Post 30

A Strong Man: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Last week I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  I like going to plays and movies, but you might not believe me if you were to hear me talk afterwards, because I have a lot of criticisms.  A few days ago, I began sorting through these criticisms in the context of a new blog post.

But then the day before yesterday, I attended a talk where the topic was penance.  The priest said that when Vatican II removed some of the requirements for fasting, this was not because penance was unimportant, but rather, because penance is best done voluntarily, and not out of a sense of compulsion.  Unfortunately, the effect was that penance isn’t thought about nearly as much.  He had us imagine something: what if, for one year, all the Catholics in the world gave up, as penance, the practice of complaining?

Indeed – what a positive change that would make!

As soon as he said this, my mind immediately went to the blog post which you are reading now, and which was still a work-in-progress when I heard him speak. I wondered: is it okay to discuss my issues regarding the Coriolanus performance, or should I keep any negative thoughts to myself?


There’s something so dignified about a composed silence.  I can picture it now: there I am gliding gracefully out the theatre with a smile on my face, radiating contentment – not a single emphatic word passes my lips. The placid exterior would betray no hint of the thoughts ricocheting around in my head.

Mind you, the priest did say that there was an exception about complaining when you’re trying to instruct or educate.  Do I get to use that exception to say what I thought about the Coriolanus performance?  I asked DiligentOne yesterday morning about it, and I think she’s letting me off the hook, because she said that discussing any topic can have the appearance of complaining, but that’s not the end of the matter.  She gave me an analogy about cleaning and reorganizing a drawer.  She said, “First, it has to get messy as you take everything out and spread it all over – this may appear as complaining to some degree, but the problem does have to be spelled out.”  She continued: “Then you put things back into the drawer in order – you talk about it and put the problem in its true perspective and shed light on a solution, or you show a new perspective.”

Hey, I like that!

Thank you, DiligentOne.

So then, now that we’ve gotten that issue out of the way, why don’t you pull up a chair? I’m dying to tell you about a play that I saw.

So I read this Coriolanus play before heading out the door (and I even brought a copy of the script with me, as odd as that is) partly because I wanted to come to my own conclusions about what Shakespeare was saying before seeing someone else’s interpretation.  I was looking forward to the show as I settled into my seat.

And you know, it was so nice to be out with family and friends, wearing shoes that matched my new purse, that I found myself in a forgiving mood even with respect to costumes.  Nowadays almost every Shakespearean play is done in modern clothing. (Doing a modern adaptation is considered a fresh idea, even though everybody everywhere does it regularly.  Besides, it’s a lot cheaper.) This time they were all wearing khaki clothing sprayed with sort of a black metallic substance.  True, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the Volscian soldiers and the Roman mob, but as long as you had your script with you, you were okay.  Otherwise, you better notice that when they donned sunglasses and a hat, they were Volscians, and if they took them off, they were the Roman mob.   Or perhaps it was the other way around.

If they held sticks, that meant they were Roman soldiers, except for the times when this meant that they were Volscian soldiers or an angry mob.  Some had blackened faces most of the time, which might have represented something.  Almost everyone looked like gang members all of the time, but the consul (the bad guys) looked like mafia members.  The women who were not being Roman mob members or soldiers were wearing gray power suits with high heels.  They had their hair slicked back and looked every inch the corporate warrior.

But anyway, it was a pleasant evening, and the show was outside in a multi-acre park, so I was also in a forgiving mood with respect to the set and props.  I’ve gotten used to these sets that don’t change for the whole two hours, and the black cubes and rectangles which mean something to someone.  The actors move them around, and we’re supposed to notice that cubes which used to be parallel to the stage are now perpendicular to the stage, which CHANGES THINGS ENTIRELY.  “Aha!” we are supposed to say, “Well, now we’re obviously outside the city walls!” and then, “Aha! Now we’re at the Volscian headquarters!”  The actors sometimes sit on the cubes, which means that the cubes are probably chairs, and sometimes the actors stand on the cubes, which means that they’re probably not chairs.

One time I saw a production of A Tale of Two Cities that used a lot of rope.  I wasn’t familiar with the story so I couldn’t figure out what on earth the first scene was about.   A lot of actors were lying on their backs all over the stage while other people crawled around them.  I thought it was an ocean scene, and the people were representing waves or something like that.  I was probably about two-thirds through the show when I figured out that the first scene was about grave robbers and those horizontal people were corpses.

