|Illustration by Rockwell Kent (Virgilia: The sorrow that delivers us thus chang'd / Makes you think so. Coriolanus, Act 5, Scene 3)|
Coriolanus is one of the plays that we know only from the First Folio. It was, in fact, meant to be the first play in the section devoted to the tragedies, but Troilus and Cressida was inserted before it late in the printing. One editor calls it "the worst printed play in the whole First Folio" because of perceived corruptions in its text, which have led to a long history of corrections and emendations. This may show that it was set from Shakespeare's own manuscript, without the intervention of someone such as a prompter regularizing the speech-headings, stage directions and the spelling of names. Brockbank argues that editors should be conservative in making changes for this reason.
There are act divisions but no scene divisions in the Folio. The early editors introduced the scene divisions, as well as locations that can be derived from the text. The stage directions are unusually elaborate, and "show Shakespeare more than usually conscious of the sounds and movements of the spectacle."
The consensus holds that Coriolanus was written between 1605 and 1610. The earlier date comes from Shakespeare's use of William Camden's Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britain, which is the source of the "fable of the belly" in Act 1, Scene 1. Camden's book was published in 1605, although its dedicatory epistle is dated June 1603, so it's possible that Shakespeare saw it in manuscript. The argument for the terminal date is based on a possible allusion to Shakespeare's play in Ben Jonson's Epicoene, which was performed in late 1609 or early 1610. There is also an apparent reference to the great frost of the winter of 1607-08, when the Thames froze so solid that fires could be lighted in the middle of the river. Others have suggested that the death of Shakespeare's mother in 1608 inspired the treatment of Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia, who plays a greater role in the play than she does in its source, Plutarch's Lives.
The corn riots in the play are also from Plutarch, but some scholars have called attention to "the Oxfordshire rising of 1597 and the Midlands disturbances of 1608/7 in dating the play. Brockbank argues, however, "Food shortages in the towns and peasant discontents in the country were commonplace both in Elizabeth's reign and James's owing to the displacement of tillage by pasture and to the widespread enclosure of common land," so that any specific riot is not of much use in setting a date of composition.
Some have argued that Coriolanus is drawn from "Raleigh, or Essex, or even ... King James himself," and Brockbank notes, "it is good to know that the virtues and defects of Essex as a soldier ... were much like those of Coriolanus, and that divided command was a theme in Shakespeare's England as well as in ancient Rome." But "Both Rome and England offered older precedents for conflict between king and commons."
In the end, Brockbank concurs with "[E.K.] Chambers's necessarily tentative conclusion that the play 'may have been produced early in 1608' and therefore suppose[s] that it was Shakespeare's final tragedy."
The principal source, as already noted, was Plutarch's Lives, in which Coriolanus's biographic parallel is Alcibiades. But in turning it into a play, Shakespeare was going it alone: There had been no previous plays about Coriolanus with which he might have been familiar. His reshaping of the source material was considerable: "he allows to figures who appear transiently, intermittently, or tardily in the source a continuing presence in the play, and endows each with an individuality and a representative significance." The character of Volumnia, for example, "is pre-eminently Shakespeare's, with her political and rhetorical powers extended through the play from evidence the source partly offers." He also reorders events, turning several of the popular uprisings into a single one.
It is evident that Shakespeare chose this particular historical subject with contemporary events in mind.
Shakespeare's tragic art is alive to the energies and stresses of the political life of Rome that were still promptly intelligible to a Jacobean audience because they still threatened the integrity of the state. It is an art that transposes political conflict into the agon or ritual conflict of the theatre, and it is attended by the historical insight that sustains political continuities over a span of two thousand years.He had dealt with popular uprising before, in Henry VI, Part 2, in Julius Caesar, and in the portion of Sir Thomas More that has been attributed to him. But the play is as much about a personal crisis as it is about a political one. "Pride is the essence of Martius' nature, at once his vice and virtue, the instrument of his service to the Roman state and the source of his bond with his mother."
Menenius's "parable of the belly" sets the political theme early in the play. "Shakespeare's contemporaries had inherited from many sources the conviction that the state is, or ought to be, a unity made from a variety of functions, a system of mutual responsibilities." In Plutarch, the uprising is the product of "war and usury," but Shakespeare shifts the emphasis to famine, thereby heightening the theme of the organic unity of the state.
On the personal level, the struggle within Coriolanus is to maintain his integrity, to hold to his "conviction that valour is the whole of virtue." And valor is maintained by adhering to "a military ideal. Menenius in contrast represents the mature patrician awareness that the state must somehow be kept whole, saved from disintegration." The integrity of the individual, i.e., Coriolanus, thereby come into conflict with the integrity of the state.
"The tragedy requires ... that the impersonal stresses of the Roman state be acted out in the relationship between the Roman mother and her Roman son." In Shakespeare, Volumnia embodies the "Roman heroic tradition" and it is she who shapes "the youthful Martius' inclination to the wars that Plutarch reports." She embodies "the matronly disciplines of Rome and Sparta." Shakespeare plays with the audience's sympathies, enlisting "sympathy for the virtus that disdains compromise," even as we see the tragic results.
