Monday, September 3, 2012

Shakespeare Study: The Tragedy Of Coriolanus

This is the third year of my Shakespeare study. I read one play each month, and then watch as many film versions as I can get my hands on, and read as many books about the play as I'm able. August, 2012 was The Tragedy Of Coriolanus.

Related Books:

- Coriolanus  by Adrian Poole  -  This is a volume of the Twayne's New Critical Introductions To Shakespeare. About Volumnia, Adrian Poole writes, "Take her response to Virgilia's inquiry as to what she would do if Martius were killed: 'Then his good report should have been my son' (III.ii.20). It is easy to read this as callouness, rolling glibly off the tongue. But to read it as such would itself be glib, before entertaining the thought that women whose men run the constant risk of death may do well to forefeel their bereavement. Nor would one easily say to such a woman's face that she had no right to her pride in that good report. There might be a momentary pause before she gives this answer. But even if she answers without hesitation, we could not concude that she has never felt any pain in knowing that this would always be her answer to such a question" (page 14). About the scene where Martius appeals for the release of a poor Volscian whose name he has forgotten, Poole writes, "It is as if the burden of being under an obligation to the Romans who have given him a new name has created in him the need to displace that burden of obligation on to someone else. But why does he forget the man's name? Is he transferring his own impatience with his new name, projecting his own wish not to be named on to this stranger?" (page 29).  About the phrase "lonely dragon" in Act IV Scene i, Poole writes, "It is a suprising fact that while 'alone' is a commonn word in Shakespeare, the OED registers this as the first recorded use of the word 'lonely' in the English language. It is as if Shakespeare were making Martius find a new syllable, to 'exceed the common' (IV.i.32).

- Twentieth Century Interpretations Of Coriolanus  edited by James E. Phillips  -  This is a collection of critical essays by Maurice Charney, Harley Granville-Barker, G. Wilson Knight and others. In the introduction, James E. Phillips writes, "More significant, perhaps - given the influence of Coriolanus's mother Volumnia on her son - is the fact that Shakespeare's own mother, Mary Arden, died in 1608, the year in which the play was presumably written" (page 1).  Oscar James Campbell writes, "His undeviating arrogance toward the rest of humanity thus seems to be not exaggerated sellf-esteem, but compensation for the fear of his mother. He never attains the mean between these two unnatural extremes of emotion, but careens wildly between them" (page 34). Maurice Charney writes, "It is significant, too, that Coriolanus has only thirty-six lines of soliloquy: the same number as As You Like It and the fewest in the Shakespeare canon. This does not prove anything by itself, but it keeps us aware of the lack of inwardness in the play, and the fact that Coriolanus is the least articulate of Shakespeare's tragic heroes" (page 79).

- Shakespeare: Coriolanus  by Brian Vickers  -  This is a volume in the Studies In English Literature series.  Brian Vickers writes, "So much of the action of the play goes on behind Coriolanus' back - we may say, dropping the conventions of literary criticism for a moment, and restoring the point-of-view of life - that it is no wonder if he seems completely puzzled by it all, unprepared to cope with what people say and do to him" (page 27).  Regarding the "lonely dragon" image, Vickers writes, "What the image in fact means is that he is discouraging anyone from following or trying to approach him: the dragon is talked about rather than seen, since people are afraid to go near it. Just as society shuns the dragon, they have shunned him, and he will shun them. His intention is to isolate himself, and if he is an exceptionally strong - or cold - person then he might be able to sustain the isolation" (page 37).

