Coriolanus

As it turns out, if Arnold Schwarzenegger ever performed in Shakespeare, he should play Coriolanus (not Hamlet, as previously thought).

In scene I.iv, Cauius Marcius enters the gates of Corioli during the enemy’s retreat, and pretty much single-handedly takes the city.  This feat of military bravery is so insane that the Romans start referring to their general as Coriolanus, and now we know who the hero of the play is.  However, our hero isn’t really good at anything but soldiering.  My Schwarzenegger reference wasn’t just a joke: He will murder countless baddies, make clever wisecracks, and improvise brilliant tactics in the heat of combat, but you don’t want him running a government.

Oh no.

Meanwhile, Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus politically maneuver around Coriolanus and get the soldier banished because… well, I guess they don’t like him.  In the first scene, they mutter that “he is grown too proud to be so valiant,” and the sin of pride remains their most common criticism.  Sure, Coriolanus certainly has a crass way of addressing crowds: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion Make yourselves scabs?”  But when we see his personal life play out, he’s actually a selfless nationalist with no real ambition.  My biggest problem with the character, actually, is that he doesn’t seem to have any real ambition.  Meanwhile, Velenus and Brutus are just simplistic charicatures of politicians, who know how to manipulate popular opinion but apparently do nothing to actually run effective government.  They aren’t really ambitious either, even though Menenius Agrippa accuses them of it.  It’s all meaningless posturing, and Coriolanus is the only person who actually seems to believe in serving the abstract glory of “Rome.”  In any case, the war hero gets banished and Coriolanus actually goes back to Corioli, where he teams up with his former nemesis, Tullus Aufidius.

In the upcoming Coriolanus movie, Aufidius will be played by this man.

It looks like Coriolanus is going to wreak violent vengeance upon the people that rejected him.  Commanding an army of foreign invaders, the expatriot soldier “is their god: he leads them like a thing Made by some deity other than nature That shapes man better; and they follow him against us brats, with no less confidence than boys pursuing summer butterflies or butchers killing flies.”  The Romans come to him and beg mercy in a structure very similar to the pleas of Timon of Athens.  But unlike Timon, Coriolanus relents when he presented with his family: his mother, wife, and children.  He organizes peace terms, and goes back to Corioli.  The point is, Coriolanus is now a traitor to both Rome and Aufidius.  So Aufidius has him killed, but then immediately feels really bad about it.  And the play ends.

It could easily be construed as a masturbatory Objectivist tragedy.
When I finished reading this play, I actually felt the way a lot of people feel about Mamet plays: so, a bunch of testosterone filled idiots were yelling at each other, somebody won, but what the hell was the point of that?

It could at least make me laugh a few times.

So I have to be honest here: I don’t think I would touch this play.  I just don’t really like it, and there isn’t anything that interests me enough to make the story worthwhile.  It’s not horrible the way Henry VIII was, but it’s on the same level of indulgent pro-authoritarian nonesense.

(respect authority and dont have sex before marriage)

Now, what I must always give Shakespeare credit for is that he rarely takes an actual side.  He’s a humanist, and his stories portray rounded human beings with human conflicts and human views of the world.  But I have already mentioned that the characters seem to lack ambition.  Coriolanus is a humble warrior serving his country.  He does not care for anything else.  I won’t even get into the weird relationship he has with his mother, Volumnia, or the utterly sexless relationship he has with his wife Virgilia.  Shakespeare has populated this play with people who are merely cogs in the machine.

Again, it would have been nice if it made me laugh.

The politics of the play are the real driving force of the plot, and the mob of Citizens on Rome and Corioli drive everyone into action.  When All the People in Corioli shout out ” Tear him to pieces! – Do it presently! – he killed my son! – My daughter! – he killed my cousin Marcus! – He killed my father!” you can hardly accuse them of lying.  If you sympathize with Coriolanus after the Romans have betrayed him, then it’s hard to call the enemies of Rome purely evil.  The people that Coriolanus has killed are also human beings, not just random bodies in his path.  They have families and children and lives that were cut off by war.

His name was Marcus...

 So it isn’t as simplistic as Henry VIII, no.  Coriolanus is not completely worthless.  It just doesn’t touch anything new, and doesn’t hold my interest as well as other things that Shalespeare wrote.  Soldiers in peacetime are explored better in Much Ado About Nothing and Othello.  The angry mob is more interesting in Henry VI.  And the theme of a good man abandoned by his friends is explored better in Timon of Athens.  At the end of the day, “this painting wherein you see me smeared” is sloppy and mediocre.  But then again, so are most 1980’s action movies.  Maybe I’m just missing something.

I sincerely look forward to Ralph Fiennes proving me wrong.

 Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, it still has it’s good parts.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are some awesome examples of Coriolanus being unstoppably cool.  For example: “There is differency between a grub and a butterfly; yet your butterfly was a grub.  This Marcius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings, he’s more than a creeping thing.”

Oh, to stage a fantastical, literal interpretation of this play.

I think that, after these heavy late plays, I could really do with some comedies for a bit.  But instead, I’m going to read Titus Andronicus.  We’ll see how that goes.

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  1. […] same way that I felt Coriolanus was a weaker version of Timon of Athens, I feel like this play is a weaker version of Merry Wives […]

  2. […] is a great soldier, but like Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus before him, he is not skilled at peacetime interactions.  Guiding his life in […]

  3. […] work, especially in his villains.  As in the overly cynical Timon of Athens, and deeply flawed Coriolanus, the play asks deep and disturbing questions about the nature of life while not pretending to have […]



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