The Bard Brawl has, over the course of seven years, read aloud the entirety of William Shakespeare’s canon of plays. As co-captain of the Bard Brawl, I would like to just give a huge shout out of props to all brawlers who have come along for the ride.
The Merchant of Venice is a tragicomic tale of hypocrisy, pride and revenge, and Michael Radford’s beautiful production is a subtle and faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s ambiguous and highly controversial play.
Though ultimately it serves as a compelling case for mercy and the value of love, The Merchant of Venice has, over the centuries, come to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, thanks in no small part to the cruel and complex depiction of the Jew Shylock, portrayed by Al Pacino.
While he acknowledges the inherent judeophobia of the time, Radford (1984, Il Postino) takes great care in bookending the piece with scenes that help impart a deeper context than may have been evident to modern audiences in the original text.
In a written prologue added by Radford, we are told of the pitiful conditions in which the Jewish community lived in 16th century Venice, confined to guarded ‘gettos’ and forbidden from owning land. Shylock himself describes in detail the pains which he has suffered at the hands – and feet – of the Christian bourgeoisie. In fact, there are several passages in the play which point to the hypocrisies of the ruling class and which highlight the humanity of the oppressed. All this only serves to amplify the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and to further the case for Shylock as a tragic figure.
The infamous debt at the heart of the story involves Antonio, a nobleman who has agreed to take out a loan from Shylock on behalf of his bankrupt young friend Bassanio, to help him in the pursuit of the beautiful Portia. Though highly sought after, Portia may only select a suitor by means set out to her by her late father, and Bassanio wants to make a worthy impression. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with one of Bassanio’s men, never to return, and they all sail to Portia’s court. As Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage, Shylock slips into a depression. When Antonio is unable to repay his debt, Shylock vows to avenge the injury dealt to him by exacting the horrific – though lawful – execution of his bond.
In his portrayal of Shylock, Pacino is at the top of his game, delivering the famous ‘hath not a jew eyes?’ speech with empathy and his trademark unrestrained passion. He is aptly matched by, the sexually ambiguous Jeremy Irons as frail Antonio, the title merchant who is sworn by bond to deliver a pound of flesh to his creditor. The cast is rounded out by the excellent Lynn Collins as Portia, who delivers an equally well-known speech on the ‘quality of mercy’, and Joseph Fiennes as her suitor Bassanio (Antonio’s lover?). There is also a number of highly skilled comic actors who step in to fill the play’s many clown parts.
Add to that an exquisite production design by the late Bruno Robeo and costume design by Sammy Sheldon to imbue the story with texture and atmosphere. Venice’s inimitable canals and unique architecture are on full display here, and lend an authenticity to the film which enhances the moral and historical undertones of the source material.
The Merchant of Venice is a problematic play for a variety of reasons, and poses many challenges to would-be performers. Little wonder then that it had never been filmed (with sound) before this. With his production, Radford and co. succeed in delivering a nuanced and intelligent reading of Shakespeare’s text, while managing to create a detailed visual palette to serve as its backdrop.
Andre Simoneau is a first line bard brawler and regularly reads for the Bard Brawl podcasts.
The tragedy of Coriolanus is that a brutish man, prone to burst of violence can be undone by an act of compassion towards those he loves.
Director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan make the choice to trim down Shakespeare’s text, conveying that tragedy visually, while creating a film adaptation of the play that is not restrained by absolute faithfulness to the source material.
Fiennes stars at Gaius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general, whose skills as a warrior makes him something of an anti-hero among the people whom he has open contempt for. They love and hate him within the same scene at times. The scowl on Fiennes face makes his every word seem like it comes from pure rage. His performance gives the film an intensity that would otherwise be lost on stage. He doesn’t even need to spit out the Bard’s words or stab an enemy for the viewer to know that he is a man fueled by anger. A simple glare conveys all we need to know about him.
Early in the film, Coriolanus, after brutally killing an enemy, emerges victorious, walking towards a group of soldiers, his face streaked with blood, almost like war paint. There is no doubt that this is a man who will fight to his last breath, and that makes him a compelling character to watch. Fiennes’ performance can evoke sympathy from the viewer, even when he is at his most monstrous.
His mother, Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave and his wife Virgilia, played by Jessica Chastain, allow Fiennes tender moments in between his bursts of violence and anger. They are his Achilles heel, and yet the only thing that really makes the character anything else than a single-minded warrior.