- Coriolanus In Context  by Clifford Chalmers Huffman  -  A good deal of this book investigates the English and Italian sources of the story, and then toward the end there is a reading of the text. In a footnote, Huffman writes, "Plutarch contains nothing of Coriolanus's extreme dislike of seeking the people's votes; there may be in this characteristic a reflection of James's well-known dislike of crowds of commoners" (page 193). He writes, "Further, the consuls protect themselves against charges of sedition by inviting the people to lay the blame for the election on them: the tribunes mask their villainy by seeming loyal" (page 195). This is an important point that is irritatingly cut from the film versions. Huffman continues, "The tribunes are evil leaders - really misleaders - of the people, dramatic parallels of King James's Puritan antagonists who sought 'to become Tribuni plebis: and so in a populare government by leading the people by the nose, to beare the sway of all the rule' (Basilikon Doron, p. 75)" (page 195).  Huffman writes, "Coriolanus is the only patrician who cannot respond to the ideal of Temperance, which is the more important not only because of its place in the Greco-Roman and Christian traditions, but also because King James so strongly urged it" (page 203). Regarding the stage directions, Huffman writes (in a footnote), "The stage directions of Coriolanus are unusually full; possibly Shakespeare was no longer living in London at the time of composition of the play. Such is the suggestion of the abundant stage directions in the Folio text, which seems to be designed for the producer (or even reader) not otherwise familiar with the play" (page 219).

- A Place Calling Itself Rome  by John Osborne  -  This play is a modern adaptation of Coriolanus. It basically tells the exact story, but with so-called "modern" language. So it's essentially pointless.  And the changes that are made certainly are not improvements. For example, in this version Coriolanus forgets which house an old woman is in, rather than forgetting the name of a man who should be pardoned. A much weaker choice. His line is, "Ye Gods, I've forgotten! I'm tired suddenly. Is there a drink?" (page 32). Published in 1973.

- 'Coriolanus' In Europe  by David Daniell  -  This book tells the tale of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1979 tour of Europe. The production of Coriolanus was directed by Terry Hands, and starred Alan Howard as Coriolanus, Jill Baker as Virgilia, Graham Crowden as Menenius and Oliver Ford-Davies as Brutus. David Daniell toured with the company, and the book includes some of his personal journal entries.  It also includes quite a bit about Brecht's version of the play. And of course he includes his own thoughts on the play. He writes, "And the foolish patricians of Rome decide to make this conqueror of far-off cities a consul of Rome itself. It is a lunatic decision, for his very name indicates that he doesn't belong at home: in so naming him, they show that they don't want him" (page 158).  He also quotes Alan Howard, about the naming of Coriolanus: "Now, think what it would have done in 1945 to call an Atom-bomb hero 'Mr. Hiroshima.' What a terrible thing that would be to be branded with the name of the city you have destroyed, and for ever after condemned" (page 166). Published in 1980.

Related Films:

