Sunday, May 13, 2012

Thoughts on Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS

This spring I read Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS, discussed it in the Chautauqua New Orleans Shakespeare class taught by the knowledgeable and engaging Ted Cotton (Professor Emeritus of English at Loyola University New Orleans), watched the 1984 BBC film of the play, and just last week saw the very recent Ralph Fiennes film CORIOLANUS at Chalmette Cinema. Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in CORIOLANUS, set in a World War II version of Rome.

This post will give a brief overview of Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS, praise Vanessa Redgrave's role as Coriolanus' mother in the Ralph Fiennes film, and discuss some of my thoughts about the play.


CORIOLANUS is the story of a Roman military officer, Caius Martius, who receives the additional name of honor, Coriolanus, as a result of his amazing nearly single-handed victory over the Volscian city of Corioli. He thus becomes Caius Martius Coriolanus. Coriolanus is a very one-sided individual: he has extraordinary war skills but no political or people skills. As a result of his military victory in Corioli, Coriolanus is called by the Roman Senate to be consul, but he berates the common people, whose voices he also needs for election as consul, and his inability to connect with the common men and women ultimately leads to a sentence of exile from Rome.

Upon leaving Rome, shouting out to the multitude of Romans, "I banish you!" (Act III, Scene 3, Line 124) and "There is a world elsewhere" (Act III, Scene 3, Line 136), Coriolanus makes his way to the Volscian city of Antium, where he allies himself with his former arch-enemy, the Volscian military commander Tullus Aufidius, against Rome. The plea of Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia, moves Coriolanus to convince Aufidius to spare Rome, but Aufidius then kills Coriolanus as a traitor.


In the Ralph Fiennes film, Vanessa Redgrave plays Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus. Vanessa Redgrave is superb in this role. She conveys Volumnia's devotion to Rome, her deep pride in her son and his military prowess, her sorrowful dignity as her son so unnecessarily undoes himself with his anger against the common people, and her utter willingness to humble herself before her son and beg that he spare Rome. The lengthy but powerful scene where Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia pleads for Rome before Coriolanus is extraordinary.


In this section, I will write about thoughts that have struck me in reading, discussing, and seeing CORIOLANUS. I will focus on the fact that the main characters in the play glorify war. Shakespeare himself, however, does not glorify war. I would say that Shakespeare shows the consequences of warrior glorification run amok.

RIGIDITY. Coriolanus is extraordinarily one-sided. He seems to have one set of emotions: variations on anger. He displays hate for his arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, focused destructive intent against the Vocsians, contempt for the common people, scorn for his mother's urging of moderation, rage at accusations of traitor, coldness against the pleas of his closest friends for Rome to be spared. He seems incapable of accessing any variations of fear, sadness, or happiness. He also seems incapable of entertaining any point of view other than his own.

This rigidity undoes Coriolanus. To me, this is a principal insight to be gained from the play: rigidity leads to down-fall, in one way or another. For Coriolanus, it led to exile and then to death. I have seen rigidity lead to bitterness on the part of sons and daughters toward their parents. I have also seen rigidity lead to a narrowing of life's possibilities, to an inability to experience the fullness and richness of life.

Yes, there are times when one has to stand firm in doing what one believes to be right. But this can be done while also showing understanding of other points of view.

GLORIFICATION OF WAR RUN AMOK: Here are some ways that we see the glorification of war in CORIOLANUS.

  • Volumnia rejoices in her son's military exploits, whether he returns alive or dead, as long as he performs valiantly. (Act I, Scene 3, Lines 21-25)
  • Volumnia is pround to see her grandson, the young son of Coriolanus, scorn his studies and favor the sword and drum. (Act I, Scene 3, Lines 55-66)
  • The number of Coriolanus' battle wounds, twenty-seven, excites Volumnia. (Act II, Scene 1, Lines 142-152).
To me, this is glorification of war run amok. This is abject worship of Mars to the exclusion of all other deities or archetypes. This is the shadow side of the warrior: to glorify killing, to scorn the exploits of the mind, to rejoice in battle wounds.

Unfortunately, our planet, generally, has been in the grip of this Mars obsession for several millennia.

EROTICISM OF WAR. For the person obsessed with war, even the erotic becomes war-drenched. Here is what Tullus Aufidius says when his arch-enemy Caius Martius comes to join his side: "Know thou first, / I loved the maid I married; never man / Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here, / Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart / Than when I first my wedded mistress saw / Bestride my threshold" (Act IV, Scene 5, Lines 117-122).

Unfortunately, it seems that war and killing, especially in hand-to-hand combat, can be exhilarating. It can produce a real high.

OVERALL. Of course, there are other themes in Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS besides the ones I have mentioned here, but these are the ones that stand out to me.
  • The dangers of rigidity
  • The consequences of an obsession with war

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