Redgrave steals most scenes. She gives a tender and powerful performance, showing the strength of a determined, politically minded woman and the compassion of a mother at the same time, while Chastain does her best, but is rarely captivating. Chastain is usually a solid actress, but her performance seems underwhelming when compared to heavy hitters such as Fiennes, Redgrave and Brian Cox as the Roman Senator Menenius. She seems to drop the ball on more than one occasion and often fades into the background.
Performances make or break any Shakespeare film and there can be very little room for weak links in the chain.
Although the film is set in some place called Rome, Coriolanus was shot in Belgrade, Serbia, and the location works well, especially after Coriolanus’ exile. He is shown walking through the cold, gray towns, conveying the harshness of his expulsion in a way only an Eastern European shooting location provides.
The film is transposed into modern day times, where swords become automatic weapons, and discussions between citizens in the play become television news panels. This modernizing of the play gives the film modern day significance, especially when exploring the idea of a patriot exploited by politicians for their own gain, and what happens when they can no longer control that patriot. Coriolanus is a wild guard dog that can never be made to behave, and it’s no wonder that as soon as he develops political aspirations, the politicians turn against him because they are afraid he is going to bite them. They are soon faced with the choice of putting the dog to sleep or casting him out into the wilderness.
Coriolanus is especially strong when we see the titular character unleashed. The film is bloody, as any Shakespearean tragedy should be, but not gratuitous. The violence is never artsy, but brutal in a way that a dogfight can be. The handheld shots of Fiennes stabbing enemies give the brutal scenes of violence a frenetic energy that conveys Fiennes rage. The most effective fight scene is the first between Martius and Tullus Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler. Close, tight shots of Martius and Aufidius, wrapped around each other, almost in a bear hug, are reminiscent of a UFC fight at its bloodiest, and if they were given knives. With bombs going off in the background, the fight scene makes it seem like the entire war is being fought by two men.
Although Fiennes’ film takes certain liberties with the source material, it is loyal to Shakespeare’s vision, capturing the tragedy of a man that has become a killing machine, manipulated by the politicians, lauded as a hero and loved by his family, but lost in his own hate.
It is the Shakespeare film for the person who doesn’t usually like Shakespeare. It’s a compelling piece of work that tries to stand apart from typical film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, and succeeds as a film by being quiet, relying on the performances of the actors rather than the words of the immortal Bard.
The more popular Julius Caesar is a parade of speeches delivered by master orators. Coriolanus though is a much messier play where dialogue, not monologue, is the norm. That makes it hard to decide where a selection should start and stop which means that I’m sure your favourites were unceremoniously sacrificed or cut short in the making of the show. But fear not! They’re still hale and whole in our five last Coriolanus podcasts. Subscribe on iTunes or download them from this blog to find out what you’ve missed!
“Hail, noble Marcius!”Act I, Scene 1 lns. 173-215 Speakers: Meneniuns, Caius Martius (Coriolanus), Second Citizen
Caius Martius barges in on this scene of civil unrest. While Menenius has been trying to appease the crowd, Martius tells them that he’d rather kill the lot of them than negotiate with them. He also suggests that while the people are quick to assume the food shortage is artificial – that the nobles are hoarding food at their expense – Coriolanus suggests that the people of Rome have done nothing to merit a dole of grain but take to the streets in protest when they should be out fighting Rome’s enemies. Are we swayed by Martius’ argument or does the play’s initial sympathy for the common people make Martius into a despot?
“How many stand for consulships?”Act II, Scene 2 lns. 1-36 Speakers: First Officer, Second Officer
Two officers, sent ahead to the Capitol to put cushions on the patricians’ seats, are speaking about Coriolanus’ nomination to the post of consul. This exchange, and others like it, are central to Coriolanus. The play is not so much about portraying Coriolanus’ actions for their own sake but rather it is about how we should interpret those actions, about the place of Coriolanus’ name in history. Is Coriolanus a victim of history, or of his pride? Should he be reviled as a tyrant or is he a hero of the Roman Republic? Is he the ultimate Stoic or a brat?
