Friday, July 5, 2013

Michael5000 v. Shakespeare: Coriolanus

The Play: Coriolanus
Edition: The Pelican Shakespeare, Edited by Jonathan Crewe, 1999.

Genre & Setting: Political tragedy on the Italian Penninula in classical times.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: Rome’s got problems. Inside the city, there’s strife between the patricians and the plebeians, and outside the Volscian army is rampaging through the countryside. Caius Martius, a Roman general, leads the troops out and, through dazzling acts of leadership and personal valor, produces a Roman victory and captures the Volscian city of Corioles, thus earning the honorary title of “Coriolanus.” His family and friends suggest that he do what so many successful military leaders have done, and make the jump to civilian office. Coriolanus runs for consul.

Alas, Caius Martius is not what you would call a “smooth” man. The kindest way to put it is that he is incapable of flattery and completely unwilling to tell even the most conventional polite fibs in order to advance his political career. The unkindest way of all to put it is that he is a fascist, manifestly contemptuous of the lower classes and unable to even speak with them except to command or berate. (Don’t roll your eyes at “fascist,” either; this play was designated as a school text by the Nazi regime.) In any event, he has a real anger-management problem, and a mere word that can be construed as insulting can completely unhinge him.

People who can’t control their anger are scary, but they are also easily made tools of. Coriolanus’ political opponents don't have too much trouble manipulating him into making statements that not only cost him the consulship, but get him banished. Nursing his anger like a favorite child, he switches to the Volscian side and leads a destroying army to the gates of Rome. The city must surely perish!  But why, then, is Christianity still so successful while Volscian-religion has fallen by the wayside? Because Coriolanus’ mom, a ferocious battleaxe whom we’ve met earlier in the play, comes out and gives him a stern talking-to, after which he agrees to set up a Roman-Volscian alliance.

Here comes the ending: Does he live happily ever after? No. The same political opponents as before Whoopsie, no. A new set of political opponents immediately push his very, very vulnerable buttons again, and he whips himself into enough of a froth that they are able to cry self-defense and publically stab him to death with no one even questioning their motives.

The Edition: The notes to the text are rudimentary, no more than the usual synonyms for difficult words that you find in the most bare-bones editions. The introductory materials provide a good textual and historical context for the play, and a lucid discussion of the main areas of interest in Coriolanus for the various schools of Shakespeare criticism (although, nota bene, you Shakespeare editors out there can probably start cutting back on the psychoanalytical readings at this point in history. They are starting to sound a bit antique and cultish). What we have here, all in all, is a fine mid-range edition.

Michele da VeronaTournament non-participant.
Coriolanus persuaded by his Family to spare Rome, c. 1500.
Adaptation: The more I play with Shakespeare, the more it’s interesting to read a play without ever having seen it performed. In the theater of my brain (which is to be honest really a movie screen) I [get to / have to] make the directorial decisions, which means first and foremost trying to figure out what the directorial decisions are.

The biggest one in Coriolanus has to be “What do we make of the hero?” I think a successful production would have to emphasize his strengths of courage, sincerity, and spirit of public service in order to make his tragic flaws of arrogance, inflexibility, and wrath more interesting. If he’s a monster from the get-go, there’s no emotional entrance point for the audience; if he’s a hero through to the end, you are basically agreeing with him that the garlic-eaters should just shut the hell up and do what their betters tell them (see “fascist,” above).

Secondarily, what to do with his mom? You could tone down her militarism a bit and make her a moral center of the play, or you could play her as half-mad with bloodlust. You could – and might almost have to – imply that Coriolanus is her fault. Although there’s not a ton of stage time, she gets to make a helluva speech; it must be a juicy role for any given company’s grand dame.

Another decision would be whether to play certain scenes involving minor characters as broad comedy or to take them seriously. As almost always, I would want to take them seriously.

Prognosis: T.S. Eliot apparently thought that Coriolanus was Shakespeare’s best play, much better than that Hamlet business. Well, T.S. Eliot thought a lot of things, some of them pretty daffy. But whereas I’ve looked at other minor-league Shakespeare plays (Troilus and Cressida, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens) and had an immediate sense that, yeah, I can see why these aren’t amongst the greatest hits, Coriolanus is going to go on the opposite list. Along with action-adventure summer play Titus Andronicus and Rube Goldberg Romp Cymbeline, I’m going to do like T.S. and put Coriolanus on my list of underrated Shakespeare.

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