Monday, November 20, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“CORIOLANUS” by William Shakespeare (probably first performed c.1608; first published in the First Folio in 1623)

As you may be aware from earlier postings, one of my hobbies is to read (or re-read) Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline plays. Thus I’ve written posts on George Chapman’s BussyD’Ambois, the anonymous Arden of Feversham, John Marston’s TheMalcontent, Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor, and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. But one scribbler of that age upon whom I have never ventured to comment is William Shakespeare. The reason is obvious. If you are the type of person who reads this blog, you have probably long since had your fill of Shakespearean criticism. Which one of his plays has not already been dissected, analysed, anatomised and eviscerated to death by hordes of busy critics? It would take a huge library to contain just one copy of every book, article and essay that has been published on the chap’s works.

Yet the heretical thought occurs to me that not all Bill’s works are of equal value, and not all have deserved the same amount of attention. If Shakespeare had written only the trashy Titus Andronicus (it enjoyed a brief revival of interest a few years back when a fashionably violent American production was filmed) or the lame Two Gentlemen of Verona or the yawnful Pericles, Prince of Tyre, he would be remembered, if at all, as a minor playwright of his age. If I were a sadist wanting to bore an audience rigid, I would force them to watch the painfully unfunny The Merry Wives of Windsor. Mind you, good and vigorous productions can redeem some of Sheakspeare’s weaker work. About fifteen years ago, in London, I saw a two-part, five-hour-long compression of Bill’s three Henry VI plays, generally regarded as his apprentice work, and it was dramatically gripping. (I note the recent British TV series The Hollow Crown also compressed the three Henry VI plays into two much briefer parts).

What interests me, though, is that between Shakespeare’s duds and his great tragedies and comedies (which everybody has seen, studied or read) there are many very good plays which are undervalued. Recently, when I was convalescing after leaving hospital, I told a friend that I would really enjoy listening to good, uncut recordings of some of Shakespeare’s plays. “Which ones? ” he asked, and I nominated five of these good, undervalued and more rarely-produced Shakespeare plays. They were Coriolanus, Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, Timon of Athens and The Winter’s Tale. Each of these I have seen (on stage or screen) only once or twice in my life, and each would be produced far more rarely than Shakespeare’s greatest hits.

So, after this long prologue (“More matter, less art,” I hear you muttering) I come to Coriolanus. Only twice in my life have I seen productions of this play. Once was a BBC TV production back in the 1980s, when they were filming the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The second time was on stage in London in 2000 at the Gainsborough Warehouse, with Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus and Barbara Jefford as his formidable mother Volumnia. (Fiennes much later appeared opposite Vanessa Redgrave in a film version, with a modernised setting, which I have not seen.) All the critics are agreed that Shakespeare’s play, probably written in 1607-08, was the Bard’s last real tragedy. All agree that, with some elaborations, it follows closely the story of Coriolanus as told in North’s translation of Plutarch (some speeches, such a Volumnia’s last pleading, copy North almost word for word). All agree that it is a complex political story that scrutinises the behaviour of both the ruling classes and the plebeians. T.S.Eliot regarded it as the most perfectly-formed play by Shakespeare. Yet, after all the praise, there is the awkward fact that it has never been a favourite with audiences. The famous Victorian actor-manager Sir Henry Irving, with his eye on the box-office, famously said that as a theatrical attraction Coriolanus was “not worth a damn”. 

As I listened to a good uncut-text recording of Coriolanus, and followed the text in  G.R.Hibbard’s Penguin edition, I kept asking myself why this carefully-plotted play, which reaches a genuinely wrenching conclusion, should be so under-esteemed. I think I now know why, but I will save my brilliant conclusion until later.

First, to orient you, one of my inevitable synopses.

Coriolanus is set very early in the history of the Roman Republic, not long after the last Tarquin king has been driven out, but many centuries before Rome is a great imperial power. Essentially Rome is a little state on the Italian peninsula, sometimes at war with other little states and tribes, such as the Volscians.

Caius Martius is a young military commander who is also fiercely patrician (aristocratic) and a despiser of the plebeians (lower classes). War is his trade, in which he has been encouraged by his proud mother Volumnia, who says he is never so noble as when he returns from victory covered in wounds and scars. It is clear from the play’s very opening scene that the plebs already know how much Caius Martius despises them. They are on the point of rioting for bread, and name Caius Martius as their enemy. Caius’ more tactful friend Menenius tries to calm them down with the famous (infamous?) fable of the belly and the members; but when Caius Martius himself enters, his speech is inflammatory. (His first words in the play are “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion / Make yourselves scabs? ” I, i). It is fortunate for Caius that at this point war breaks out with the Volscians, whose commanding general is Tullus Aufidius. Caius and his fellow commanders Lartius and Cominius go off to lead their troops. Caius fights brilliantly. In a crucial engagement, he alone fights his way into the gates of the Volscian city Corioles and is able to deliver it over to the Romans. (Later in the play he will boast “Alone I did it!”) For this feat, he earns the official name Coriolanus.