I suppose minimalism has its place, but I don’t think theatre sets are that place – at least, not to the extent that we see it nowadays. The nature of theatre means that sets will already be rather bare-bones; we don’t have to make them even more so.  The set should support and serve the actors and the script, by providing the context for the story.   Nowadays we have the opposite: the actors and the script are at the service of the set, which is coyly playing the game, “Guess what I am.”  Instead of the set illuminating the text, the text and actors explain the set.  The audience members watch the show but part of their brain is engaged with figuring out what that rope-chain-ladder-hoop-tower thing is.  Who says that a fleshed-out set is distracting and a minimalist set isn’t?  Confusion is distracting.  The audience members won’t admit that they don’t know what that contraption over there is, because they think maybe they should know what it is or, more commonly nowadays, what it symbolizes.   Meanwhile the actors have been imagining that this cube is a gorgeous throne for so long that they forget that it looks like a cube to the rest of us.   This approach is supposed to be stylish, I know, but I suspect that there’s another element: as a designer, it’s hard to be earnest and give it your best shot when you feel the gaze of those who are cynical, so as a self-preservation tactic, you go to the other extreme: everything is vague and undefined.  All the responsibility is put back onto the audience to ‘get it’ – if they don’t, it’s their lack of imagination, and not the designer’s lack of effort or ability. 

But believe it or not, I wasn’t thinking too critically about all this as I watched it. After all, it was a lovely July evening and I was out on the town, and I really like being out on the town.

So if I didn’t complain about the sets, and I didn’t complain about the costumes, and I even accepted much of the abridgement of the play, then perhaps you think I gracefully glided out of that theatre?

“Pah!” said the thirteenth fairy, as she opened that drawer and started pulling everything out, spreading the mess all over the place.

Let me begin by saying that Coriolanus is about a war hero.  He’s not a politician, and he doesn’t know how to play those political games – or, probably more accurately – doesn’t want to play them.  He says what’s on his mind.  He’ll say that the mob is fickle and cowardly, rather than win them over with smooth words.  He is complex, because some say he’s proud (and sure enough, he’s capable of getting his pride wounded) yet on the other hand, he can’t stand it when his mother brags about him, and he squirms when people heap praise on him for his valiant deeds.

When he gets furious and vows to destroy Rome for its maltreatment and ingratitude towards him, it seems like nothing and nobody will be able to stop him.  However, when his wife, mother and son arrive to plead with him, he relents and abandons his plan of revenge.

The father-type character in the play is named Menenius.  He’s a wise and dignified older man who loves Coriolanus like a son.  He refers to himself as “thy old father Menenius” and when he emotionally begs Coriolanus to spare Rome, he says, “O, my son, my son, thou art preparing a fire for us.”  After stubbornly refusing to hear Menenius, Coriolanus nevertheless says afterwards: “This last old man / Whom with a cracked heart I have sent to Rome / Loved me above the measure of a father / Nay godded me indeed.”  (Act 5, Scene 2)

But the production that I saw last Tuesday altered the Menenius character so drastically that instead of a father figure, we got a loud-mouthed friend.  We got a Menenius who was comical, rough and overbearing instead of dignified.  This Menenius used physical humour, such as grabbing his abdomen with both hands and shaking it.  Why did we get a character who seemed witty but not wise, who showed no fatherly tendencies, and who never seemed weak or sympathetic?

Something which was so obvious in the script had disappeared.  The lines were mostly there, but the presentation and the delivery meant that Menenius was altered beyond recognition, and we lost the father figure.  Instead, we got someone who was clever and yet similar in every other way to Homer Simpson.  (Nowadays it seems that most fathers portrayed in the mass media are dense and useless; one can only guess at the effects of our culture’s ridicule of fatherhood.)

Any strength that Menenius had was very external.  The actor had a commanding stage presence and he was blustery, loud, and abrupt.  He often had the last word in arguments, but these lines came across as witty and condescending, not as thoughtful and intelligent. It didn’t help that he had the same basic outfit as the bad guys.

I guess it’s how we understand strength nowadays.  It’s always sort of an active thing: you are strong because you are the clanging cymbal, you are a go-getter and you go out and change the world.  You are like Julius Caesar: you came, you saw, you conquered.  You are getting things done, you are busy.  The world knows you’re good because they saw your picture in a magazine with the poor of Africa.  But when you’re not out doing good works, you show your strength in defeating your competitor in business, in sports, in politics, in argument.  I exaggerate, but you understand my point.

Is it any wonder that women are encouraged to ‘get out there’ into the ‘real world’ where they can ‘make a difference’?  Strength is understood entirely as an external thing.  Real influence is something tangible, and so any other way of influencing, shaping and guiding destinies is forgotten or laughed off as well-intentioned, but basically pointless.  On this view, a group of cloistered nuns would be just taking up space, yet I’ve heard that our archbishop refers to the local convent of Carmelite nuns as the powerhouse of the archdiocese.

And along these lines, the strength that was exhibited by the mother of Coriolanus in this production was very obvious and used like a blunt instrument.  She was dominant, loud and quick with her answers.  When she argued, she won.

