Saturday, July 16, 2016


Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's last plays and frankly one of the more complex. It was based upon one of the Plutarch tales[1] and as such is consistent with the many uses Shakespeare made of classic events. As Plutarch observed:

It may be observed, in general, that when young men arrive early at fame and repute, if they are of a nature but slightly touched with emulation, this early attainment is apt to extinguish their thirst and satiate their appetite; whereas the first distinctions of more and solid and weighty characters do but stimulate and quicken them and take them away like a wind in the pursuit of honour; they look upon these marks and testimonies to their virtue not as a recompense received for what they have already done, but as a pledge given by themselves of what they will perform hereafter, ashamed now to forsake or underlive the credit they have won, or, rather, not to exceed and obscure all that is gone before by the lustre of their following actions. Marcius, having a spirit of this noble make, was ambitious always to surpass himself, and did nothing how extraordinary soever, but he thought he was bound to outdo it at the next occasion; and ever desiring to give continual fresh instances of prowess, he added one exploit to another, and heaped up trophies upon trophies, so as to make it matter of contest also among his commanders, the latter still vying with the earlier, which should pay him the greatest honour and speak highest in his commendation. Of all the numerous wars and conflicts in those days there was not one from which he returned without laurels and rewards. … But Marcius, believing himself bound to pay his mother Volumnia all that gratitude and duty which would have belonged to his father, had he also been alive, could never satiate himself in his tenderness and respect to her.

From this did Shakespeare develop his character. The more recent version by Ralph Fiennes[2] presents Coriolanus in a contemporary setting and presents him as an awkward savior of Rome which then through a manipulation of the masses turn on him which leads to his destruction. Coriolanus is a warrior, not a politician. The politicians manipulate the mob, yet within the mob there are other layers of manipulators. There are what I have called from time to time the "professional back stabbers". This is a group of what may be genetically oriented persons whose sole goal in life is to destroy others. Nothing personal, nothing for a desired end, just the process of personal destruction. Washington is a current day example of where they most congregate. Thus this class attacks Coriolanus who appears both clueless and disinterested. Fiennes does a splendid job at depicting this.

Now comes a version at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. In this presentation the Fiennes role is displaced by an actor who I would have seen growing up on Staten Island. A big brutal thug, whose demeanor is not that of a lost Fiennes but of some muscle in the local mob. Perhaps appropriate for New Jersey but I fell totally missing the point. The presentation was mediocre at best and the mob complexity was totally missing its thrust.

Yet come the NY Times and its review[3]. They conclude:

If several among the other performances are wanting, the combined effectiveness of the 25-member company is greater than the sum of its lesser parts. The director’s decision to have the actors frequently throng the theater’s aisles lends immediacy and a sense of speed to this resonant production, which sprints along at a fast-paced two hours and 35 minutes, including the intermission.

Frankly this presentation was cacophonous. It lacked any cohesion, it spent too much time on the rabble, and the undercurrent against the current political scene is sophomoric. As expected the Times cannot seem to even give a recipe without making a comment on the current election. The NY Times reviewer states:

Shakespeare’s political drama, of a candidate for high office unsuccessfully coping with seesawing public opinion, assumes fresh resonance in our own interesting times that witness Brexit regret overseas even as so many American voters are voicing their own discontent over their presumptive presidential nominees.

Yes, the mob is a key element of Coriolanus. Yes, the mob can be manipulated. Yes, the results are tragic for all. But that is not why Shakespeare wrote this play. At the time James I was King, and it was the James from whence we get the so named Bible.

Shakespeare seems not to like the populous. As note by Prescott his use of the term popular, as understood to me in relation to the masses seemed always to end in some disaster[4]. The masses can and could be manipulated. The manipulators often do so just for the process itself without any end in mind. The tragedy here is that Coriolanus was a good soldier who was thrown out of his ken, and at first accepted and then destroyed by the masses, to no benefit to them.

But what most seem to miss about Coriolanus as a play and political metaphor is in the play the Tribunes manipulate the masses. In the current election cycle on the Republican side, this seems not to be the case. In fact the masses are rejecting the Tribunes. It is thus an interesting and telling drama. Can the masses be manipulated? All the time. We see it in every strategy. As one of the Democrat Tribunes states; never let a tragedy do to waste. As immoral as such a statement may be, it is echoed so many times.

Thus I would rate the Fiennes presentation as a five star one and the NJ Shakespeare team as at best a one star! To do Shakespeare well, one must understand the underlying human tragedy, not try to make it some anti-politician statement. Done that way it becomes just an echo from the very mob itself, it is popular to paraphrase Shakespeare.

[2] It is interesting to read the one star reviews of this film. It truly tells one about the masses! The resonance of the reviewers with Shakespeare is amazing. The reviewers of course have no idea what they are reflecting upon.

[4] See Shakespeare, Grazia and Wells, Cambridge, 2011, pp 271-272. Language was key and the reference usage in time is essential.