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This week I watched an HD broadcast of Robert Lepage’s gripping (and griping) production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (written around 1608), which appeared at the Stratford Festival last summer. Lepage’s creative set designs and innovative use of 3D animation, not to mention powerful performances by André Sills and Lucy Peacock among others, made for an engaging experience. Furthermore, visual references to call-in shows, TV, and Twitter (in Shakespearean prose with a couple of emojis thrown in), and scenery resembling offices in Parliament Hill and political bars in Ottawa underscored the relevance of the play for modern-day audiences.
The original story is set in the early Roman Republic, as told by Plutarch–regarded in Shakespeare’s time and for early modern neo-Stoics like Rousseau as the Plut-arch biographer of ancient Greece and Rome–and liberally translated by Sir Thomas North in his 1579 Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (see here for an online version of North’s rendering of Plutarch’s life of Coriolanus). As Mary Beard points out in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, however, stories of such war heroes as Caius Martius Coriolanus and Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus exaggerated the greatness and military prowess of early Rome. What, then, was it about Plutarch’s grandiose depiction as translated by North which so intrigued and inspired Shakespeare? Let us turn to the twists and turns of the tale of Coriolanus.
Given that the family of Caius Martius–as North puts it, ‘the house of the Martians’–was from the Patrician class in Rome, these Martians might well appear to be from outer space for Shakespeare’s plebeian audiences. But the character of Caius Martius is both intriguing and contradictory: nobly born, yet orphaned (as regards his father) and so lacking in formal liberal education; of a ‘rare and excellent wit’, yet also ‘choleric and impatient.’ It may be that he consumed too many hot peppers as a child: such caloric intake would induce choleric outtakes. From his youth, he trained himself in the arts of war, and so was a martial Martian from boyhood.
His first military exploits took place during the war with the Etruscans, who dominated Rome before the Republican era. The story goes that even in his tender youth, he saved a life of a Roman, for which he was given a garland of oaken bough. Thus his head was bloodied but not un-boughed. All the honours he earned in battle did not, however, equal the approval of his mother Volumnia: as important as were his brothers-in-arms, they were nought compared to being in-mother’s-arms.
Plutarch, however, relates that Roman victories in war without the city occurred alongside class conflict within. The Senate tended to favour the interests of the rich Patrician class against those of the Plebs, who complained about rates of usury. The people, then, were unusurally stirred up. Caius Martius aligned himself with the Patricians against the people. The latter were quelled only by the oration of the Senator Menenius Agrippa, a famous speech in Shakespeare’s play: the people’s rage against the Patricians is compared to the members of a body griping against the useless belly, but the belly responds that it nourishes the rest of the body. There was no reason for these members to be so belly-cose.
The Romans then warred, under the command of the Consul Cominius, against a neighbouring tribe called the Volsces (pronounced ‘volshees’). Caius Martius’s extraordinary deeds in this campaign enabled the capture of the Volscian city of Corioli. His axiomatic valiance was naturally followed by the seizure of Corioli as its corollary. He was granted the honorific surname of ‘Coriolanus’, though in their envy, Plebeian geometers made it the ‘butt’ of their off-colour joke nickname of ‘Corollary-anus’.
Despite his military victories, the breakout of famine in Rome led to sedition and resentment of the wealthy. The Tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus whipped up the people’s hatred against this proud Patrician noble, while Coriolanus called Sicinius a ‘sissy’ and Brutus a ‘brute’. After invading the lands of the Antiates (anteater-like neighbours of the Romans), Coriolanus made Rome rich again and sought a consulship. The people were fickle and, goaded by the Tribunes, rejected Coriolanus–which only inflamed his rage, instead of seeking the Consul-ation of philosophy. Coriolanus made passionate and ‘off-choler’ remarks against the insolence and factionalism of the people, captured in full force in the play. But his arresting speech only led to his arrest. Coriolanus was banished from Rome for life. Painters who have depicted the exile of Coriolanus using the Renaissance technique of perspective have made sure to depict the fugitive at the ‘banishing point’.
In revenge, Coriolanus fled to Antium, and offered his aid in invading Rome to his erstwhile nemesis, the Volscian warrior Tullus Aufidius (whose name should ‘tell us’ that he is a portmanteau of ‘awful’ and ‘perfidious’). In his rage, Coriolanus showed himself more Volsci than Bolshie. As the Volscian forces under Coriolanus and Tullus approached Rome, its ambassadors pleaded for peace, but had their behinds kicked out-of-doors such that they were amb-ass-at-doors. But Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, accompanied by her grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and other Roman ladies, made their way to the Volsces’ camp. She made a ‘volumnious’ oration, depicted above in an 1869 painting by the Hungarian artist Soma Orlai Petrich, and convinced Coriolanus to withdraw from Rome and make peace. Volumnia became a symbol of ‘motherly dove’.
Tullus Aufidius was resentful at this thwarting of Volscian ambitions and sought Coriolanus’s death. The latter was torn apart in the marketplace of Antium by the enraged Volsces. The outcome of peace was Coriolanus in pieces (but the Volsces regretted this act, and Tullus was eventually slain in battle). Thus died this Romanly man in a most un-Roman-tic way.
‘Til next week,
Rector Ordinarius, Early Modern Coriolan-user Friendly Studies Program