Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Coriolanus (Shakespeare Re-Read #1)

This is absolutely my own liberal viewpoint coming to play here, but I couldn't help think of the Republican party while reading Coriolanus. In the play, you have Caius Martius,* a warrior first and foremost and perhaps all he is, fresh off leading the Roman army to a legendary victory and now being courted as a candidate for consul. Martius has no interest in being a politician because he hates the phoniness of it and has nothing but disdain for the Roman people. Talk about your Mitt Romney and your John McCain all rolled into one, except those guys actually wanted to be in higher office. At least Romney is a slightly better pretender; he just has a frozen smile, rather than the McCain tightly-clenched frozen smile underneath the Captain-on-How I Met Your Mother-style crazy eyes.

* = Just to avoid confusion, I'll refer to the title character as 'Martius' rather than 'Coriolanus,' simply so I can save myself having to italicize the play's title throughout. Man, am I lazy. Stay tuned for my review of Hamlet, when I refer to the title character only as 'Joe Indecision.'

Most analysis of Coriolanus considers it to be a fairly right-wing, power-of-the-state type of play, but I'm not sure. As usual, Shakespeare doesn't create a straw man and presents both sides of the play's argument, but I'd argue both sides come off looking bad, complicating matters. The Roman people and their tribunes Brutus and Sicinius come off worse --- the people seem to have the collective logic and judgement of the "she's a witch!" mob in Monty Python, while Brutus and Sicinius are two of the flat-out sleaziest, underhanded characters around. They're unlikable enough that it obscures the fact that their overall goal (Martius is unsuited for public office since he hates the people, and thus must be stopped) is not wrong. Shakespeare definitely includes enough trap doors within the text that, at least to modern eyes, make us severely perceive Martius as a tightly-wound sociopath. He's a guy who literally is only at peace when he's in the middle of battle. Peacetime is less about peace to Martius than it about killing time before the next war breaks out. It was bred into him from birth by his mother Volumnia, leading to the extraordinary passage in Act I, Scene III when Volumnia and the gentlewoman Valeria are discussing Martius' son…

VOLUMNIA: He had rather see the swords, and hear a drum, than look upon his school-master.

VALERIA: O' my word, the father's son: I'll swear,'tis a very pretty boy. O' my troth, I looked upon him o' Wednesday half an hour together: has such a confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly: and when he caught it, he let it go again; and after it again; and over and over he comes, and again; catched it again; or whether his fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it; O, I warrant it, how he mammocked it!

VOLUMNIA: One on 's father's moods.

VALERIA: Indeed, la, 'tis a noble child.

Yikes. By this point I thought I was reading a passage from We Need To Talk About Kevin. But again, though, this is my interpretation from 2012. Back in Shakespeare's day, this might have been seen as even a laugh line about the comical toughness of the family, plus it does foreshadow young Martius telling off his father near the play's conclusion. The point is, the generational craziness of Martius' family is just one of many signs in Coriolanus that Martius is a very flawed man. While the idea of popular rule is criticized just by the conduct of the tribunes and the Roman people, Shakespeare is also questioning the inherent right of the upper classes to just take power without any thought to what the public may think. It was a fairly radical (and even dangerous) thought for the time, which may be why Shakespeare obscured it by having the tribunes come off as just total dicks.

I used the Monty Python comparison earlier on purpose so I could plant the seed for this point: Coriolanus could arguably be seen as a black comedy. I think I got the idea from arguably the most famous scene in the play, when Martius is confronted by the angry, tribune-led mob and he just unloads on them, aghast that a) they would dare to criticize him and b) that they would then dare to actually think he would care about their criticisms. The tribunes then banish Martius from Rome, to which Martius responds with essentially, "You can't fire me! I quit!" and then he "banishes them" by expelling himself from Rome. This scene killed me. I'm not sure what was funnier, Martius' childish response, the fact that Cominius and Menenius (a powerful general and senator, respectively) are basically just running around this whole time waving their hands and getting increasingly bewildered at how this thing is escalating or the fact that this whole process DOESN'T MATTER.

