Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Coriolanus - Shakespeare

This play was completely unknown to me.  I'd never read it or seen it and I had no idea what the story line was about.

The story takes place in Roman times, and concerns a soldier named Caius Marcus.  The play opens with him insulting a mob and telling them that they are unworthy of the bread that the government is thinking of giving to the public.  Reactions are harsh, but before anything gets out of hand, there are reports of war.  Caius Marcus rushes away.
The main fight takes place near the city of Corioli.  Caius Marcus covers himself with glory.  At one point, he finds himself fighting alone and overcoming great odds.  The Romans win the fight and Caius Marcus is honored with the addition of the name 'Coriolanus'.
He returns to Rome and is instantly seized upon to run for political office.  The Senate agrees but the people must agree as well.  Coriolanus fights against this idea but is eventually talked into going out and showing his fresh wounds to the crowds.  He does this in the most surly manner possible.  At first the people agree to support his promotion but then, after his jerkdom is pointed out, they turn on him. Coriolanus tries to walk back his remarks but he is quick to anger.  In short order, he goes from political triumph to exile.  Coriolanus is thrown out of the city.  He leaves behind his wife and mother and goes to join his former enemies.  They cautiously accept him and once again march on Rome.  As Rome is in danger, Coriolanus is turned away by his mother (and a little his wife).  He won't fight and in short order he is betrayed and killed.

'Coriolanus' is another play about power and its limits.  This specific soldier is undoubtedly skilled in his profession, but he doesn't have what it takes to lead the common people.  He is openly disdainful of anyone who hasn't served in the military.  One group of politicians try to use Coriolanus for their own power, but he is brought down by an opposing group.  He returns to threaten the very people that exiled him and they are fortunate that his heart can be melted by his mother.
This raises all kinds of questions about how political leaders use the military and the various heroes that come from it.  These questions are still relevant today, of course, as much as they were during Elizabethan times.  And, obviously, they were relevant back in Rome as well.  (This story is based largely on the writings of Plutarch.  According to him, this is largely a true story.)

I wasn't thrilled by the version that I ended up watching (embedded below).  The actor who played Coriolanus was frankly hard to watch for a couple of hours.  At first I thought it was the fault of the actor.  There was nothing but harshness and disdain.  After some thought, I think that this particular role is probably very difficult for that very reason.  Coriolanus is harsh and disdainful.  This makes it a very tough role to play as the audience has no good reason to cheer for him.  When he dies, the reaction is more like 'good, that jerk is gone'.

The best role in the play is probably that of Coriolanus's mother.  She is strong and persuasive.  In fact, it occurs to me that there she is the first notable mother in the plays that I've read so far this year.  I don't remember any of them at all in the five comedies that I've covered.  There were no mothers in 'Julius Caesar' or 'Antony and Cleopatra'.  (Well, no one acting in the role of mother.)  There are fathers, and father figures, but nothing maternal.  I'll try to return to this point later, after having read more.

Did I like it?  I'm not sure.  It has a lot of battle scenes, which almost never seem to work in stage productions of Shakespeare.  This was my first time reading (and seeing) it and very few phrases stuck out.  The questions raised are typically interesting, as in most of Shakespeare.  'Coriolanus' is certainly lesser known Shakespeare.  I'm glad that I read it but I think that reputation is well deserved.


  1. This is (so far) one of my favourite Shakespearian plays, but I've never seen a production of it. Now I'm kind of scared to; I can imagine that it might be difficult to stage.

    1. There was a movie version that came out a few years ago with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. I haven't seen it, but I probably will eventually. I don't want to insult the St Louis Shakespeare company (of which I know next to nothing), but it's certainly possible that a different production would have helped me appreciate this work more than I did.