“We do it not alone, sir.”Act II, Scene 1 lns. 32-49 Speakers: Brutus, Menenius, Sicinius
This one of many exchanges where the tribunes have at it with the patrician Menenius. Menenius reminds the tribunes of their insignificance and takes them for self-serving and petty politicians. They remind Menenius that he’s got a reputation for drinking. However, Menenius sees nothing wrong with a good drink in its proper time and place. This offers an interesting contrast between two political philosophies: Menenius as the old order, the tribunes as the new. Can we tell where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie?
“It is a mind that shall remain a poison…”Act III, Scene 1 lns. 115-145 Speakers: Sicinius, Coriolanus, Cominius
Coriolanus has so many amazing lines, particularly in act III, but this is one of my favourites. Coriolanus is clearly interested in mocking and abasing the common people, but is he wrong in what he says? It seems to me that he makes a valid point: when two parties struggle for leadership, it weakens the states to outside threats. What is particularly interesting in this passage is that his remarks are addressed as much to the patricians as to the plebeians. While he describes the tribunes as the leader of a school of tiny fish and as two of the heads of the fire-breathing Hydra, he’s also quick to point out that in some ways the patricians are no better. Either they have no real authority – and should stop pretending – or they should flex their muscles and stop giving in to the tribunes’ demands.
“All places yield to him ere he sits down…”Act IV, Scene 7 lns. 30-61 Speaker: Tullus Aufidius
Menenius and Aufidius are possibly the two individuals who have the clearest understanding of Coriolanus’ character, of his strengths and weaknesses. In this speech, Aufidius paints a portrait of a Coriolanus seemingly able to conquer through force of will and presence. But even as he praises Coriolanus the soldier, he identifies the tragedy of Coriolanus’ story: so long as he can wage war, his greatness is uncontested but his inability to adapt his behaviour to new situations – to peace – mean that his greatness will be eclipsed by his own insistence on his greatness.
“Nay, go not from us thus.”Act V, Scene 3 lns. 152-212 Speakers: Volumnia, Coriolanus
Volumnia, Valeria, Virgilia and Young Martius stand before Coriolanus and beg him to spare Rome. Coriolanus makes to leave but his mother calls him back. In a last-ditch effort to sway him, they kneel in front of him. They make a show of being resigned to die with their neighbours in the his pending attack. Volumnia then suggests that Coriolanus is a bastard Volscian and as he is finally moved to make peace between the Volsces and Rome. In the end, does Volumnia move him to compassion or – as his mother suggests – is his renouncing his war on Rome just another selfish act to preserve the integrity of his name to history?
Let us know what you think!
Next week, prepare for our first ever sonnets podcast. Daniel and I will discuss Shakespeare’s sonnets 1 through 5, read each week by our wonderful sonneteers. You won’t want to miss it!
The last act ended one a conspiratory note where we overheard Tullus Aufidius and one of his lieutenants plotting Coriolanus’ downfall. However, in act V, scene I, we leave Aufidius to his scheming and turn our attention back to Rome. Cominius returns from his visit to the Volscian camp where he has pleaded with Coriolanus to lay down his arms and not strike against Rome. He gives the gathered tribunes and patricians a play by play of his petition but his mission is a failure: Coriolanus will not cease his hostile actions against Rome. Furthermore, he appears to have broken all of his bonds of affection with Rome and its citizens. He has become a relentless juggernaut of war. With few options available to them, the Romans convince Menenius – Coriolanus’ closet friend – to journey to the Volscian camp and see if he can leverage their friendship into compassion for Rome.
When Menenius arrives at the Volscian camp in scene 2, he is initially denied access to Coriolanus by the sentinels standing guard outside the camp. (Curiously enough, these are also identified as Senators in our online edition.) They say that Coriolanus has no interest in speaking with anyone from Rome. Menenius argues with them that Coriolanus will want to hear from him given their long friendship but they only respond that he should hate Rome, as Coriolanus does, because they banished its greatest warrior. Aufidius and Coriolanus arrive on the scene, drawn by the sound of the argument at the gates. Menenius tries to plead his case but Coriolanus tells him that he has cut all ties with Rome and won’t hear another word. He does, however, hand him a letter before sending him on his way.
