Archive for the Coriolanus Category

O World, Thy Slippery Turns!

Posted in Coriolanus with tags , , , , , on 2010/03/16 by mattermind

Corliolanus, Acts IV-V

While normally I would break these up into separate entries, I confess that I couldn’t stop myself from bolting straight through to the finish.

And what a finish it was!  Not the ending I might have wished for… not the Hollywood ending that might have reeled in Russell Crowe (okay, I’ll let that go).  Not what I envisioned — not by a long shot.  But there’s a Greekness to this Roman tragedy… an Oedipal you-can’t-escape-your-destiny circularity that elevates the play to something more.

It’s as if Shakespeare were announcing his presence on the world-historical stage standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Sophocles, Aristophenes, Euripedes, Aeschylus… and the lesser Romans who followed.  Tragedy being a central component of Greek drama, this makes perfect sense.

These days, we’d be more likely to call it an “homage” — riffing the style of your predecessors in tribute if you’ve got the goods yourself (a la Shakespeare) or as a blatant ripoff artist if you don’t (names will not be mentioned).  Let’s just say that Shakespeare is operating well within the tropes of a genre established 2000 years before he elevated drama to the pinnacle that has not been eclipsed to this day.

Shakespeare then must have taken a craftsman’s delight in the poetic justice of the ending.  Dedicated student of the classics that he was (I know, it’s hard to think of Shakespeare — a classic himself — as being anybody’s student), he will have recognized how well the tragic elements blend with the best of the established genre.

But I prattle.  That’s because it’s hard to watch such a great figure come undone by the petty politics, jealousy and the underhanded machinations that they summon to sustain power.  And I guess what Shakespeare might be adding is that it doesn’t matter what side you’re on… human nature knows no boundaries or affiliations that will allow a good, honest man to escape the flaws of the social beast we are.

When we left Coriolanus, he had been booted from the city under drummed-up charges of treachery.  I love how Shakespeare in no way stints his portrait of the plebeians as anything less than fickle, listing from one side to the other like drunken pirates at sea under gale-force winds.

Their behavior reminds me of this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Shakespeare has them continually speaking in unison, just as in the crowd scene from Brian. Because they’re so flighty, the plebes don’t have a chance with the Tribunes who manipulate them to get what they want, all supposedly in the name of the people.

But no sooner is Coriolanus away and the city’s calm restored than a new threat has them under peril: for Coriolanus wastes no time in joining forces with his erstwhile nemesis, Aufidius, to wreak havoc on Rome in revenge.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Coriolanus must know that the odds of this working out are slim. Then again, he hasn’t got much of anything to work with after he has been cast out of his home. He would rather die with a bold act of bravery/stupidity than to wander around as a nomad or take a month to figure out what his life will be, as Cominius counsels.

Shakespeare had me completely fooled, however, in the willingness Aufidius shows to welcome in a man he could never defeat in battle. I quietly assumed it because of a mutual recognition of each other’s proficiency in battle — a player on the Red Sox acknowledging that without the Yankees, there could be no storied rivalry. A hearty “we’re stronger because of each other” rather than the “I won’t be happy till your dead” which characterized their prior relationship.

And to some extent that’s true. But Shakespeare makes a point of showing how Aufidius takes umbrage at the way Coriolanus excels in battle and treats him as a lesser rather than as an equal. To some extent, it’s drummed up by conspirators on his own side who don’t like the way Coriolanus has entered their fold and all but taken over. You can even understand why they might be jealous. Here’s a guy who wreaked massive devastation on their homeland just a fortnight ago, and now here he is leading them into battle.

What saves Coriolanus is his wrath and how it fuels him to larger-than-life status on the battlefield. I suppose it’s a little like Brett Favre joining the Vikings to take down the Green Bay Packers. What do you do if you’re a Vikings fan? How can you root for a guy who bested you so many times as a hated captain of the arch historic rivals? But hey, how that changes once he signs up to be on YOUR team!

As you might expect, the Corioles with Coriolanus in charge and Aufidius as his companion are an unstoppable force about to lay waste to Rome itself. It’s great fun watching the Tribunes poop in their pants as the ravaging locusts approach the gates of the city. And a scream to see how the plebeians change their tune about Coriolanus now that he is about to torch them where they live. It’s such a self-serving reversal that I have to quote it verbatim:

FIRST CITIZEN: For mine own part, when I heard “Banish him,” I said ’twas pity.
THIRD CITIZEN: And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very many of us. That we did, we did for the best; and though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will.

