Sunday, March 13, 2011

Discussion: Coriolanus

The play: Coriolanus

The plot tweet: Roman war hero fails at politics, gets banished. Joins enemy to attack Rome; is dissuaded by domineering mom. Killed by enemy (no surprise).

My favorite line: "What is the city but the people?"


This was an awkward week at Shakespeare in a Year. Every time I mentioned that we were reading Coriolanus, someone in the area giggled and made an uncouth joke. The more sophisticated folks would look confused and confess, "Huh, I've never heard of that one."

Now, some of Shakespeare's plays are obscure because they deserve to be obscure. Even the Bard produced a couple of bombs. (I'm looking at you, Troilus and Cressida.) But when it comes to Coriolanus, I'm baffled. Having neither read it nor seen it performed, I assumed it was going to be awful. It wasn't.

As it turns out, Coriolanus is a favorite of Shakespearean scholars, several of whom have declared the play to be dramatically perfect -- high praise indeed. T.S. Eliot said it was Shakespeare's best play (although Eliot wasn't a fan of Hamlet anyway). On this first reading, I found it less arresting than Macbeth or King Lear, for example, but certainly on par with Julius Caesar, if not better than its more-popular Roman counterpart. It also seems easier to stage than Shakespeare's other tragedies.

So, what gives? Why do modern readers and theater directors ignore this play?

Perhaps it's because, after creating the vast consciousnesses of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Cleopatra, Shakespeare gives us a tragic hero who is dramatically flat. He seems to have no inward life at all -- no imagination, no mystery, no soul-searching. As a character, he does precisely what Shakespeare tells him to do. Unlike Hamlet or Lear, Coriolanus doesn't feel "real" to us, and we can't imagine him walking off the stage into real life.

Which begs the question: What happened to Shakespeare? In a span of just months, he had written the greatest tragedies in the English language and created characters whose consciousnesses shaped our understanding of our own humanity. Here, as Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare suddenly pulls back. Like the "problem plays" that marked the end of Shakespeare's comedic career, Coriolanus and the upcoming Timon of Athens close Shakespeare's tragic period.

But why? What is it that drives Shakespeare away from his greatest creations? Maybe it's sheer exhaustion; you can't blame him for that. Or maybe it's something deeper; maybe Shakespeare became disillusioned with tragedy in the same way he became disillusioned with comedy earlier in his career. If so, his tragic epilogue is infinitely more successful than the sour, unsatisfying problem comedies.


  1. I was fascinated (having finally resumed my reading, and racing to start catching up). Dramatically compelling, and basically beautifully written - yet, I found myself missing something. I missed the remarkable soliloquies of the its predecessors - the drama just trucks along. And then I got to Volumnia's amazing speech in Act 5. But I think perhaps, in respect to readers & directors - by that late in the evening, if we were going to lose interest, then it's been lost well before this.
    I also thought the ending seemed abrupt - what about Rome? Last we saw them they were happy and everything was looking rosy for them. It feels a bit like he recognized that he could keep going on this for another three acts, so he just stopped.
    Nonetheless, on the whole I liked it. Looking forward to the movie due out in November!

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jay, and good luck on catching up! We have a non-play week coming up soon (for Shapiro's "Who Wrote Shakespeare"), so hopefully you'll have time to catch up a bit then.