After Cominius and Menenius’ failure to talk Coriolanus out of taking his vengeance on Rome, the desperate Romans go to their backup plan and send in the women: Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, his son (young) Martius, and Valeria, a friend of the family. Coriolanus has just sworn not to listen to any more petitions from Rome when they three women and the boy Martius are lead into the camp at the start of scene 3. Coriolanus swears to act “As if a man were author of himself,” as if his family was of no significance to him and he exists in the world unfettered by relationships. At first, he stands his ground but when the women kneel and Volumnia pleads with him he finds himself unable to remain unmoved. He agrees to broker a peace between the Volscians and the Romans but in convincing him to stand down, Coriolanus believes his mother has doomed him.
In scenes 4 and 5, the Romans receive the good news that they won’t be crushed beneath Coriolanus’ war machine thanks to the pleas of the three women. It seems Menenius is mistaken and that Coriolanus does, in fact, have “more mercy / in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” The news arrives just in time because the angry plebeians have captured the tribune Junius Brutus and are threatening to kill him slowly for having banished Coriolanus. As the people welcome the women home, they repeal his banishment.
Coriolanus, however, is not returning home in scene 6. As he has sworn to serve as a soldier to the Volscian cause, he returns to Antium to continue his service as well as to deliver the final terms of the peace treaty he has negotiated on behalf of the Volsces. Before he arrives, Tullus Aufidius has prepared a letter for the Volscian in which he accuses Coriolanus of being a traitor to the Volscian cause. Aufidius is worried that if he allows Coriolanus to address the people he will be able to sway them from sentencing him to death and se he decides to strike Coriolanus before he can give an account of his actions. Coriolanus presents the lords of Antium with the treaty but Aufidius tells them not to read it. He and his men fall upon Coriolanus and kill him. In the aftermath, Aufidius tells them that he just saved them from danger by killing Coriolanus. Moments later, he orders his body to be carried out and buried with honours.
The final act of Coriolanus seems like a bit of a letdown in the end. The tension builds in the first few scenes until at last the women talk him out of waging war and return to the city to great acclaim. The final scene in particular is very disappointing. Coriolanus returns to the city and before he can do anything, he’s once again accused of treason. He’s unceremoniously murdered by Aufidius and his lackeys and then, in the same breath, his body is carried off-stage and the play ends. This is actually an interesting trend we’ve noticed while reading our way through Shakespeare’s plays. A lot of them are really rockin’ through the first four-and-a-half acts but then they wrap up awkwardly or suddenly in a way that’s really unsatisfying or downright confusing. Either Shakespeare wasn’t good with endings or there’s something we haven’t quite understood about what made for a good ending in the late 16th century.
For instance, the short speech which caps this play, in which Aufidius claims to regret his actions, seems totally disingenuous. Is that intentional on Shakespeare’s part? While we’ve seen all of Aufidius’ plotting behind the scenes and have every reason to distrust his words, the lords of Antium have not. It’s likely he’s not saying these words for our benefit but for that of the Volscian lords in attendance. That would paint him as a sort of ‘Noble Brutus’ – the one who kills Julius Caesar because he believes him to be a tyrant, not the tribune Brutus in Coriolanus – who kills Coriolanus to avoid a greater danger to the Volsces.
It’s also interesting that Shakespeare ends the play here because in Plutarch, we learn that after Coriolanus’ death some of the Volsces’ other enemies saw their chance to attack them and picked them to pieces. Tullus Aufidius is eventually killed and the Volsces never recover. They’re eventually conquered by the Romans, making Coriolanus’ death one of the factors in the Roman Republic’s early expansion. Still, does Coriolanus in fact “have a noble memory”? Not so sure.
In our next podcast, we’ll be revisiting some of our favourite speeches from Coriolanus. If you have any passages you’d like us to discuss, please leave us a comment!
Also, don’t forget to check in on some of our Brawlers:
Act III ends with Coriolanus turning his back on Rome. In act IV, scene 1 he takes his leave of his friends and family. Coriolanus predicts that the people of Rome will miss him when he’s gone and Rome is once again threatened. Of course, he doesn’t say that he’ll be the one to lead the troops to its doors!
Act IV, scene 2 is another short scene. The tribunes of the people, having successfully banished Coriolanus from Rome, dismiss their mob. They spot Volumnia and Menenius and try to avoid them but Coriolanus’ mother makes straight for them and gives them a piece of her mind before they beat a hasty retreat.
