Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

… What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?

These are the first lines out of the mouth of Caius Martius, the doomed anti-hero of Shakespeare’s late play, Coriolanus. This aphoristic insult is directed at a group of Rome’s plebeians, a rabble who envy and despise the soldier Martius, and who see him as a chief threat to their existence. This barb struck me as both brilliantly comic (thinking, as I was, of so many people on Twitter who I often feel need to hear these very words) and deeply caustic, summing up so much of the mood of this dark and ingenious play.

Coriolanus, which is a title Martius takes on after a particular victory on the battlefront, is called Shakespeare’s most political play. In Martius, we see a hardened, battle-scarred warrior being wheedled and browbeat by his domineering mother and various advisors to take on the role of a politician. He is ill-suited for the job, especially when he must prostrate himself in front of the loathed plebeians and their representative tribunes in Rome in order to gain their favour. Martius cannot shake the cunning from either his words or his deeds, and soon finds himself expelled from Rome and teaming up with his own sworn enemy, Aufidious of the Volscians. What ensues is a desperate mother’s plea for peace, a double cross, and, in true tragic fashion, a surprising and brutal death.

I first got interested in this play after seeing the Ralph Fiennes’ film version a few years ago, which sets the action of the story in a contemporary period. There is a deeply primal pulse to this play, a commentary on the animalistic side of masculinity and the need to strike a balance between diplomacy and one’s deepest held convictions and rages. Needless to say, it struck a number of cords for me. Now, having read the play itself, I can say without a doubt that this obscure and rarely staged Shakespeare play is my absolute favourite. Coriolanus’ inability to hold his tongue, to put on airs of compliance in front of those he despites for the greater good, and to navigate his desperately complex relationship with his mother, Volumnia, makes this play a raucous tour de force.

And for all of the story’s darkness, Shakespeare leavens many moments with wry wit and biting humour. I grew deeply invested in the relationship between Coriolanus and Meneius, his oldest and most trustworthy advisor, even as the latter’s comic alcoholism pivots much of the action towards tragedy. There are a number of delightful “near misses” in this play whereby Martius could have saved himself from disaster. And I was with him every step of the way as he made the decisions that helped to seal his fate. A riveting and deeply provocative masterpiece. Go read it if you haven’t already.

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