Only Menenius has the balls to say: If he were putting to my house the brand that should consume it, I have not the face to say, “Beseech you, cease.” Only he and Cominius are willing to accept the consequences for how the fates have turned.

The major turning point in the story comes, however, where you least expect it. Or at least where I didn’t expect it, not the way Coriolanus was bearing down on Rome hell bent for leather. The Tribunes have absolutely nothing to stop him except for pleas of mercy. Which of course they immediately resort to, having no abilities at battle themselves.

First Menenius is summoned and summarily dismissed by Coriolanus, all but handed his hat in his hands. To Menenaius’ continued credit, he wears this as a badge of honor, proof of how unswerving Coriolanus is to his purpose. He holds little faith that Coriolanus’ wife, mother and son will fair any better.

And yet, the unthinkable happens. Coriolanus relents. He calls off the quest for revenge, succumbing to the last-second bidding of his family, even though he — and they too really — know what this will surely mean for him.

I groaned at this calling off of the attack. Partly because I sensed it could not end well for Coriolanus… but also because it meant that the Tribunes and the plebes would likely get off scott free. Where’s the justice in that? At one point, Shakespeare has Brutus being dragged away by an angry mob about to be torn to shreds. But that all stops once word reaches the city that the women’s charms have prevailed.

Shakespeare lets us squirm. I don’t think he wants to let us off the hook with a feel-good ending that says that the weasels get their in the end. Because they don’t. We all know that. Just look around at the news lately. At the frauds and cheats who make off with their millions in bonuses and stock options. At the political shenanigans which thrive even with Obama in charge. Like anything really changes!

Both for this reason and because Shakespeare has bigger fish to fry — a much grander poetic scheme in mind — does he suffer Coriolanus to return to Corioles to meet his fate. You might assume it would come from the people there and the sense of betrayal they feel when Rome is not sacked after taking in the enemy; you might also think that the nobility in Corioles would question the decision to allow this man to have a leading role in the attack. But no — it comes through duplicity again, this time in the form of Aufidius. Unable to defeat his nemesis in battle, he stoops to political maneuverings to accuse Coriolanus of the same crime that undermined him at home — treachery!

Aha. It all starts to make sense now. Coriolanus is banished from Rome under the charge of treachery. He takes up arms with the enemy to gain revenge but relents, only to be charged by the enemy with the same false crime, only this time it does him in!

You can’t escape your fate, can you? It hearkens back to Hamlet (everything always does) when Hamlet says:

HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.

For his part, Coriolanus knew it was bound to come to this. At one point, he even sticks out his neck and offers it to Aufidius. His code was to live true or die hard, but honestly, as a man. Though he fell at the hands of treachery, it is Aufidius who will live on with the regret and sorrow. For never having bested his better in battle, he will have to endure the memory of having killed him at last by deceit.

Coriolanus at least stuck to his guns right through till the end.


You Common Cry of Curs

Posted in Coriolanus with tags , on 2010/03/15 by mattermind

Coriolanus, Act III: Scenes 1-3

It’s such a shame that Russell Crowe chose to play Robin Hood instead of finding a way to finagle the role of Coriolanus from Ralph Fiennes.  For while Mr. Fiennes may be a fabulous and talented actor, he can’t quite pull off a scene like this, which Shakespeare’s play all but begs for:

I’ve mentioned it before but I’ll say it again because it still holds true three acts in: Coriolaunus is riveting entertainment and an absolute stunner of a play. It should be handed forthwith to anybody proclaiming that reading Shakespeare is boring and lacking in action. Not that there should be many people out there who say that. But there are. Whole school districts in Australia, in fact. And not to pick on them either. Because the attack on “elite” values is so widespread in America, it can make you want to gouge your eardrums after awhile or hum na-na-na-na-na-na-na at high-pitched levels to ward off the audible cancer.

Coriolanus is in a heap of trouble, some of it his own doing. In Scene two, his mother makes a pitch to her son to calm down and play a little politics with the malleable masses. While she admits encouraging him to be a warrior, she deftly employs a battle metaphor to win him over. It’s all about strategy in her opinion. Even soldiers woo cities to avoid storming them. A little sweet talk to avoid direct confrontation now and then, or, as she puts it, “Action is eloquence.”