The next scene recaps some of the information we already know: Coriolanus has been banished from Rome and the divided people of Rome are ripe for the picking. Is this for the benefit of some of the people in the audience who maybe haven’t been paying attention? Or is this just Shakespeare’s way of explaining how the Volsces know what’s going on in Rome?
Coriolanus’ wanderings have led him through the gates of Antium, right to Tullus Aufidius’ house. In act IV, scene 4, he approaches in disguise and in act IV, scene 5 makes his presence known to the servants of the household. Thinking he’ some vagrant, they refuse him access to the house. After beating one of the servants, Aufidus comes to investigate. He doesn’t recognize Coriolanus at first, who slowly reveals his face to Aufidius. Throughout the scene Tullus Aufidius keeps asking him for his name until at last Coriolanus identifies himself as the conqueror of Corioles. He explains how he has been betrayed by his city and offers up either his life or his service to Tullus Aufidius. Tullus Aufidius welcomes him with open arms and offers him half of his forces to exact his revenge and crush Rome beneath his boot for the Volsces. In one of the few funny moments of the play, Aufidius’ servants suddenly all claim to have known that Coriolanus was not some bum but a noble person.
We return to Rome for scene 6. Brutus and Sicinius are busy gloating to Menenius about how much betters things are now that Coriolanus is gone. However, while they are vaunting the great peace Coriolanus’ exile has brought to Rome, messengers arrive with some grim news: Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius have joined forces and are heading for Rome. Ooops. Menenius and Cominius make it clear that this is all the tribunes’ fault but the tribunes try to quiet the people by suggesting that this is something the patricians have made up. The tribunes follow the patricians to the Capitol to confirm the news.
Act IV ends with a short scene involving Tullus Aufidius and one of his lieutenants. Seems that Coriolanus is more popular with the troops than Aufidius anticipated. The Lieutenant suggests that if Aufidius doesn’t do something soon, he’ll be eclipsed by Coriolanus’ legend. Aufidius realizes that he can’t do anything yet or they might not succeed in the campaign against Rome but hints that Coriolanus’ pride will give him the leverage he needs to get rid of him once their war is done.
One of the most interesting scenes in this act is the initial encounter between Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius. As I mentioned above, when Coriolanus first arrives at Tullus Aufidius’ doorstep, Aufidius does not recognize him. He asks him several times to name himself but Coriolanus appears to say nothing at first. When he is not recognized, he starts dropping hints, suggesting that his name is “unmusical to the Volscians’ ears, / And harsh in sound to thine.” Aufidius doesn’t get the hint and while he seems to recognize some noble quality in Coriolanus, he asks him again for his name. Coriolanus again delays and tells him to “Prepare thy brow to frown.” He still doesn’t recognize him and at last Coriolanus reveals himself in a lengthy speech in which he reveals his entire recent history and his desire for vengeance. But why play this revelation game at all?
Coriolanus is the name he was given after he (almost) single-handedly conquered Corioles. Cominius will later, in the epic act V, describe how Coriolanus refuses to answer to ‘Coriolanus.’ After all, how can he still consider himself Coriolanus when he’s now fighting on the same side as the people who, not too long ago, he conquered? For Coriolanus, names represent action, and his past actions are his identity. When he’s exiled from Rome, his name ‘Coriolanus’ loses its meaning and by extension, so does the man called ‘Coriolanus:’ he becomes “a kind of nothing, titleless” who refuses all names. Coriolanus’ logic is simple but brutal: what is left for this juggernaut of war when his titles and history have been rendered obsolete, or when he has been displaced by ungrateful politicians? To forge himself a new name in the ashes of Rome.
As always, we’re looking forward your comments!
Also, you should visit Stephanie’s website here to see some of her awesome art!
(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)
Over the past two shows the Brawlers have brought up T.S. Eliot a number of times. He rather famously claimed that Coriolanus, and not Hamlet (as is commonly thought), is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. This Slate article looks at T.S. Eliot’s claim. There’s a link to Eliot’s original essay “Hamlet and His Problems” in the article, if you’re curious to read it first hand.
For those of you who won’t read the article (shame on you!), here’s a little synopsis of Eliot’s position: he argues that Hamlet is a bad play with a defective plot that barely holds together. He considers it an unfinished work, barely cobbled together. According to Eliot, the only reason Hamlet’s so popular is because others (Coleridge, notably) have written in a whole psychology and depth to the character which Eliot thinks was never there to begin with. Coriolanus, on the other hand, is all action and (according to Eliot) is one of Shakespeare’s best plotted plays. (As in, the plot and the timeline sort of makes as is.)
