Dan Sandman

37: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays, Poetry on 11/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare 2Caius Martius is a soldier and not a politician. He can kill with consummate professionalism, but he cannot speak in a way which pleases the people. In Roman terms, Caius is seen by the plebeians as a proud patrician, looking down upon the people with aristocratic disdain. For a Jacobean audience, such a soldier – raised because of his exploits in battle, unable to function in a peacetime court, and eventually accused of treason – might have reminded playgoers of Sir Walter Ralegh and Robert Devereux. These recent historic echoes, most likely emanating from Shakespeare’s audience, would have been compounded by feelings of uncertainty surrounding the newly appointed King James I. As Neil Macgregor points out, Shakespeare lived in a ‘restless world’ much like our own.

In twenty-first century British politics, it is difficult to think of a Coriolanus figure. Professional soldiers are rarely celebrated in public, and former troops seldom become prominent politicians (the only example I can think of is Paddy Ashdown). Military prowess has become something mostly valued within the soldiering community, and the idea of the ‘warrior politician’ is perhaps suited to more revolutionary times. Therefore, British actor and director Ralph Fiennes’ recent film version was filmed Serbia and not Britain.

I very much admire the Fiennes adaptation. The script gives me less Shakespeare (bard written words) than other interpretations, but the stunts and special effects team have done a fantastic job. However, the version I continually return to on DVD is the 1984 production from the BBC. When I read Aufidius’ lines, it is often Mike Gwilym’s voice that jumps out at me. Gwilym’s muscular performance and overall vocal control is something to be admired. And, just as a particular actor can inspire a different reading of a text, each printed edition of Coriolanus available (Penguin, Arden, Oxford, etc) will engage with the reader in a different way. For example, this NCS (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) edition (see picture) includes a one hundred and one page introduction, full notes underneath the script, and an incredibly detailed textual analysis section. All of this extra information, spawned from four hundred years of interpretation, will not be of interest to most people. However, for scholars such as myself, it will provide sustenance and stimulation.

And a companion for life.

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