You know how sometimes when you watch (or read) a Shakespeare play, you come across a something which makes you go "Holy crap, that's one of the greatest pieces of English I've ever heard, but I'm not quite sure what it means". This happens especially often for me because I'm not a native English speaker. Well, I just watched the movie adaptation of Coriolanus a few weeks ago and I need one of the lines explained to me.
As background, the play is about a Roman general named Caius Martius who goes to war against another country called Volsci, and after conquering a city named Corioli, he returns home to a huge celebration and is given the name Coriolanus.
The part I'm wondering about occurs during the celebration, and is spoken (to no one in particular) by his mother, Volumnia. Here it is:
These are the ushers of Marcius: before him
He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;
Death, that dark spirit, in's nervy arm doth lie;
Which, being advanc'd, declines, and then men die.
The two first rows are pretty clear, I think: the noise refers to the praise and adulation he gets (which makes sense, given that the line is spoken at a celebration for him), and the tears to all the destruction he leaves in his wake.
The third line was a little harder, but after looking up "nervy" in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found the definition "Vigorous; sinewy; full of strength", which cited this exact line as an example, it's a little bit clearer (also realizing that "in's" is probably short for "in his" helped). "In his strong arm lies death", basically.
But I can't quite make out the fourth line. My instinct tells me that "advanc'd" refers to "advancing" in the sense of "moving forward", as in "the forces are advancing" (he is a general, after all), but that doesn't quite seem to fit. Can "advance" mean "to raise"? I've never heard the word used that way, but it would make sense given that the next word is "declines". But that makes the whole construction weird, because I've always read the construction "being X, Y" as meaning roughly "because of X, then Y", as in "being an honest man, I have to tell you the truth". But that can't be right, "because his arm is raised, it is lowered" is nonsensical. I guess the only explanation is that he first raises his arm, and then subsequently lowers it. That is not at all how I would parse that sentence naturally, but I can't really come up with another explanation.
To put it in plain modern English, I therefore read the last two lines as "Death lies in his strong arm, which raises and then lowers, and that makes men die". Is that a proper reading?
Assuming it is, what does it mean? What I'm currently thinking is that the death she is talking about is a metaphor for a sword. The sword in his hand is death, and when he swings it, men die. Probably even this is metaphorical (metaphors within metaphors!), meaning something like "When Coriolanus goes to war, no man can meet him on the field of battle and survive". Am I reading that right?
I don't quite know why, but those lines really took my breath away when I heard them, and they have been bouncing around in my head ever since, so I'd really appreciate someone clarifying what they actually mean.