This is turning out to be, surprisingly, more difficult than I thought. Surprising because I just have so much to say about this play. Unfortunately, a lot of what I have to say is speculations and questions. I need some dialog, though, or else I suspect this will all come off like some bad verbal masturbation. I may get to where I am going eventually, but I will likely have to do all the work myself, and the end result will be, ultimately, emotionally unsatisfying.
Anyway; here goes.
Coriolanus is…a very difficult play. Difficult to read; difficult to watch; difficult to fathom. I really had to work to understand this one as written. I don’t know if the language is especially obtuse or if I am just out of practice, but it was really a slog. But that has had its benefits. It took me so long to read the play that I have had a lot of time to think about it. I have spent the last couple of weeks just trying to sort out my thoughts. Let’s see if I can express them coherently.
I think the main problem I have with Coriolanus is, simply, Coriolanus himself. By turns arrogant and childish, fiercely proud and foolishly stubborn; Coriolanus is a tough man to get inside. His attitude toward the plebs, the “mutable, rank-scented many,” as he calls them, is appalling. He is elitist, anti-democratic, and just plain unlikeable. The one glimmer of humanity he shows, toward the beginning of the play when he asks that the citizen who housed him in Corioli be spared, is quickly derailed because he couldn’t be bothered to learn the man’s name. I can’t decide if he is redeemed somewhat by the end, when he relents and makes peace with Rome. Is he really moved by compassion, or just doing what his mother wants him to do? It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as he does that, he dies. We do not even get a chance to see if he has had a true change of heart, or if he is, once again, giving in to mother.
And that mother! Volumnia! (I love that name — I have no idea if it comes from the same root as “volume”, but I do not care. I think of her volume drowning out all others who might influence her son.) It can be argued that Coriolanus is not at all at fault for his attitudes; it is all his mother’s doing. She has pushed him and molded him since childhood, encouraging his pride and arrogance, his contempt for anyone perceived as lesser than himself. He tries to resist her when he is rejected by the people (I could picture him stamping his foot and saying “No Mummy! I WON’T do it!!” during that scene), but she talks him around in the end. Did he ever really want to be Consul or was that something Volumnia wanted FOR him? It seems he did not, because even after promising her he would try, Coriolanus is unable to bend his will toward placating the people.
I really am hard put to find any sympathetic characters in this play. I tend to avoid the tragedies; I much prefer the histories and comedies. I want someone I can empathize with. Perhaps that is why. In this play, those people are hard to find. Not the citizens. They are fickle and easily led; they do not know their own mind, follow whatever they are told, whether or not it is in their own best interest. (I could draw some modern parallels, but I’d rather not get into that right now.) Certainly not the scheming and manipulative Tribunes Sicinius and Brutus. If any can be framed as villains of the piece, it would be the two of them. They claim to be for the people; it is obvious they are only for themselves. Cominius is not unlikeable (what we see of him, anyway), and I found Menenius rather amusing, although that could have been just Mark Gatiss’s excellent performance. I suppose it could be argued that the most sympathetic character in the play is actually Aufidius. He does not scheme or plot; he does not seem to have ulterior motives. He is a general, doing his job for his country. He, too, has his flaws, though. He gives in to jealousy; in the end, I think it is that jealousy as much as his sense of betrayal at Coriolanus’s peace with Rome that drives him to murder Coriolanus.
See? So much to say! I haven’t even touched on the seemingly homoerotic content of the play, or the elitist, anti-democratic attitudes, or reviewed the recent Donmar Warehouse production, or discussed the characters of Virgilia (how ever did they get together? I suspect Volumnia picked her, a suitably passive vessel for breeding butterfly-murdering grandsons) and Valeria (who the hell is she, anyway? And, really, Shakespeare? Three female characters in the whole damn play and they all start with V?) I know it seems like I really hate this play, but honestly, I don’t. I have two more versions I will be viewing in the next week or so, and if I could see the Hiddleston version again, I would. I don’t understand the play, and I desperately want to. If nothing else, it has made me THINK, and I really like that.
So…next week — more Coriolanus. I really only planned to spend two weeks on this play, but it looks like it will be at least three, likely four. I promise, I will get past it eventually; this blog will not be All Coriolanus, All The Time! I just need to get it out of my system.
Coriolanus: Homoeroticism Vs the Masculine Friend in Elizabethan England.