- The Tragedy Of Coriolanus  (1984) with Alan Howard, Mike Gwilm, Joss Ackland, Irene Worth, Joanna McCallum; directed by Elija Moshinsky. This production has an interesting look, particularly in the battle scenes. And there are some decent performances.  However, I don't care at all for Alan Howard in the title role. And this production suffers from a ridiculous number of cuts, resulting in a very choppy, messy feel. The first two lines are cut from this production, and it begins with First Citizen's line, "You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?"  Many lines are cut throughout the scene, even from the "belly" bit. Gone are Menenius' lines, "I will tell you;/If you'll bestow a small, of what you have little,/Patience a while, you'st hear the belly's answer," as well as the reply, "You're long about it."  By the way, this production uses the emendation "tauntingly replied" rather than the Folio's "taintingly." Also gone from this scene is the famous "great toe" bit before Caius Martius' entrance.  And the messenger is cut from the first scene, so suddenly it jumps from Martius addressing the commoners to him standing before the senators (in a different location, rather than at the same location, as in the play).  And then again instead of most of the cast exiting, and Sicinius and Brutus remaining, this production jumps to another location for the conversation between Sicinius and Brutus. So it takes one scene and makes it three. The problem is that it therefore feels like we're missing even more than we are.  I like Virgilia in the first scene with the woman (Act I Scene iii). However, at the end of that scene Volumnia says her last line, "Let her alone, lady; as she is now she will but disease our better mirth," in an almost kind, motherly way, placing her hands protectively on Virgilia's shoulders. That is a very strange reading of the line, and doesn't really work at all.  And of course the last several lines of the scene are cut.  And the first chunk of the next scene is likewise cut. The army looks great, but some cuts make the scene confusing. Martius's speech, "They fear us not, but issue forth their city..." is completely cut. Also, the stage direction "The Romans are beat back to their trenches" is ignored. And most of his next speech, "All the contagion of the south light on you..." is done as voice over while he's on a horse. Then, oddly, after his line "look to 't," it cuts to a shot of Virgilia and Volumnia knitting.  Then it cuts back to Lartius saying "What is become of Martius?"  But then we lose Martius being shut in the gates, and then the gates opening.  It's tough to stage that, but this production just completely fails to make even an attempt. Then Martius enters, and casually leans against the wall, looking at his bloody sword.  The battle afterward looks great - nice style.  After he is named Coriolanus, he seems drunk when he says "I will go wash," an odd choice. When Lartius asks Coriolanus for the name of the person to be pardoned, he says it in a serious way that makes it sound like he expects Coriolanus to have forgotten the name. 
The first part of Act II Scene i is cut.  Even the fun bit where Menenius is excited at receiving a letter is cut, which is a shame.  And when Virgilia says that Coriolanus is not wounded, and Volumnia contradicts her, Virgilia doesn't react at all.  She should be at first shocked and then hurt - shocked to learn that her husband was in fact wounded, and then hurt that he chose not to tell her of this, but told his mother. Instead, Virigilia is blank.  Coriolanus is so abrupt and angry. It's a tough role, but despite the opinion of many critics, I think we should identify with him in some ways, and like him, or at least understand him.  And Alan Howard gives us only one scene that allows us to feel for him. He is good in the scene where he has to talk with the common people, feeling awkward.  Act II ends abruptly with Sicinus saying, "all revoke/Your ignorant election," cutting the last fifty lines or so. 