The pivotal section of dialogue in the play, where the mother begs her son to change his mind, was not presented as a touching, emotional scene.  It was basically a power struggle, with Coriolanus quickly vanquished.  It all makes sense.  When strength is conceived as an external thing, as one person against another, then there’s a winner and a loser.  In this case, Coriolanus lost.  He wanted one thing, but his mother wanted another, and she was stronger, so she won.  The end.  By the time that dialogue was finished, the mother had emerged as the undisputed victor.  She stared down the audience and strutted offstage in her high heels. The fact that Coriolanus was soon killed by his enemy was anti-climactic, because we had already watched the hero being decimated by his mother.  Aufidius the enemy destroyed the body, but the mother had killed his spirit.

The wife meanwhile, was made to look like a helpless wimp, with no real purpose.  In the original script, Coriolanus proclaims the incredible power of wordless gentleness.  When his wife curtsies to him, he cries, “What is that curtsy worth? Or those dove’s eyes which can make gods forsworn?  I melt, and am not of stronger earth than others.” But lines such as these didn’t have any weight in this production, because instead of highlighting the feminine version of strength, this production always glorified the masculine version.

It’s not how I would have done it.  Yeah, nobody asked me, but if they had, I would have told them.

It’s because the very words of the script show a lot more depth than that.  Shakespeare was a playwright interested in exploring the big issues.  (The evidence that he was Catholic is quite considerable, and that would explain a lot.)  I don’t think this play’s climax is all about a power struggle, in the form of an argument between mother and son.  That isn’t particularly engaging or meaningful, and although you may perhaps get a winner and a loser out of an argument, you’ll never get any heroes.  Who do you cheer for at the end of the day: the steamroller mother or the flattened son?  You can pretend Shakespeare was exploring the psychology of mother-son issues, but that’s kind of a modern way to find a deeper meaning, and it becomes quite strange quite quickly.

I return to the issue of strength, as it was one that interested Shakespeare in this play.  When is Coriolanus strongest?  Was he strong when he disdained the people and didn’t care what they thought of him?  Perhaps.  Was he strong when he single-handedly defeated the town?  Physically, definitely.  Was he strong when he went to rejoin and assist his commander after he had already fought his own significant battle?  Indeed, he was, and he showed loyalty too.  Was he strong when he chose to avenge himself on his home city, in wounded pride, or was he strong when he overcame his desire for revenge and allowed the pleas of his family to change his heart?

The best of stories go beyond the external displays of strength.  The internal struggles are the toughest.

Here Coriolanus was really stuck: on the one hand, he wanted to avenge his honour and on the other hand, he felt pulled to show compassion.  Look at what Coriolanus’ enemy says: “I am glad thou has set thy mercy and thy honour / At difference in thee.”  He is saying that the real fight is going on inside Coriolanus (and he’s going to take advantage of that)!  Mercy fights honour.  And Coriolanus himself exclaims, “It is no little thing to make / Mine eyes to sweat compassion.”  A man who shows compassion is a good man.  A man who shows compassion when he wants revenge is a great man.

And isn’t this the Christian story?  You know: the story of a God who, instead of taking revenge on humanity, extends mercy.  This mercy involves the death of God himself, something too strange to fully understand.  And so I argue now for something which occurred to me only ten minutes ago: is it ridiculous to suppose that this Christian playwright was presenting the life of this pre-Christian man as one which followed the sacrificial pattern of Christ’s life?

Coriolanus chooses to show mercy, the people are spared, and he has died an ignoble death.  The last line of the play (omitted, you will not be surprised, in the performance that I saw) was supposed to be, “He shall have a noble memory.”  Returning to the words of Menenius quoted above, Shakespeare says that the father considers Coriolanus to be even better than a son; he considers him, or treated him like, a god.

And come to think of it, maybe this is how everything fits together.  The fickleness of the mob is a large theme here, as it is in the story of Christ’s passion.  The following lines, which were also omitted from the performance which I saw, prove how at first the crowds loved Coriolanus.  They are unmistakably a reference to Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, when the crowds loved Jesus:

The dumb men throng to see him, and the blind / To hear him speak.  Matrons flung gloves, / Ladies and maids their scarves and handkerchiefs, / Upon him as he passed.  The nobles bended / As to Jove’s statue . . .”

 – William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act 2, Scene 2)

And if this interpretation is correct, then the loss of the father figure is an even worse problem than it seemed when I first considered it.  It means we lose the voice of the Father; we lose the voice of the one who says, “This is my son; listen to him.”

Yes, I think that this deeper meaning may very well be what Shakespeare intended here.  Coriolanus may be a story about a man who, like Christ, chose mercy instead of his own honour, who chose compassion instead of revenge.

There.  Now I feel better.

Now I can close the drawer and glide out of the room with a smile on my face.