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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Bazley

32. Coriolanus

My reading was interrupted last week by a bit of a setback in my progress back to full health. This meant I ended up reading Coriolanus in two parts, so my thoughts on it might not be the most coherent.

Prior to this reading, my only knowledge of the play was seeing Josie Rourke’s 2014 production at the Donmar, starring Tom Hiddleston in the title role. As is often the case with my memories of productions, I have some quite strong visual images but don’t remember the story that well.

I found this a very interesting read. It is quite possibly Shakespeare’s most political plays. The whole piece hinges around allegiances and manipulations of public opinion. It feels the most immediately pertinent to modern politics of the plays I have read so far. The back-stabbing (in this case both metaphorical and literal!) and switching sides to suit your own political progress, all with a fairly hefty dose of contempt for the common people, feels incredibly relevant just now.

This play does set up some really interesting and dramatically fruitful conflicts. Coriolanus is an incredibly successful warrior who has won great battles (essentially single-handed) for his country. Yet, he is openly hostile towards the common people of Rome, he is arrogant and proud. So immediately there is an interesting conflict here. We often talk of military people doing ‘service’ but who exactly is Coriolanus serving here – he seems to be serving himself more than his people. This then leads to the elites nominating him for consul (essentially Prime Minister, if my limited understanding of Roman government holds). But acknowledging that a man has aided your country through his military prowess, does not necessarily mean that he will be a good leader in peace.

Recognising that Coriolanus as consul could be a disaster for the people, the tribunes (I feel like they stand somewhere between a union leader and a backbench MP!) stir up the commons to reject his consulship. Not only is he rejected but he is banished fully. So now the tables have turned too far the other way. It does seem pretty unjust to banish a man from a country that he has fought for so often and so successfully.

But the tables then turn again, as Coriolanus goes into exile and allies with his former enemy Aufidius. They then march on Rome together. Forcing the Romans to beg Coriolanus to be merciful. It is at this point that I think the play finds its emotional heart. Coriolanus’ mother (Volumnia) presents herself before him and pleads with him to abandon his vengeful destruction of Rome. She is another person who is put in an unwinnable situation – either her country wins and her son dies, or her son wins and her country burns. The relationship between Coriolanus and his mother is fascinating. It is incredibly close. He seems much closer to his mother than his wife. As is often the case in Shakespeare, you have a female character in Volumnia who is one of the most interesting characters in the play but isn’t given enough stage time. (She’s certainly one to look up if you’re in search of a more underused audition speech).

The ending is slightly weak (as is often a criticism of Shakespeare’s plays). It all feels a bit rushed as Coriolanus agrees to peace with Rome and is then murdered by Aufidius and his conspirators! (The tables turning yet again!)

It is a good play in many ways. But definitely a challenging one. The first half is very dominated by war. And it is one of those stories where a lot happens and yet nothing really happens at all. It all feels a bit pointless in the end – which I suppose could be the point! All this political posturing and the plight of the common man hasn’t changed a bit! Plus ca change!

This would absolutely be an interesting piece to direct and definitely a good one for some scene study sessions. One really gets the sense of a playwright who now is writing with ease and confidence. The characters are brilliantly well drawn, and the language is fantastic. Sometimes the plot is a little clunky but it holds.


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