But what’s sooooooooo great about Coriolanus is that he has minuscule tolerance for this sort of thing. When he realizes the situation he has put himself and the nobility in, he relents a little and agrees to placate the fomented hordes… but he don’t like it. Not a bit. And he says as much:

CORIOLANUS: Well, I must do’t. Away, my disposition, and possess me some harlot’s spirit! My throat of war be turned, which quired with my drum, into a pipe small as an eunuch, or the virgin’s voice that babies lulls asleep! The smiles of knaves tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys’ tears take up the glasses of my sight! A beggar’s tongue make motion through my lips, and my armed knees, who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his that hath received an alms! I will not do’t, lest I surcease to honor mine own truth and by my body’s in action teach my mind a most inherent baseness.

Shakespeare sets this up brilliantly, with each character adding another layer to a full spectrum of opinions regarding the correct course of action that Coriolanus might take: Menenius as ever and always provides the voice of cool, calm reason. Volumnia, the mom, is tough but level-headed, aggressive but methodical, always angling for the Machiavellian tact. Cominius, the fellow field commander and consul before Coriolanus, speaks from experience and based on the most current information. The Senators flap in the breeze.

On the other side, however, you have Brutus and Sicinius, the two Tribunes who supposedly speak for the people. I say supposedly because they do more manipulating than representing, coaxing and guiding the crowds to serve the machinations from below. For it is Brutus and Sicinius who have the most to fear from Coriolanus as consul.

And that’s the central tragic irony guiding the play. Coriolanus has been prepared to lead his whole life, sacrificing body and soul to rise from within the ranks on the field of battle to one day command all of Rome. He has proved himself again and again, striving to be an asset to Rome, even as he gratifies the aspirations his mother instilled in him and harbors herself for his career.

The crucial scene is the third, when Coriolanus emerges to confront the angry mobs that have been incited by the Tribunes and his unwillingness to act conciliatory before he has approval to become the next consul. As he approaches in coached humility that he doesn’t himself feel, Coriolanus discovers that he’s being accused of treachery and with a likely sentence of death!!!

Once he hears that, he becomes inflamed like a bull that glimpses red, a shark with a whiff of blood. Treachery? Death? After proving himself worthy in almost every conceivable way? It’s simply too much for the man to take — and he really uncorks his fury.

My favorite line comes after the Tribunes sentence him to banishment instead of death. Just as I’m thinking, “Uh, oh — this will come back to haunt them!” I read this line… and think immediately of Russell Crowe again:

CORIOLANUS: You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate as reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air, I banish you!

OMG — it’s literally spine-tingling. “Crackling dialogue,” I wrote in my notes. And not just here — it’s everywhere in Coriolanus, bursting from every scene, every page, every line.

As they march Coriolanus to the gates of Rome to cast him out, the people have to be thinking, “I dunno about this…” If you’re going to be so supremely stupid as to toss out your most ferocious and brilliant commander during a period of uncertainty and danger, you had probably best finish the deed.

And they don’t.

What happens next, hmm? What happens, what happens?

Yep, a total snooze, that Shakespeare.

Ralph Fiennes to Direct Coriolanus

Posted in Coriolanus on 2010/03/11 by mattermind

Maybe it’s in the air… or maybe the topicality of the play hits home to more people than this lone blogger.  But the Los Angeles Times is reporting that Ralph Fiennes will make his directing debut with Corliolanus, set to shoot in Serbia next week.

He’s reportedly been trying to get the movie launched for the last two years, so I will refrain from taking any credit for pushing the project along, even in jest.  Call it synchronicity, serendipity, or just a a nice coincidence.  I’m happy the story will finally make it to the big screen.

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate.  And if the crew needs a production assistant or snarky Shakespeare hack, please note that I’m available.

Not that you couldn’t have guessed.


Politics Goeth Before a Fall

Posted in Coriolanus on 2010/03/10 by mattermind

Coriolanus, Act II: Scenes 1-3

As a preface to writing about Coriolanus, I want to emphatically state that I’m not interested in discussing the merits (or debacle) of partisan politics.  While it may infuriate me no end to watch the Senate filibuster while America burns, the endless shouting matches between left and right only serve to make matters worse.  We have to somehow tone down the tirades and create a true discourse, steering clear of AM radio shouting matches that only serve to reinforce what each side already believes.

