Shakespeare’s Rare Plays: Coriolanus Over Time

As the Atlanta Shakespeare Company draws ever closer to having performed all of Shakespeare's work, we'll be bringing you plays from the more obscure corners of the Shakespeare canon--plays like Coriolanus.

Some might try to tell you that these rare Shakespeare plays are his 'lesser plays.' We disagree, of course, but we also realize that when it comes to these plays you might be coming in cold: while high school teachers, pop culture references and society in general tend to beat you over the head with reasons why Hamlet is a masterpiece, chances are no one's ever told you what's so great about Coriolanus.

In addition to containing one of the most complex mother-son relationships in all of Shakespeare's work (not to mention one of the most electrifying rivalries he ever created,) Coriolanus packs a powerful political punch. Beyond the wars between Antium and Rome, this play depicts an all-out class war, pitting Rome's laboring citizens against its power-holding nobility. Never one to take sides, Shakespeare gives us reason to sympathize with both groups. The lead characters might be part of the nobility, but Martius (later called Coriolanus) remains arrogant in his contempt for the citizens--a trait that he never repents, even at his death. And while the citizens might not always seem the brightest bunch, they open the play with a list of reasonable complaints against the nobility, among them that the nobility have withheld food from the rest of Rome during a famine (this was a hot topic when Shakespeare wrote the play, as England had recently experienced riots over food shortages.)

One of the most fascinating things about this play is how it has been used over time. While productions and adaptations have been relatively few compared to, say, those of Romeo and Juliet, over the past four centuries theater professionals have freely used Coriolanus as a tool for making political points. British playwright Nahum Tate, for example, adapted Shakespeare's complex work in 1682 to comment on the Whig Party's attempts to create popular resistance to royal power during the late 17th century. A staunch supporter of the elite Tory Party, he renamed the play The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth and worked to turn Martius into a more sympathetic victim of a rebellious public. And he did more than just rename the play: he turned the citizens into total clowns, painted Martius as a pious family man by beefing-up the roles of his wife and son (they died tragically at the play's end as well,) changed Martius’ mother into a minor character, and even added an entirely new villain named Nigridius!

Over two hundred years later, the Marxist playwright and director Bertholt Brecht would adopt Coriolanus to express the complete opposite political viewpoint: viewing Shakespeare's play as "the tragedy of a people with a hero against them," he turned the Tribunes into the well-meaning representatives of an oppressed lower class and rewrote the citizens as shrewd, perceptive voters. The bulk of his relationships with his mother and Aufidius (his war rival) cut once again, Martius here seemed little more than an elitist thug. Like Tate, Brecht changed Shakespeare's ending: he cut Aufidius' remorse over Martius' death and added a final scene in which the Tribunes vote against honoring Martius as a war hero.

And these are just two of many examples over the past four hundred years (another example: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, William Hurt and Vanessa Redgrave are currently filming a movie version that places the story in the context of modern anti-terrorism warfare!) That Coriolanus can be be used to uphold two opposite political viewpoints (in 1682 and 1967, respectively) is just one reason why this play deserves a spot on the shelf with Shakespeare's better-known works. At the end of this play, as in so many of Shakespeare's plays, precisely who comes out on top becomes a tricky question to answer. See what you think!

by Kristin Hall, M.A.