Coming back to Rome (Act 2), Coriolanus is greeted as a hero by patrician and plebeian alike, and it is clear that the senators want to make him consul. But there is a catch. For his consulship to be confirmed, he has to get the approval of the plebeians. And the traditional way of doing this is to ask publicly for their support. This notion disgusts Coriolanus – that he, an aristocrat, should have to ask the approval of the stinking rabble to win a position of authority! Under duress, and having been advised by his more temperate friends to be tactful, Coriolanus goes to the public place where he must seek the plebs’ votes. But (in one of the play’s best scenes, II iii), when the commoners suggest in a friendly way that they will support him, he can’t restrain himself from answering sarcastically and patronisingly. Even so, the puzzled citizens still confirm him as consul. But as soon as he leaves the stage, the two Tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus enter. We have known since the beginning of the play that these supposed guardians of the plebs’ rights are no friends of Caius Martius Coriolanus, and they begin to work on the commoners, reminding them of Coriolanus’s contempt for the lower classes and getting them to withdraw their support for Coriolanus’ consulship.

Comes the climax (Act 3). The senate is about to confirm Coriolanus’ position when the Tribunes now say that the plebs’ have withdrawn their support. Menenius and others once again beg Coriolanus to show tact, go back to the plebeians and this time act with courtesy. But Sicinius and Brutus deliberately goad Coriolanus and stir him up by calling him a traitor to the people. The word “traitor” is the real trigger to one who regards himself as the patriotic champion of his country. Coriolanus bursts out with invective, and the result is, he is banished from Rome as an enemy of the people. At this point even his mother Volumnia urges him to once again win the plebeians over diplomatically, but Coriolanus will have none of it. Petulantly he cries to the plebs “You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate / As reek o’th’rotten fens, whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air – I banish you.” (III iii)

In banishment outside Rome (Act 4), Coriolanus suddenly declares “My birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon / This enemy [Volscian] town.” (IV iv)  He meets with the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius. In two of the longer speeches in the play (IV v), each praises the other’s military skill – whereupon, with little preparation, Coriolanus says he will join the Volscians and war against Rome. Aufidius accepts his offer and Coriolanus swears an oath on it. He proceeds to attack and pillage outlying Roman settlements, being much admired by the Volscian soldiers. (Before Act 4 is over, however, we know that Aufidius is jealous of him, does not really trust him, and would be happy to destroy him in due course.) As Coriolanus approaches, there is panic in Rome, with Menenius rebuking the Tribunes for goading Coriolanus and the fickle plebeians now saying they were tricked by the Tribunes into withdrawing their support from him.

Comes nemesis. The Romans (Act 5) send out emissaries pleading with Coriolanus to relent and withdraw his troops. His old fellow-commander Cominius he refuses even to meet. He sends Menenius away after a few curt words. Finally his mother Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, his young son, and their friend Valeria go out to meet him. In a scene of great emotional intensity (Viii), one of Shakespeare’s greatest, Volumnia shames him with reminders of his duty to his country. Coriolanus is moved to tears by both Volumnia’s speech and Virgilia’s pleas. (Even the Volscian commander Aufidius admits to himself that he is moved, though he later mocks Coriolanus as “thou boy of tears.”) Coriolanus relents, withdraws his troops, and goes back to the Volscian capital, naively believing he will still be honoured as one who has bloodied Rome’s nose and brought back booty. But he has also broken his oath to Aufidius, and betrayed the Volscians as he betrayed Rome. (“Who really trusts a Judas?” I can’t help wondering.) Aufidius easily gathers together a gang of “conspirators” who stab Coriolanus to death. Aufidius speaks his eulogy: “Beat thou the drum, that it speak mournfully. / Trail your steel pikes. Though in this city he / Hath widowed and unchilded many a one, / Which to this hour bewail the injury, / Yet he shall have a noble memory.”

At the very end, Coriolanus’ “nobility” (in both the social and moral sense) is recalled and we are invited to see him as a tragic hero. But in what way is he tragic? Is it because he was destroyed when he at last yielded to the human qualities of mercy and fellow-feeling for his family and compatriots? Or is it because his nobility and martial qualities couldn’t be accommodated by lesser mortals? Or was he simply killed by his own foolish aristocratic pride, class feeling, intransigence and refusal to compromise?

After experiencing the play, I ploughed through John Dover Wilson’s wordy introduction (written in the 1950s) in the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition. Wilson characterises Coriolanus as  “dour and violent-tempered, little more than a boy in years, but a giant in strength… who understood neither himself nor anyone else so that both leadership and compromise were beyond him.” Wilson spills much ink splitting hairs over whether Coriolanus suffers from “pride” or has simply a highly developed sense of “honour”. He also insists that Coriolanus is “boyish” and emotionaly immature; and begins to grow as an adult only when Volumnia and Virgilia makes their appeals to him. For Wilson, it’s a major flaw in the play that Coriolanus’ sudden alliance with the Volscians and intention to destroy Rome are not satisfactorily explained. The best explanation Wilson can devise is the idea that Coriolanus feels his loneliness from his kin as a desertion by them. (This seems very much to endorse Coriolanus’ petulant cry “I banish you!”)