That said, Coriolanus serves the topic perfectly.  I can’t believe schools around the country and all over the world aren’t using this play as an onramp to contemporary politics.  Maybe the setting in ancient Rome makes it seem esoteric to those who aren’t fond of the timeless quality of metaphors.  Maybe it’s because Shakespeare is supposed to be good for you, like taking your cod liver oil.  Maybe literature has lost its historic correlation to current events in this instantaneous age of Twitter and Facebook.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare once again is shockingly relevant to modern times, whether you feel like talking about an off-the-beaten-path play like Coriolanus or not.  In fact, it begs the question why we’ve shunted this play to the periphery.  I suppose when the high-water marks are Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet something has to give; even for a genius like the Bard, some form of prioritization must occur.

But still.  When the theme of the story attacks the question of whether a political leader ought to be judged by his merits or his popularity, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a time when that wouldn’t be germain to the public domain (I didn’t mean to rhyme that, but I got the FLOWZ.  Just don’t get me started.)

Coriolanus, let’s be clear, is an ass-kicker, a relentless warrior who would be far better off staying as far away from bureaucracy as he can.  The man is fearless, as Shakespeare made clear in Act I.  His mother raised him like the Spartans from 300: come back with your shield or on it.  I got chills reading this short, emphatic disparity between the two central women in his life — his wife and his mother — upon hearing that he may have been wounded in battle.

VIRGILIA (the wife) : O, no no no.

VOLUMNIA (the mother): O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t.

Holy crap.  No wonder he turned out the way he did!  Not only does he come from a high-achievement background, he was weaned on Gatorade for mother’s milk.  He was congratulated for his bumps and bruises.  Encouraged to get into brawls.  Kicked out of school for fighting?  Have a cookie.  Just win, baby.  And if you didn’t get injured, you didn’t try hard enough.

I’m curious why exactly Coriolanus was attracted to Virgilia.  She’s clearly dedicated to him, vowing to stay indoors and out of sight until he returns from battle.  And I’m sure she makes a lovely contrast after the Knute Rockney of a mom he has.  She seems gentle and kind, genuinely concerned that her husband get hurt on the job.  I guess I just answered my own question.

The key here to the second act, however, is the machinations on the political front.  Coriolanus is such a stud, and a rather modest sort to boot, that you might ask yourself how this man couldn’t possibly be qualified to assume a top leadership role in Rome (or at work, or basically anywhere).  But history and/or Shakespeare has burdened him with a fatal flaw: the man utterly detests politics.  He hates smiling in photographs, picking up babies, knocking on doors, chatting up the yokels who wouldn’t go near a battlefield if Paul Revere flashed a one-if-by-land and a yes-I-really-mean-this.

It may seem like a mixed metaphor to be throwing in an American Revolution reference, but I do it purposely because it calls to mind the early feuds between Jeffersonian and Washingtonian democrats (small d, people, chill).  For a refresher, you may recall that not everyone in Philly was down with the whole trust-the-masses concept that we all think America stands for.  The Electoral College obscurities we scratch our heads over every election cycle isn’t just there to give pundits a job on a certain Tuesday in November.

Many of the Founding Fathers didn’t trust the masses whatsoever and wanted the American government to take their foibles into account.  That’s one of the checks and balances that don’t really get stressed too often in high school civics class.  Because that dope-smoking moron blowing bubbles in the back row was one of the idiots that Jefferson feared wouldn’t have a damn thing to contribute to good governance.  Because he’d believe that town-hall meetings were authentic and Joe the Plummer wasn’t a sham.  That Sarah Palin was innocently writing books and not running for election right now. That the interests of people on Main Street really counted in the din of the fat-cat banking lobbyists who control the financial discourse in Washington.  That any healthcare plan inhibiting the pharmaceutical conglomerates has a prayer of passing.  Wait — is American Idol on tonight?

Coriolanus just wants to get things done.  His mistake here is accepting the idea of becoming a consul in the first place, because apparently there are a lot of riders attached, including rituals in which he must parade before the populace in a “humility” toga and wave his war wounds like a badge of honor so the people will love him.

Coriolanus doesn’t roll like that.  He politely gets up and walks out of the room when the Senators praise his merits.  He would absolutely drive his handlers crazy today if he were to run for office because you could never get him to say, “My name is Coriolanus, and I support this message.”  You couldn’t bring up all the great things he’s done for his country without embarrassing him a little.  Stop waving the flag around so much.  Take out that obvious lapel pin.  Haven’t his actions already spoken?  Hasn’t his conduct in battle already told you how much he loves his country?

