Thursday, 29 December 2016

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare.

When I look back at my reading year I'd say 2016 was the year of the English Renaissance history play. I've been reading a lot this year, from King Johan by John Bale (1534) to Shakespeare's plays on the English kings and Roman politicians and more in between, and I've enjoyed the Tudor and Jacobean portrayal of some of England and Rome's most famous names. And so, it's fitting to finish 2016 (for this will be my last review, though not necessarily my last post) with Coriolanus: not only is it the final of Shakespeare's Roman plays, but it's also Shakespeare's final tragedy.

Coriolanus was written around 1605 and 1608 (the same time as Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Macbeth and King Lear) and it is based Plutarch's account of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, a Roman general of the 5th Century B.C., from The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (2nd Century A.D.). The play begins with a riot: the people of Rome, which has recently suffered a famine, are protesting as the stores of grain are still being withheld from the people, blaming in particular Caius Marcius (Coriolanus), a general. As Menenius Agrippa attempts to soothe the crowds Caius Marcius is contemptuous, aggravating the situation. Before it gets too much worse however, Caius Martius departs to fight in the war against Volsci (an Italian tribe). When he returns the Volscians have been defeated and Caius Martius has proved to be a great hero. He is given the nickname "Coriolanus" and begins to get involved in politics. Seeking election, however, is a difficult matter given his previous contempt for the common people. Brutus (Tiberius Junius Brutus) and Sicinius (Lucius Sicinius Vellutus), both of whom have witnessed his bad behaviour, make sure to thwart him at every turn and portray him as an enemy of Rome after he wins the support of the Roman Senate. Coriolanus' reaction, his rejection of democracy, leads to exile. Once exiled in Antium (another part of Italy said to be founded by Anteias, the son of Odysseus) Coriolanus plots along with Attius Tullius (the leader of the Volsci) to invade Rome. When Coriolanus finally sees reason, however, it is too late.

I don't think Coriolanus is the most striking of Shakespeare's plays but, as ever, he is excellent writing on ambition, political disputes and plots (he shone the brightest however, in my opinion, in Richard III). I found it essentially plot-driven: the story itself is great, but the characters less so and it does rather lack depth. Coriolanus struggles, as others do, to fill the hole left by Tarquin the Proud (Lucius Tarquinius Superbus), the final king of Rome who was overthrown in 509 B.C. and that subject of almost desperate ambition despite personal unsuitability is something Shakespeare writes very well on, but, as I say, Coriolanus is not a good example of this: for a truly good example, one must turn to his English histories.

On a final note: I've been reading a lot of Shakespeare this year: part of this was intentional, I was eager to re-read the histories, but in doing so I was pushed into the tragedies! I've now actually finished re-reading both the tragedies and histories, and I find I have only eight comedies left, which I plan to read in 2017. Until then I have just one post left for 2016, which should be up on Saturday assuming I get the last few chores of the year out of the way!


  1. i found Coriolanus harder to read than some of the other plays: the language just seemed more obscure and required deeper concentration and pondering to suss out... once accomplished, though, it was quite interesting...

    1. Harder, yes, but interesting. Not a great work, but I liked it well enough :)

  2. I saw the best version of this play a few years ago put on by a bunch of recent high school graduates for free in a park. It was awesome...with rock music and everything...and their performance gave so much nuance and depth to Shakespeare's words! I'll never read this play in quite the same way again. I only wish I'd been able to film it so I could watch it again.
    P.S. I hope you had a Merry Christmas....and that you have a very Happy New Year!

    1. That sounds fantastic - I'd love to see something like that! I was thinking of getting the film at some point. I must admit it's not high on my wishlist, but I would like to see it.

      Happy New Year to you too! :)


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