Coriolanus plays very angry and so when he is called a traitor, he's left nowhere to go vocally - and that's when he should really react.  In Act III Scene ii, Coriolanus says, "Well, I must do 't," and then it goes to a closeup shot of him for "Away my disposition..." as if no one else is there, and then suddenly cuts to a wide shot when he says "I will not do 't."  It feels very awkward.  When in front of the people Coriolanus starts the line "I am content" angrily - just the word "I" - and then Meneius puts his hand on his shoulder, and so he changes his tact and finished, "am content."  An interesting choice.
In Act IV, there is another abrupt cut from Scene iv to Scene v. Scene iv ends with Coriolanus leaning against the wall outside Aufidius' home. It then cuts straight to Aufidius saying "Whence com'st thou?"  This scene as presented has many problems.  First, at the end of Scene iv, Coriolanus pauses a long time before the final word "service," and then he spits it out angrily. Then by cutting the beginning of Scene v, we lose the whole bit with Coriolanus entering the house and the servants' reactions.  The servants' reactions are important, because it shows us how we should react to him, and how Aufidius will likely react to him. That's a big problem. But then the staging of this scene is completely awful. Coriolanus is seated, facing toward the camera, and Aufidius stands behind him. How would they have possibly gotten into this position?  It's ridiculous. Plus, it's important for Aufidius to be looking directly at Coriolanus and still not recognizing him. The way this production stages it, we think simply, "oh, he doesn't recognize him from the back, no big deal."  That is a large error.  Coriolanus wants to be recognized. He's not playing a game. In fact, he should be a bit desperate in not being recognized right away - that's why he repeatedly asks Aufidius if he recognizes him yet.  Also, Shakespeare routinely provides stage directions within the dialogue, and in this scene Coriolanus says "Stand I before thee."  That tells you he absolutely must be standing.  Again, an error. This scene should be one of the most powerful; instead, it's one of the worst scenes in this production.  But it actually gets even worse.  When Coriolonus says he presents his throat, Aufidius actually grabs his throat with his right hand as if to strangle him, and then releases when Coriolanus says "service." And he says "service" the same way he said it in the previous scene, which makes no sense.  And then it gets even weirder. Aufidius seems to have some sort of homoerotic attraction to Coriolanus. He puts his hand around his head and kneels before him when he says "Know thou first/I lov'd the maid I married." Are they about to fuck? What is wrong with this production? He then basically whispers the rest of his lines to Coriolanus. They're alone in the scene, which is odd. It is supposed to take place in the hall of Aufidius' home, and there are many servants about.  All of the stuff with the servants at the end of the scene is cut. In Scene vii, when Aufidius is speaking with his Lieutenant, there is some truly odd business with Aufidius writing on a pad.  The last two lines of that scene are cut.
Act V Scene i is rearranged. It begins with Cominius' line, "I tell you he does sit in gold" and after his speech goes back near the beginning to Menenius' line, "you hear what he hath said/Which was sometime his general." In Scene ii, after Menenius exits, Coriolanus has a weird, sly, crooked smile when he tells Aufidius, "This man, Aufidius,/Was my belov'd in Rome."  In Scene iii, his speech, "My wife comes foremost..." is done as voice over as his family comes to him. The death of Coriolanus is really odd.  Only Aufidius kills him, and it just doesn't feel right. The Lord's line is cut ("Peace, both, and hear me speak"). Also cut  - and this is a problem - are all of the people shouting "Tear him to pieces" and so on. But the Second Lord's line which is in response to the people is included.  And then, very weirdly, instead of the people shouting "Kill, kill, kill," Coriolanus begins saying "Kill, kill, kill."  That makes no sense.  And then as Coriolanus and Aufidius struggle (lamely, I might add), Aufidius gets the upper hand, and he takes over the "Kill, kill, kill" chant. He then lifts his sword to kill Coriolanus, but apparently Coriolanus is already dead. How?  I don't know.  It's fucking stupid. All of the lines of the Lords are cut, so only Aufidius speaks at the end. (time: 145 minutes)

