Sunday, 5 January 2014

'Coriolanus' by William Shakespeare (1623)

Synopsis: Coriolanus is a historical tragedy that takes place just before the establishment of the Roman republic. It tells the story of Caius Martius who is a brilliant Roman soldier. He then goes into battle against the Volscians and almost single-handedly captures the town of Corioles. To honour his achievement Martius is given the official name of Coriolanus. The people of Rome rejoice and he's given a hero's welcome when he returns. Coriolanus's power-hungry mother then persuades her son to take advantage of his new found popularity by entering into the field of politics. However, Coriolanus has much contempt for the common people and has two powerful enemies called Sisinius and Brutus. They use his temper and anti-democratic views to their advantage and manipulate the public into turning against him. Coriolanus then has a massive public outburst that kills his political career stone-dead. He's also branded a traitor and is cast out of the city. This leaves Coriolanus feeling completely betrayed. He then teams up with his former arch-nemesis Tullus Aufidius and plots a vicious assault upon Rome. Is there any way to bring Coriolanus's old loyalties back?

Coriolanus was Shakespeare's final tragedy and it's also one of his more obscure plays. Coriolanus is nowhere near as famous as some of Shakespeare's other tragedies like Macbeth and Othello and Hamlet. I'd never been very interested in reading it before and the only reason why I did read it is because I'm seeing the National Theatre's live broadcast of it at my local cinema on the 30th of January. The production stars Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss and Hadley Fraser. I love all of those men so how could I resist? :D And now that I've read the play I'm even more excited about seeing it because I was shocked at how much I liked it!

Coriolanus is an overlooked gem. I found it a real page-turner and it's full of depth. The themes of the play are still very relevant. It's got political pandering, war, manipulation of the masses, etc. After I read the play I had a look through some online reviews because I just couldn't understand why the play isn't more widely known. A lot of people were saying that it isn't as quotable as some of Shakespeare's other tragedies and I suppose that's true but still... Coriolanus gets some very passionate and intense speeches in the play. There's the opening scene where Caius Martius mocks the Roman mob clamouring for bread, the scene where Caius Martius tells some of his soldiers that they have "souls of geese", the scene where Coriolanus gets banished and basically says "No, I banish YOU!", and the scene where Coriolanus shows up at Aufidius's house. Aufidius then starts saying that he loves Coriolanus far more than he's ever loved his wife and that he has constant dreams about all of those times that they've engaged in combat. It's actually very heavily implied that the two of them have a homoerotic relationship (I believe they call this foe yay).

The other reason why Coriolanus isn't as popular as some of Shakespeare's other tragedies is probably because Coriolanus himself just isn't a very likeable character. He's arrogant, confrontational, stubborn and full of bitterness and rage. I think he's a fascinating character though and there were definitely moments in the play when I felt sorry for him. There's an obvious reason why he's the way that he is. His mother Volumnia is a cold-hearted, ruthless bitch. She has no maternal love for her son at all and her only interest in life seems to be the glory that he can win. She packed Coriolanus off to fight in wars when he was still a teenager. She's actually pleased when her son gets badly injured in the shoulder because it will make him look like more of a war hero. She makes Lady Macbeth look like Maria Von Trapp! It's really no wonder that Coriolanus turned out the way that he did. He's been brought up all of his life to believe that killing people in war is what you have to do to become a man and that anyone who doesn't strive to earn glory on the battlefield is worthless. It's not as if Coriolanus is any worse than his opponents in this play either. Yes, Coriolanus has contempt for the commoners of Rome and that's wrong but then Sisinius and Brutus make him out to be far worse than he actually is and conspire to have him killed. They're so sneaky and manipulative. At least Coriolanus has integrity and is honest. He doesn't want to sell out on his beliefs or lie to people by telling them what they want to hear. Interestingly enough the commoners of Rome aren't shown in a great light in this play either. They seem so fickle and stupid and easily swayed.

I wouldn't say that Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's very best plays - I think the ending is kind of weak - but it's still a very powerful and thought-provoking piece of work. This play is extremely underrated.

Rating: 4.5/5


Hamlette said...

Putting this on my to-read list! Have you seen the recent movie version with I think Ralph Fiennes?

Hannah said...

No I haven't but I've heard that it's supposed to be really good. I'd like to see it at some point. But what I'm reeeally excited about seeing is the National Theatre production. I cannot wait :)

samara said...

Haven't yet read the play, but the Ralph Fiennes version is fantastic! The contrast between Vanessa Redgrave as his mother and Jessica Chastain as his wife is wonderful!!

I look forward to your review of the NT Live version. It'll be showing in Seattle in mid-late February and I can't wait to see it then :D

Hannah said...

Thank you! I saw the play tonight. Sadly I missed the first 5 minutes of it which really annoyed me but it was terrific and Tom Hiddleston is especially incredible in it :) I'm seeing it again in early March so I might hold off on a review until then.