?

Thanks

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    This blogger says... 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. – FumbleFingers Mar 7 '17 at 15:38
  • ... (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.) But imho this is effectively a Lit Crit question. – FumbleFingers Mar 7 '17 at 15:39
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about "literary interpretation". – FumbleFingers Mar 7 '17 at 15:40
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    The presence of "you" is relatively archaic and hides the imperative nature of the sentence from our modern ears; today we would say "Make a sword of me". The meaning is basically "You (soldiers) are to use my presence and assistance as an extra advantage in this attack." – Hellion Mar 7 '17 at 15:46
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    Act 1, Scene 6, and I'm reading it for the first time. Cominius seems to be unhappy with Coriolanus because he's in the camp and doesn't know that Corioli has been routed ("Come I too late?"). Coriolanus has just mustered some soldiers to go with him ("take your choice of those / That best can aid your action.") My guess is that "make you a sword of me" has Coriolanus declaring that he will be a figurative sword (aggressive weapon) in the hands of Corioli, whom he has disappointed, to fight Aufidius. – rajah9 Mar 7 '17 at 15:49
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TL;DR: He's meant to be asking a question, something like Are you making a sword out of me? (I have no idea whether the actor in the movie says the line this way, but that's the way the script should be parsed.)


In the text of the play it is fairly clear that this quote is actually a question1:

Make you a sword of me?2

In this context, the odd-looking word inversion (you is the subject, which we would typically expect to see before the verb make) is a little more understandable.

In modern speech we invert declarative "helping" verbs when phrasing as a question:

  • They did want fries with that → Did they want fries with that?
  • He's crazy! → Is he crazy?
  • I should go → Should I go?
  • They have been here → Have they been here?
  • She'll be coming 'round the mountain → Will she be coming 'round the mountain?
  • You may have some more → Please, sir, may I have some more?

Typically, we don't see this inversion with verbs like make on their own.3 Rather, they require one of those auxiliaries to express the inversion, as with other shades of meaning. Thus for the imperative

(You will) Make me a sandwich!

we invert the omitted "You will" to form the question

Will you make me a sandwich?"

rather than inverting directly to get

Make you me a sandwich?

In Shakespeare's English, however, the auxiliary verb isn't needed, and the main verb can be inverted on its own. So, for example, in Julius Caesar3 the declarative "You think to walk forth" becomes the question "Think you to walk forth?" rather than the more modern "Do you think to walk forth?"

This quote can therefore be parsed4 as asking

Do you make a sword [out] of me?

Or possibly

Are you making a sword [out] of me?


1 Act I, Scene 6, Line 707, via OpenSourceShakespeare. There appears to be some uncertainty about the text (is the previous sentence in that line "Come along" or "Oh me, alone" or "Of me alone", etc.), but not that it is a question. For more discussion of the textual dispute and literary analysis rather than pure grammar parsing, see note in Classic Books' The Tragedie of Coriolanus.

2 Or, by some reckonings, "Of me alone make you a sword? Of me?" See note above.

3 The closest we still have might be with the verb to have when not used as an auxiliary, e.g. "Baa, baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool?". In some places I believe it is still acceptable to say something like "Excuse me, have you a light?" although in my own dialect this would shift to either "have you got a light?", demoting the have to an auxiliary position, or else "do you have a light?", leaving have as the main verb but tacking on a different helper.

4 Act II, Scene 2, Line 983, via OpenSourceShakespeare. Examples of "think you?" questions abound in Shakespeare; in that same scene alone there are two additional examples, at lines 924-25 (Think you I am no stronger than my sex,/Being so father'd and so husbanded? and 2402 (When think you that the sword goes up again?)

5 As for why he's asking that, exactly...that gets into literary criticism, and is off topic here (but might be on-topic at the Literature SE).

  • Perhaps, "you make yourselves a sword of mine" ! – mahmud koya Mar 7 '17 at 17:57
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    Your answer does a great job of investigating the possibility of reading it as a question. But it seems commentators take both the question reading and the imperative reading seriously, as here. Do you think the imperative reading has merit? I must confess I originally read it as an imperative. – Cerberus Mar 7 '17 at 18:47

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