Reading challenge book 36 – A book more than a hundred years old
Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
Amazon link here
I chose to read Coriolanus because it is one of the plays being performed at this year’s Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and I was wholly unfamiliar with it. It’s a tragedy, set in ancient Rome, and was one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote.
I read Coriolanus on Kindle, in an edition that had no annotations whatsoever, and I have to confess that I found it hard work, more challenging than Shakespeare’s plays. I’m in the habit now of using the Oxford English Dictionary on Kindle to look up words as I read, but many words from the play weren’t included . Plus, Coriolanus – despite a gory battle scene early on – struck me as including more debate and less action than some other plays, which probably added to the challenge. Still, my opinions might have been difficult if I’d forked out for a better edition.
The protagonist, Coriolanus, is a Roman patrician and a renowned warrior, who is at his best on the battlefield where he is unbeatable. The flip side of this is that he is very sure of his own worth, sees no reason to compromise or sweeten his words, and disdains the Roman people. This is an attitude he has inherited from his mother, who extols courage and glory above all else, and appears to also despise the plebs.
In this play we see Menenius, his closest friend, and Caminius, his general, extolling Coriolanus’ virtues. However, the majority of his valour is ‘off-camera’ and much more ‘screen-time’ is given to his tirades against the common people and his refusal to amend his views. He sees his inflexibility as one of his best qualities, and possibly the ideal nature of a Real Man. This is his undoing; ultimately two of the tribunes appointed to speak for the Roman citizens, Brutus and Sicinius, are able to use his views and words against him, and banish him from Rome midway through the play.
There is real some humour when Coriolanus speaks of the common people. His first words of the play are in the first act, where the plebs are protesting against grain shortages and are calling for Coriolanus’ death, as he is the most hated of all the Roman patricians. Menenius has been speaking to them and calming them down when Coriolanus stalks in and demands:
“What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?”
He continues in this vein and gets more and more insulting as the play goes by; when the common soldiers flee the forces of the Volsces, their enemies, he remarks:
“You souls of geese that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat! … All hurt behind; backs red, and faces pale with flight and agued fear!”
For me, it wasn’t clear whether Shakespeare intended the audience to sympathise with the Roman people or Coriolanus, and I think the play could be performed to support either view. Coriolanus accuses the plebs of being fickle, influencing the senate with their short-term demands, not being able to think for themselves, and to some extent, these behaviours are portrayed in this play. The plebs call for Coriolanus’ death; they are dissuaded; they reluctantly agree to support him as consol; they are influenced by their two tribunes and change their minds; they support Coriolanus’ banishment, and then when he threatens the city with the Volsces, they deny that they supported the banishment.
The plebs’ actions appear to support Coriolanus’ opinions, until one might consider that his fault lay not in his opinions, but in speaking them too loudly. At the same time, he’s not a good bloke, and in modern society Coriolanus would definitely run for office under the UKIP banner.
Unlike some other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Coriolanus’ head count was not significant, although the play does end with Coriolanus’ death.
I’m looking forward to seeing this play performed. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, to see which, if any parties, are cast in a sympathetic light. Another challenge will be that the play is written against the background of crowds: crowds of the plebs, protesting and calling for Coriolanus’ execution; groups of soldiers in battle; and elections held in the Senate (where presumably there would be a quorum present). The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival normally has relatively small cast sizes, with actors playing multiple roles, as was common in Shakespearean times. To me, the portrayal of numbers against a few privileged noblemen is important, so I look forward to see how this is done.
Finally, a fun fact – Coriolanus was very popular in Nazi Germany! Quoting my DK Big Book of Shakespeare,
“Coriolanus’ position as a powerful leader battling against a failing democratic system was emphasized. Germans were encouraged to see Hitler as a similar figure – with the implication that, to avoid the play’s tragedy, it was necessary for the masses to follow him unwaveringly.”
Would I recommend Coriolanus to readers? Not necessarily above his other plays, though it may just be that I didn’t ‘fuse’ with the story. I particularly enjoyed Menenius’ speeches – there is a wonderful analogy of Rome as the human body, with the Senate as the stomach! – but I didn’t recognise any memorable quotes. More importantly, I found the progression of the play’s plot, without the context of the performance, unsatisfying. But that’s just my opinion, and I do look forward to seeing Coriolanus performed.