I admit I could be off-base in my understanding of the political setup here, but as far as I understand it, the people and the tribunes don't technically have any power to remove Martius from office. He voluntarily goes through the whole show of meeting the people in the marketplace and then submitting to the kangaroo court of a trial in the forum all for what amounts to PR purposes, with Martius continually talked into it by his mother and Menenius. Say what you will about Brutus and Sicinius being bastards, but they're not dumb. They found themselves in a situation where an unpleasant candidate was being put into office and they had no hope of removing him….unless, that is, the candidate was such a hothead that they just had to push his buttons and Martius would essentially disqualify himself. Great plan! I'd say it was like playing chess when Martius was playing checkers, but Martius seems like the kind of guy who would flip the board in a rage if you dared to ever put him in check. (Also, he'd probably insist on starting the game with no pawns because he can't tolerate weakness.)

Coriolanus is probably more fun to discuss and see performed than it is to read, simply because the play has some structural issues and a bit of a "now we're here, and now we're here and now we'll jump over here for a couple of lines and now we'll go here" series of scene transitions. I suspect any adaptation, as we'll see in a moment, would omit or just combine most of these smaller scenes.

And the ending, man. I'm not going to use many Spoiler Alerts in these reviews since these plays are so well-known but since Coriolanus isn't one of the big-name works, I'll bend this once. After being banished, Martius joins his old Volscian rivals in their latest attack on Rome. When it looks like the city will fall, only a last-ditch plea from Volumnia, Virgilia and Martius Jr. (his friends call him MarJu) finally cracks Martius' spirit and he agrees to end the planned assault. Then, when Martius heads back to Volsci to tell them about the peace treaty, they just kill him. The end. I'm sorry, but that is just hilarious. How fitting is it that after a lifetime of wars, Martius meets his end in such an ignominious fashion. It completely undercuts the idea of the so-called heroic death that Volumnia spoke so rapturously of as the ideal fate for her son. I think the idea was to make Aufidius (the Volscian general who had played the Washington Generals to Martius' Globetrotters in a lifelong rivalry) seem cowardly by resorting to these tactics to finally beat Martius, but I've got to take his side on this one. Here is my adapted version of the situation….
Martius: Hi Volscians!

Lords Of Volsci: Coriolanus! Good to see you! Have you conquered Rome?

Aufidius: No, he didn't! He forged a peace treaty with them instead!

Lords: What?! Is this true?!

Martius (to Aufidius): HOW DARE YOU

Aufidius: He's not denying it!

Martius: Typical Volscian bullshit! Hey, remember the time I killed everyone in your city of Corioles? Remember who you're dealing with! I'm Caius Martius, the cock of the walk, baby!

Lords and every Volscian present: That's it!

*They all bullrush Martius and kill him. Aufidius dusts his hands triumphantly.*
Really, can you blame Aufidius or the Volscians in that scenario? Again, all one of Martius' opponents has to do is slightly incite Martius' temper and he just digs his own grave. Game, set, match, Aufidius. I'm surprised he never exploited this out on the battlefield. Like, Aufidius could stand on one side of a minefield from Martius and just call him names. Pointing out how he really puts the ANUS in Coriolanus would probably be enough for Martius to go into berserker mode and just stomp right into the minefield. It's a bit hard to take Martius seriously as a supreme bad-ass warrior when he's this easily fooled. You'd never see this happen to John Rambo. He kept a cool head. He only wanted a burger!

Admittedly, I finally got around to reading Coriolanus after all these years because Ralph Fiennes' recent film adaptation had finally opened in Toronto and I wanted to be familiar with the source material before seeing the movie. Fiennes' film is very good, nicely fitting the play into a modern-day setting that "is called Rome" but looks more like war-torn Sarajevo. A few of the updated elements fall flat (Martius' final blowup that gets him banished occurs in a TV studio complete with a booing, hissing crowd that makes it look like the most erudite Jerry Springer episode ever) but really, it's hard to go wrong with great Shakespearean veterans like Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox who just own the dialogue frontwards and back. The ending of the film is, if anything, even more abrupt, as Martius doesn't even make it back to Volsci --- Aufidius and his crew just leave him dead in the middle of a road. I'm glad Fiennes resisted the urge to call back to the "crows to peck the eagles" line by having Martius' corpse get swarmed by a murder of crows. There's probably a witty joke in here about a murder following a murder, but damned if I can make it. I'm no Shakespeare.


1. Coriolanus…..it's only the first entry, so Coriolanus tops the table by default

Two of my New Year's resolutions were to lose 38 pounds and to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays. At least one of these resolutions will come true. And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here is the first of a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays. Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch. It's William goddamn Shakespeare. What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks! What a stinker! Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

It's better that you read these instead of waiting for a weight-loss blog, since brother, that ain't happening. The 'before' picture alone would break the internet.

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