- Coriolanus (2011) with Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain; screenplay by John Logan; directed by Ralph Fiennes.  This film version takes place in modern times. It has some really good performances, particularly by Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus, Brian Cox as Menenius, Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia and Gerard Butler as Aufidius. However, the modern setting doesn't quite work.  It's not quite believable.  And there is entirely too much action on television.  It opens with news footage, and titles at the bottom of the screen letting us know that thousands are in line waiting for food, that the senate has declared a state of emergency, and that "General Martius suspends civil liberties."  There is a title card: "A place calling itself Rome." So that's how they get away with all the references to Rome.  By the way, the production company is called Lonely Dragon, which is nice reference to the play, and to the title character.  The first actual scene from the play takes place inside rather than on the street, as indicated in the play.  The First Citizen is made into two people in this production, a man and a woman. (The woman is one of the weakest actors of this film.)  It is the man who says, "Soft! who comes here?"  But rather than have Menenius enter, he appears on television.  So the "who comes here?" really doesn't make sense. And having him speak on television rather than directly to the people is weak.  The people march, demanding bread, and there is a confrontation with the authorities.  Caius Martius then enters to deliver his "What's the matter, you dissentious rogues" speech.  He says most of it directly to the male First Citizen, rather than to the whole crowd.  More news footage tells us, "Ancient Volscian border dispute flares." Then we go to the Volscian headquarters, where a Roman soldier is being interrogated. Aufidius asks him, "Know you me yet?" That is his first line in the film, and it's not a line from the play. It's a line that Coriolanus will later say to Aufidius.  Aufidius shoots the prisoner, and then we see that the Romans are watching this footage on a television screen.  Martius' lines, "They have a leader,/Tullus Aufidius, that will ut you to 't" are spoken by Cominius. Martius then continues, "I sin in envying his nobility,/And were I anything but what I am,/I would wish me only he." This is weird, because we just saw Aufidius coldly execute someone - something that is not in the play. It then soon goes to the second scene, skipping the Sicinius/Brutus lines.  Virgilia is watching war footage on television at the beginning of Scene iii. Valeria is cut from the scene, and instead Menenius enters and speaks some of her lines, which is odd.  I do like Virgilia's reaction when Volumnia says "she will but disease our better mirth," but in general Virgilia's performance is one of the weaker ones. We then actually see Martius alone in the city, going from room to room, shooting people, something not in the play. Martius then exits the city alone, which of course is in the play.  Scene v and Scene vi are combined, Martius creating one speech from both scenes. There is a battle, and then Martius and Aufidius meet, and fight with knives, while their men look on. They both crash through a window, and their men then separate them.
Act II begins with Volumnia's first line, but everything about the letters is cut. So we lose that great moment when Virgilia realizes that Martius is wounded, and that he kept it from her. That's an important moment, and it's a terrible cut. But Vanessa Regrave is still wonderful in the scene. Then it goes back to Act I Scene ix, with Cominius bestowing the name Coriolanus upon Martius.  Volumnia is in military uniform when he's given the name. So this scene is combined with a section of Act II Scene i. We are then finally introduced to Brutus and Sicinius, and they speak some of their lines from Act I Scene i, then go right into the beginning of Act II Scene i, when Menenius says to them, "The augurer tells me we shall have news to-night."  I like the performances of both Brutus and Sicinius, particularly Sicinius (James Nesbitt). Brian Cox is excellent as Menenius, especially in this scene.  Then more information is given on news programs.  Then we see Volumnia binding Martius' wounds while she says "I have liv'd/To see inherited my very wishes."  Virgilia enters, says nothing, then leaves again and goes to her son's room (something not indicated in the text). Cominius' speech in Act II Scene ii is televised, and we see Volumnia, Virgilia and her son watching it. We also see the citizens watching the broadcast.  Coriolanus, when he speaks with the people, wears a black suit and white shirt, hardly a "gown of humility" as indicated in the text. Sure, it's not his military uniform, but it's also not humble clothing.  The lines where Brutus and Sicinius tell the people to lay the fault on them are cut.
In Act III, Coriolanus physically attacks Sicinius for calling him a traitor, which works.  Act III Scene iii is done in a television studio in front of an audience. Ralph Fiennes does a good job of being awkward when he goes before the people again - we feel how out-of-place , out-of-his-element he feels.  When called a traitor again, he stands up, losing his cool. But as it's a sort of televisio audience, when banishment is decided, it doesn't seem real. After all, who gives a fuck what a TV audience thinks? After he says he turns his back on them, we see him out walking alone.
So Act IV Scene i is cut, which is farewell scene to his family. Though when he wakes up somewhere we hear a bit of that scene in voice over, including the "lonely dragon" line, which is the last line of that voice over. In Scene ii, Volumnia pushes Sicinius down, and that is what leads to his line "O blessed heavens," which he delivers in a sort of amused way. The scene ends with Volumnia's line "And so shall starve with feeding," so her lines to Virgilia are cut. Instead, they put their arms around each other as they walk away, which is not at all what Shakespeare intended. In the play, Volumnia chastises her for whining and crying, and has to say "come" three times to get her to follow her.  This production does a good job of changing Coriolanus' look - long hair, a beard - so we can believe that Aufidius wouldn't recognize him.  We see Coriolanus watching Aufidius in the streets before he goes to him. He then sneaks into Aufidius' headquarters, then fights his way in. So all the stuff with the servants is cut, which is a shame. (Also cut is Coriolanus' speech from the end of Scene iv.) The first line of the scene is Aufidius' "Whence com'st thou?" Aufidius pulls a knife, and holds it to Coriolanus' throat, then speaks.
In Act V Scene ii, Menenius is led to Coriolanus blindfolded. The last line of that scene is Coriolanus' "Another word, Menenius,/I will not hear thee speak." When he returs to Rome he says the line about Coriolanus being a dragon, and then kills himself by slicing his wrists.  And then Volumnia, Virgilia and the child arrive (with another woman who should be Valeria, but seems to be a servant).  So Coriolanus' lines to Aufidius about Menenius are cut.  Coriolanus' death scene is done pretty well.  All dialogue after his death is cut.  (time: 124 minutes)

Related Films:
- The Making Of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus  This short has some behind-the-scenes footage of Coriolanus, as well as an interview with Ralph Fiennes about the project, about directing, and about the setting. There are also brief interviews with Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Steve Hindle (time: 6 minutes)

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