Apparently not.  For though he’s the best man qualified to become consul, there are powers at work who would love to see him branded with a giant FAIL.  Who would rather undermine the country and deny it the most capable leader because of jealousy or who knows what.  Maybe it would set the bar too remarkably high for whoever follows.

So rather than welcome in the good man, the brave man, the fearless man, the virtuous man — and the man who disdains popular politics, remember — they have set their sights on undermining him with the populace at large, to make him seem prideful and self-serving and negligent of their interests.  A vote for Coriolanus is a vote for the elite.  A vote for Coriolanus is a vote for the grossly talented but out of touch.  A vote for Corliolanus is a vote against your interests.  You, the common folk.  The people who would be much better off with business as usual.  Served up by the other party who won’t do a damn thing for you in fact, but will play the usual games and make you think like they will.  They’ll just smile at you more while taking as much as they can from the till.

Who will it be, Rome?  The guy who wants real reform, but refuses to play political games with the powers that be?  Or the conniving guy who sounds convincing, but only pretends he’s a man of the people till he gets elected, after which nothing of substance gets done?

The choice is plainly obvious, isn’t it?

Give us Barabas.

Coriolanus: Change We Can Believe In

Posted in Coriolanus with tags , , , , on 2010/03/07 by mattermind

Coriolanus: Act 1: Scenes 1-10

I hate politics.

I remember watching the complete West Wing on DVD a few years ago in awe, admiring Martin Sheen’s character President Bartlett (Aaron Sorkin’s character, hey), and thinking, now why can’t we have a President like that?

When President Obama got elected and entered office, I marveled at how fact had exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. Could it really be happening? Were we finally entering an era of idealism and courage, of values, vision and determination unlike any we have seen since John F. Kennedy?

It’s now just over a year since the fairy-tale inauguration, and already I’m becoming bitter and sad, watching in horror as the Obama administration gets bogged down in the morass of health care and the neverending Republican filibusters that have all but paralyzed the hope and good will that flooded into Washington after the election.

When I think of politics now, this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind:

With the economy in turmoil, skyrocketing national debt, unemployment near double digits (and higher, depending on your own demographics), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not looking to end any time soon, banks continuing to hand out record bonuses to greedy bastards otherwise known as unscrupulous CEOs — it’s next to impossible to hold out hope anymore that real change is going to happen.

If Obama can’t do it, then who the hell can?

Maybe that’s why the opening to Coriolanus seemed so topical to me, even though it was written over 400 years ago. I’m discovering yet again that among his many extraordinary gifts, Shakespeare had the uncanny ability to see into the heart of matters central to the human experience. Though Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome and the characters are Latin, in many regards he could be talking about 21st Century America.

The play begins with the plebeians in revolt over the price of grain and the lack of political representation. It’s hard to tell right off the bat who is at fault in this scenario: the aristocratic Senatorial leadership for failing to maintain an adequate food supply or the people who are so fickle as to revolt as soon as their individual needs are not met.

It’s clear however that Coriolanus is talented, headstrong, fearless — and not all that great at the nuances of politics among the masses. The battle scenes where he virtually single-handedly quashed the revolt gave me chills. There is a bloodlust to his character, a fury bred into him by his mother of all people, who encouraged him to fight and attain glory from the earliest age.

I am reminded of the Spartans in 300, of Achilles in the Iliad — of a magnificent terror in the zeal for fighting this man has, but also his seeming inability to tame his warrior nature for the subtleties of leadership that are threatening to do him in at home.

Coriolanus as a play has a drive to it unlike any other I have read so far. I feel like I am watching an action movie and not, you know, “reading Shakespeare” for whatever that is supposed to mean.

We do such a disservice to Shakespeare in modern times by gilding his work as if it belonged in a museum. So many people have the mistaken idea that his plays are pompous or arrogant because they are challenging linguistically or operate on multiple levels simultaneously.

But at heart — at least so far — Coriolanus is a ripping yarn about starving masses in revolt and a ferocious leader who is likely to be done in by the intricacies of politics which he has no patience for.  I sit reading it with great joy and anticipation, munching on popcorn, asking myself what’s going to happen next?