G.R.Hibbard’s 1967 Penguin edition says this is “a play of action, not reflection” and remarks (truthfully, I think) that “almost devoid of lyricism, the poetry of Coriolanus has a hard, stony, metallic timbre”. What Hibbard does well is to note the political parallels between the world of the play and Shakespeare’s England. He notes that many Jacobean noblemen and students at the Inns of Court would have endorsed fully Coriolanus’ railing against the lower orders – but he also notes that the appeals of the Tribunes to the plebs are very much like the demagogic way elections to the Commons were conducted.

This brings us to what is for many the key issue of the play. What is it saying politically?

When I take William Hazlitt’s  Characters of Shakespear’s [sic] Plays off my shelf, I find Hazlitt rebuking Shakespeare for seeing things too much the aristocrat’s way, and endorsing an aristocratic bully as a tragic hero.  Hazlitt remarks: “Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people; yet, the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country.” Others, however, have seen the play as showing the hollowness of military pride – Coriolanus is the miles gloriosus (boastful soldier), despite his real military skill.

The fact is, the play is fully capable of two diametrically opposite readings. EITHER Coriolanus is a noble man who will use all his talents in the service of the state but will never compromise with the grubbiness and deceit of politics: OR he is an immature man, dominated by his mother and a bad upbringing, who is a threat to the state because he is incapable of seeing the common people’s point of view. As Coleridge said, Shakespeare is really impartial. It is not adequate to see this as a play of an arrogant man who cannot work with plebeians and regards their praises as insults. The Tribunes are demagogues who work up the people. The crowd becomes a mob. The mob is fickle – now fearing Coriolanus, now hailing him for his victories, now giving him their vote, now being persuaded to withdraw their vote, now cursing the people who persuaded them to withdraw their vote etc etc. Coriolanus has brief moments of political shrewdness, as when he says “my soul aches / To know, when two authorities are up, / Neither supreme, how soon confusion / May enter ‘twixt the gap of both and take / The one by th’other.” (III i) In other words, he is aware that a state with divided authority will be weakened. And yet Coriolanus does eventually commit treason and become an enemy to his country – something that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have seen as a trivial matter.

So, after all this careful balance and careful plotting on Shakespeare’s part, why did Henry Irving say Coriolanus was “not worth a damn” as a theatrical attraction, and why has it never been a favourite with audiences?

My own theory is that, while some have seen Coriolanus as a hero, this is a play that does not invite us to identify with the main character, or to see the world with his eyes. Only two or three times in the play does Coriolanus speak soliloquies, and they are brief and are reactions to immediate events. In effect, we never hear his innermost thoughts – and perhaps there are no innermost thoughts to hear. I set much store by the fact that this was Shakespeare’s last real tragedy. Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear – and even Othello, if only in the second half of his play – all unfold their minds to us. Coriolanus does not. He is a public figure only, rather forbidding, rather unapproachable. This was almost certainly Shakespeare’s intention as he balanced off one of his most schematic plays. But it does not allow us to warm to the hero, whose worst railings will always seem like sheer abuse to much of the audience.

Modern political footnote: Despite not being a favourite with audiences, Coriolanus has sometimes acted as a magnet to producers, directors and re-writers of a political bent. Coriolanus himself can be re-framed as a potential Fascist dictator, or as the strong man who is a necessary corrective to feeble and corrupt democracy. 

In France in 1933-34, when a centre-left government was crumbling after a financial scandal, the Comedie Francaise staged a (slightly re-written) version of Coriolanus, directed by Emile Fabre, which played up the nobility and command of Coriolanus and the gullibility of the democratic rabble. This was a great favourite with extreme right-wingers, royalists and Fascists, and there was almost a riot in the theatre as their cheers were answered by the cat-calls and whistles of left-wingers in the audience. This was in the months before the big riot of February 1934, when the right-wing soldiers’ leagues fought the police and called for a more authoritarian government. [Photograph of this production shown above - the Roman salutes are interesting.]

At the other end of the political spectrum, it is known that at the time of his death in 1956, the Communist Berthold Brecht was working on a re-write of Coriolanus which would present the Tribunes as genuine guardians of the workers’ rights in opposition to a Fascist general. Brecht never finished his re-write, but another German writer took a well-aimed crack at Brecht. In the early 1960s, Gunther Grass’s play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, depicted a theatrical director in East Berlin in 1953 called “the Boss” (clearly based on Brecht) rehearsing his version of Coriolanus at the very time Communist tanks are crushing a real workers’ uprising. In effect, the play points to Brecht’s failure to make any public gesture of support for workers in a genuinely revolutionary situation. Brecht apologists at this point lose their tempers and point to a sarcastic poem about the Communist government which Brecht wrote – but which was never published in his lifetime – and to a very mild rebuke which he sent to the Communist government, but which criticised only their methods, while supporting their act of suppression. Again, Brecht’s very mild rebuke was not published in his lifetime, so it remains true that Brecht, in 1953, made no public gesture of support for the workers.

More recently, there have been a number of modern-dress productions of Coriolanus (including the movie starring Ralph Fiennes) which clearly intend to draw parallels with modern events, but they do not alter the fact that politically, Shakespeare’s play itself does not take sides.

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