The engagement and alienation of the audience's sympathies are so regulated that is is not easy wholly to acquiesce in Coriolanus' sense of the significance of his banishment or wholly to resist it.... We ... admire the disinherited Roman who cries "There is a world elsewhere" far more than we could the conforming mountebank.But at the same time, we are asked to judge the excess of pride that undermines Coriolanus.
The image of the state as a body, set forth by the "parable of the belly" at the beginning of the play, recurs in Coriolanus's physical revulsion at the bad breath of the common people. "Characteristically, Martius' physical nausea reaches us as a judgement -- that of the triumphant body upon common carcasses. It is another manifestation of pride."
By making Coriolanus shrink from displaying his wounds to the people (in Plutarch he readily goes through with it) Shakespeare focuses further action and spectacle upon the hero's body, and much of the thought and metaphor is attentive to the unity of body and mind. It is "integrity" in yet another sense: we are under pressure to realize that all qualities of the spirit have a physical manifestation.In the end, "the 'stinking breaths' that Coriolanus is obliged to beg in the market-place are those that whoop him out of Rome."
Valor proves to be insufficient: "The integrity of the soldier destroys the integrity of the man." It is the "uncompromising ideal of military virtue" that makes it impossible for Coriolanus to live in peace. "Shakespeare diagnoses the great hubristic drive that moved those heroes of the ancient world whose god was Mars."
The role of Aufidius, much amplified from the source, is designed by Shakespeare both as a vehicle for the measured, political judgements upon Martius which North's Plutarch advances and many of the plays critics would endorse, and as vital proof that absolute virtue in the service of Mars cannot coexist with those skills and insights of expedience that in the play he shares with Volumnia and the tribunes.... Aufidius' jealousy shapes the plot into a form that may be seen to satisfy historical and tragic laws.... But his plot can work only if he can divert the "great shouts of the people" to his own ends, exploiting the terrible instabilities of the situation.The tragedy works out as a "purging of hubris, the pride of power, both from the state and from its hero.... Coriolanus stages his own death with an effect contrary to that which Aufidius designed for it, making it a triumph, not a humiliation." In Coriolanus's surrender to death "the tragic recovery of the old self is also a farewell to it."
The language of the play, as with most of Shakespeare's late plays, is strikingly innovative, putting "pressure upon the resources of the language, turning it to new notes, compelling old words to fresh service, coining novel new ones, recovering forgotten ones." In Coriolanus Shakespeare frequently turns nouns into verbs or participles, or uses words in rare or unique senses.
The heroic idiom apart, there is often reason to admire the ordinary talk of the play, and its continuities from plebeian to patrician settings. Menenius' gift for talking to, if not listening to, the people, is owed to his being allowed something of Shakespeare's taste for proverbs (no gentleman uses a proverb), domestic wit, and vulgar wisdom.
There is no evidence that Coriolanus was actually performed during Shakespeare's lifetime, but the unusually detailed stage directions show that it was certainly ready to be performed. And the appearance of Coriolanus plays in other countries and languages suggests that the story had a wide appeal. The earliest known theatrical version of the story was a pageant performed in Milan in 1453 during Francisco Sforza's campaign against Venice. In 1599, Hermann Kirchner of Marburg wrote a Coriolanus play whose themes are "moral rather than political and have to do with the damaging consequences of ungoverned passion." Between 1625 and 1821, there were fifteen French plays dealing with Coriolanus.
In 1681, Nahum Tate created a pastiche called The Ingratitude of a Common-Wealth using parts of Shakespeare with some "lurid" additions involving rape, suicide and torture. John Dennis did another adaptation in 1719. Shakespeare's original was revived in 1721 and 1722, but disappeared from the stage for thirty years, during which James Tomson wrote another play on the theme, which was combined with Shakespeare's in a hybrid version in 1752. David Garrick brought the Shakespeare play back to the stage in 1754 in a condensed version. The hybrid Shakespeare-Thomson version was performed off and on at Covent Garden until 1768. Then there was a twenty-year hiatus until John Philip Kemble staged Shakespeare's unadulterated play in 1789.
Edmund Kean performed a restored version of Shakespeare's play "with omissions only" in 1820, but it was poorly received because Kean was miscast in the title role. William Macready took on the role in 1819, but the reception was mixed. Samuel Phelps had a success in the role, but after 1860 the play disappeared from the London stage for forty years. During that time it was performed several times in the United States by Edwin Forrest. Frank Benson and Henry Irving brought it back to the London stage in 1901.
But the performance that gained Coriolanus a solid foothold in the repertoire was that of Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic in 1938. Subsequently, Alec Clunes, Anthony Quayle, John Clements and Richard Burton had successes in the role. And in 1959, Olivier triumphed again in a production at Stratford directed by Peter Hall with Edith Evans as Volumnia. Ian Richardson and Nicol Williamson have also been successful in the part.
In the twentieth century, the political themes of the play inspired adaptations by Günter Grass and Bertolt Brecht, and a controversial reworking of the original as A Place Calling Itself Rome by John Osborne in 1973.
|Nicolas Poussin, Coriolanus, c. 1640. Many eighteenth-century productions were inspired by the paintings of Poussin and Tiepolo.|
|Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Coriolanus at the Walls of Rome, c. 1730|