While I’m not sure I can agree that a better plot makes for a better tragedy, he wouldn’t be the first to argue that. Here’s a short outline of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy from the Poetics: you’ll note that plot is the most important thing to him. Maybe that’s why it’s so important to Eliot. Don’t know if Shakespeare would really agree or not. He didn’t seem to pay much attention to what Aristotle thought.
Which is more important: plot or character – Coriolanus or Hamlet?
We promised you an action-packed act this week and Coriolanus doesn’t disappoint!
Coriolanus’ appointment to the consulship was practically a done deal before the tribunes turned the people against him once again. Act III, Scene 1, start with Coriolanus hearing that his enemy, Tullus Aufidius, has returned to Antium after his defeat at Corioles. The common people of Rome have been swayed by the tribunes to revoke their support of Coriolanus’ election to the consulship. They have taken to the streets to protest his repeated mocking of them. The tribunes provoke Coriolanus who makes many fiery and hateful speeches targeting the common people of Rome. Seizing on their opportunity, the tribunes accuse Coriolanus of being a traitor to Rome and seeking to make himself king. (Side note: Even during the period of the Roman Empire, it was illegal for anyone to call themselves King of Rome.) The tribunes order their aediles to take Coriolanus into custody to answer the charge but he draws his sword and tries to resist. Menenius talks him down and sends him home to avoid a riot. He agrees to convince Coriolanus to answer to the people’s accusations.
I think every Brawler had their own pronunciation this week. Just to set the record straight:
ae·dile: noun \ˈē-ˌdī(-ə)l, ˈē-dəl\: an official in ancient Rome in charge of public works and games, police, and the grain supply.
Act III, Scene 2 takes place in Coriolanus’ house. The patricians and his mother try to convince him to return to the people of Rome and make a show of begging their forgiveness. Coriolanus is incensed that she would suggest he abase himself by bothering to lie to the commoners to gain their votes. She suggests that once he’s consul he’ll no longer have to do that but that he shouldn’t piss them off while they still have the power to deny him the honours he deserves. Menenius adds his own counsel to Volumnia’s and Coriolanus, despite himself, agrees to do as they suggest.
As Coriolanus prepares to return to the forum in Act III, Scene 3, the tribunes are busy preparing the crowd for his arrival. They instruct them to support whatever decision the tribunes will make. The tribunes agree on their strategy which is to provoke Coriolanus so he loses his temper then they’ll have free rein, and the support of the mob, to guarantee the outcome they want: getting rid of Coriolanus. Coriolanus tries to appease the crowd and Menenius reminds them that Coriolanus’ rough words should be considered as those of a soldier untrained in politics and flattery. He asks the people plainly why they’ve refused him the consulship which he feels he has deserved. At that, the tribunes waste no time and immediately accuse him of having tried to seize power and declare him a traitor to Rome. Coriolanus will have none of this and flies into a rage. As the tribunes banish Coriolanus from Rome, he turns his back on commoner and patrician alike and in one of the most dramatic stage exist in Shakespeare, declares that “there is a world elsewhere.”
You’ll need to download the next episode to find out where he finds that other world. I guarantee you it will be worth tuning in. You won’t want to miss it!
If you’ve missed any of the previous episodes, they’re just waiting to be downloaded! Better yet, subscribe on iTunes for your (mostly) weekly dose of Bard!
In Act II, scene 1, Menenius accuses the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus of plotting against Coriolanus for selfish reasons. The tribunes continue to maintain that Coriolanus is prideful and should not be given the consulship. Volumnia shows up with news of Coriolanus’ triumphant return to Rome. She and Menenius catalogue the history of Coriolanus’ wounds, which they anticipate will speak favourably for him when he is called upon to show proof of his military service to Rome. Brutus and Sicinius remain determined to convince the people to withhold their consent to Coriolanus’ nomination.
