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Coriolanus by Shakespeare Dallas and the Relevance of Shakespeare's Mature Plays
What is Coriolanus?
Coriolanus is Shakespeare's last political tragedy (written circa 1610). It is every bit as good as any other play the Bard composed but it has not been often performed. It recounts the true story of Caius Martius Coriolanus and is based upon the portion of Plutarch's Lives concerning Coriolanus.
The play takes place during the time of the Republic in Rome, about 500 years before the time of Julius Caesar. The immediate action of the story takes place when the Roman senate has just granted the plebians (commoners) 5 tribunes to represent them. Caius Martius, a celebrated war hero, is returning home to his wife, Virgilia, his mother Volumnia, and his young son. Plebians demanding free corn are appeased by the appointment of the tribunes but Caius Marcius insults them and professes his distaste for their class. He is quickly sent back to the battle field where he fights bravely and wins the town of Corioli. For his valor, he is named Caius Martius Coriolanus and is offered the position of consul. However, Coriolanus' pride and two scheming tribunes will turn success into tragedy...
Why isn't it performed?
Coriolanus is gradually gaining more recognition (no doubt due in part to the release of Ralph Fiennes's film version released last year) but it is still not performed very often. It was not performed often during the 1600s, probably because of its intensely political plot which could have sparked controversy and endangered the players. As the political climate in England stabilized and as Shakespeare's plays began to come to America, the performance of the play increased but even to this day is remains less popular than similar plays like Julius Caesar. The reason these days is that the play is commonly thought too full of long-winded speeches and too single-minded to be entertaining. That is truly a shame because Coriolanus is probably one of Shakespeare's most mature and thoughtful works. It is certainly one of his most politically charged plays.
- Coriolanus | Shakespeare Dallas
If you are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, check them out. They are doing an excellent production of Coriolanus through the 20th. Their production of Twelfth Night is good as well.
Where can I see Coriolanus performed?
You can watch the Ralph Fiennes film version which is currently available on DVD or from Netflix. I have not watched it yet but I will update this page as soon as I do.
There is also a BBC version done in the 80s but I do not recommend it because it was not very well-acted and probably won't endear the play to you at all.
If you live in the Dallas Fort Worth area, Shakespeare Dallas is performing Coriolanus on July 18th, 19th, and 20th at the Samuell Grand Amphitheater. I just saw their production and it is very good. The actors carry it well and the fight scenes are fun to watch and well-choreographed. If you are in the area, check them out. I have provided a link to their website.
How is it relevant?
Coriolanus addresses a lot of political and social issues that are still relevant today. Among these are wealth, the acquisition of public office, and political battles.
Wealth: The plebian's (the "99%") question the right of the patricians (the "1%") to hold the wealth. Memenius, a friend of Coriolanus, tries to pacify them with a parable of how the other body parts rebelled against the stomach. In the parable, the stomach replies that it distributes energy to the body so it has the right to hold the food. Memenius says the stomach is the patricians and the rebellious body parts are the plebians. He says that the patricians distribute the wealth through society to event the lowliest plebians. Memenius' argument is essentially the argument of "trickle-down-wealth" made by many politicians and economists today.
Public Office: Coriolanus is talked into seeking office of consul (partly because he has a "war record") but disdains the process of "campaigning" in Ancient Rome. He feels it is undignified to "beg" the plebians to vote for him and refuses to follow the practice of showing his wounds in public to gain votes. Through Coriolanus' struggle, Shakespeare demonstrates the dual nature of politicians. On the one hand they command the people because of their qualifications; on the other hand, they must court the favor of the general public, often by flattering them or by following certain practices (kissing babies or giving rallies) or making "campaign promises." This paradox is just as true today as it was in the days of the Roman Republic.
Political Battles: The tribunes turn the plebians against Coriolanus. They rightly point out that he scorns the plebians but they falsely accuse him of conspiring to strip away the plebians's freedom. Accusing politicians of trying to take away the people's freedom (true or not) have always been used in political battles and Shakespeare demonstrates the complicated nature of such contests.
No matter which side the reader stands on in these issues, they are just as relevant today as they were in Shakespeare's time (some possibly more so as our government in America is closer politically to the Rome's Republic than Shakespeare's England was.