The patricians and the tribunes are gathered at the capitol to elect a new consul in act II, scene 2. Though we are told of two other candidates, Coriolanus is clearly a shoe-in for the job. (Cominius currently holds the office but he’s not one of the candidates. Consuls were not allowed to serve consecutive terms at this point in roman history.) Cominius offers up his panegyric to Coriolanus, which recounts his military exploits and tells everyone how much Coriolanus is epic and awesome, but Coriolanus doesn’t care to hang around and hear himself be praised (jury is still out on whether Caius Martius Coriolanus is really as humble as he keeps saying he is). All the patricians support his nomination but Coriolanus has no desire to parade his wounds before the common people. Meanwhile, more plotting by the tribunes who hope to abuse Coriolanus’ temper to discredit him.
Menenius convinces Coriolanus to honour the custom of showing his wounds in public. Act II, scene 3 takes place in the forum, with Coriolanus dressed in a sort of ritual gown of humility. The peasants know the score: this whole ‘show us your wounds’ business is basically a formality. Though the tribunes and the people can veto the decision of the patricians, if Coriolanus shows them his wounds, they’re more or less forced to give him their support (as the Third Citizen explains in the opening moments of the scene.). Coriolanus meets with the citizens in groups of 2 or 3 and generally acts like an ass with them but manages to get their grudging support. As soon as he leaves the scene, Sicinius and Brutus play the crowd and convince the citizens to withdraw their support. They cleverly cast themselves in the role of well-meaning but misguided counselors and the enraged citizens head for the capitol to deny Coriolanus his consulship.
About these citizens. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, these anonymous characters serve an expository role – like Neo in The Matrix, they ask the questions and volunteer the information the audience needs to understand the background of the story. Sometimes, they’re given some interesting lines, but in most cases they’re minor, undistinguished characters that only exist to fulfil a necessary narrative function. However, in Coriolanus, these citizens seem to have substance, individual leanings and views. Many of them differ in their assessment of Coriolanus and whether or not he should be consul. In Coriolanus, there’s disagreement, lack of consent and even changing opinions in the multitude. This is in fact precisely what Coriolanus finds reprehensible in the plebeians, their lack of constancy and their divisiveness. Ironically, the tribunes themselves seem to take advantage of this: they are easily able to sway the people to withdraw their support for Coriolanus’ appointment. I wrote about the tribunes and the citizens on my sometimes-active blog if you’re interested in reading more about them.
(Unfortunately, the differences between the seven citizens might not come out so clearly in the podcast. You’ll notice that only André, David, Daniel and myself were reading this week so we were forced to sort of jumble together the citizens’ lines. We tried on different voices… with varying degrees of success.)
The play though opens up with these same hungry citizens who seem to have very legitimate reasons for being upset at Caius Martius and their lot in the new Roman Republic. The commoners in Coriolanus aren’t simply dismissed by the plot, making quick cameos and then disappearing. They’re active (if nameless) participants in the unfolding drama. They quite literally take center stage opposite to Coriolanus throughout the play, as a group and as individuals.
As we mentioned several times on the show, Coriolanus is adapted from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (often just called Lives, or Parallel Lives) which we highly recommend. It’s surprisingly readable. We’ll have more to say about Coriolanus and Plutarch as we read through the play but I wanted to leave you with one remark which is relevant to this scene. Coriolanus’ refusal to show his wound to the plebeians is Shakespeare’s invention. In Plutarch, Coriolanus does in fact parade his wounds for the people without complaint. The gown is made-up too. I wonder: does this make Coriolanus more of a petulant child for refusing to do what’s accepted tradition? Or is his objection to taking part in a politically expedient lie commendable?
There’s so much more that could be written about Plutarch and Shakespeare, but we’ll leave it for another episode.
Please leave us a comment to tell us what you think: is Coriolanus prideful or principled? Are the citizens just a bunch of lemmings for the tribunes to play with or do they deserve some names?
The first act of Coriolanus is a whirlwind of action and conflict. Scene 1 opens on a mob of hungry Roman citizens who have decided to take by force the food which has been denied them by the patricians. Menenius arrives on the scene and manages to talk them down but soon after Caius Martius (Coriolanus) shows up and he and the citizens exchange insults. (A Brawler favourite, from the mouth of Coriolanus: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, /Make yourselves scabs?”) We learn that a neighbouring city has plans to attack Rome. Martius invites the mob to join the army and earn their corn through service to the state. We also learn that another mob, elsewhere in the city, laid down their arms in exchange for the right to elect five representatives of the common people to government, the tribunes, a concession which Martius finds deplorable. The scene closes with the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus talking about Coriolanus’ prideful nature.
Scene 2 quickly jumps to the Volscian camp. Aufidius hears about the impending Roman counter-attack and vows to fight Martius in single combat until one of them kills the other.
Scene 3 is a domestic scene in which we find Volumnia and Virgilia sewing in Martius’ home. Volumnis extols the virtues of her son. She mocks her daughter-in-law for not taking enough pride in her husband’s military service to Rome and for being overly concerned for his safety. Virgilia’s friend Valeria shows up and tells them that Martius and the others are off to war against Aufidius and the Volscians. Volumnia is happy about the news, Virgilia is not.
Scenes 4 through 10 describe the action-packed battle for the city of Corioli. (Some editions write Corioles.) By the end of scene 4, Martius is cut off from the rest of the army and locked inside the city with Titus lartius and his men. With the help Martius’ individual efforts, the Romans take the city and Martius leaves Lartius behind (in scene 5 and scene 7) to occupy the town while he rushes to Cominius’ aid. A message reaches Cominius in scene 6 which claims that Martius has been killed but Martius then appears on stage covered in blood (most of it’s Volscian blood of course because Martius is such a badass) and he joins Cominius’ forces. In scene 8 Martius and Aufidius finally square off but they are interrupted by Aufidius’ men who interfere in their duel. Scene 9 opens with the retreat of the Volscian forces. For his role in the fighting, Cominius rewards Caius Martius with an extra share of the spoils and with the surname ‘Coriolanus.’ Coriolanus accepts the title but turns down the loot. Finally, Aufidius vows to kill Coriolanus by any means necessary in scene 10.
As Daniel mentioned on the air, part of the challenge of understanding the relationships and the political stakes within the play comes from our lack of familiarity with Roman titles and customs. (This is in addition to Shakespeare’s own occasional misunderstandings.) To help you map out who’s who in Coriolanus, here’s a short list of some of the titles referred to in the play:
Consul: This is a rather complicated title, but in the play it stands for the highest political appointment in Rome. Consulships were granted by election of the people of Rome – patricians and citizens had to give their assent.
Patrician: The patricians are the nobility and leaders of Rome, thought to be the descendants of the Roman Republic, foudned following the exile of the Tarquin kings who used to occupy Rome.
Citizen or plebeians: These, for the purposes of this play anyhow, are the common, free people of Rome.
Tribune: An official elected by the plebeians. It is illegal to threaten them with harm and they have the right to pass judgement on individuals on behalf of the common people of Rome.
Aediles: They traditionally guarded and maintained public buildings. In Coriolanus they serve primarily as the plebeians’ police force (They show up later in the play)
This episode from Roman history occurs at the very dawn of the Republic, less than a generation after the last king gets booted out of Rome (We’re told that Coriolanus fought in that war, in fact, as a teenager). This is important because it helps to explain both Coriolanus’ sometimes unsympathetic disregard for the common people but also the people’s fear of Coriolanus’ authority. Also good to keep in mind: at this point in history, Rome has not yet embarked on its conquest of Italy and the city’s fate is still very much uncertain.
To wrap up, here’s a short list of some of the characters appearing in this (wild!) first act of Coriolanus:
Menenius Agrippa: An old patrician and friend of Coriolanus who tries to keep the peace and curb the excesses of Coriolanus’ character.
Caius Martius “Coriolanus:” A skilled Roman war hero who makes a better soldier than a politician. He dislikes the common people for their inconstancy.
Volumnia: Coriolanus’ mother who pushes her son towards fame and political power.
Virgilia: Coriolanus’ young wife.
Valeria: one of Virgilia’s friends.
Cominius and Titus Lartius: Roman generals under whom Coriolanus serves during the attack on Corioli.
Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus: These are the newly elected tribunes of the people. They have made it their task to oppose Coriolanus’ rise to power which they see as dangerous for the common people of Rome.
Tullus Aufidius: The general of the Volscian army and Coriolanus’ chief military rival.
If you’re looking for a good movie adaption of Coriolanus, check out Ralph Fiennes’s recent adaptation. (While Fiennes does a really good Coriolanus, prepare to get blown away by Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia. Outstanding.)
Anyhow, hope you enjoy listening to Coriolanus as much as we do!