Why This Play?:
BECAUSE AFTER A TEN MONTH BREAK FROM THE BLOG I HAD TO PICK A PLAY, ANY PLAY!
I’m one of the three people on the planet who have a Netflix account that still includes DVD borrowing. For about seven months, I had a Netflix copy of Coriolanus sitting in my to-do pile [Everyone has a physical to-do pile, right? Mine consists of jury duty summons and PTA flyers and resides in a corner of my kitchen counters.]. When I finally read the play, I sat on it for another two months before actually writing this post. Count on me to be so close to the end of this project to read the entire canon and to get distracted by something new and shiny in the final round.
That “new and shiny” thing I’ve been distracted with for the past few months? Oh, just grad school to reboot my career. A new leap, a new set of skills and goals and work that have sort of rearranged my entire family’s life. But we’ll pause on that for a bit…on the prideful downfall of a Roman warrior and his loose connection to my little life!
So What Happens?:
The regular ol’ working class of Rome is unhappy, namely, because they’re on the brink of starvation. The plebians are gathering to gripe about the government, and proud military man Caius Martius scoffs at them, claiming everyday folks can scarcely understand the workings of an empire (especially if they never fight on its behalf). To him, the fact they picked two nitwits like Sicinius and Brutus to be their representatives (known as tribunes) just proves their foolishness. Aristocratic politician Menenius Agrippa has a better approach – he talks with the people in a friendly and familiar manner, explaining that the upper classes aren’t responsible for the food crisis. He gives a folksy little speech relaying the upper class to the belly of a body, seemingly growing fat but really there to distribute energy to the other limbs, right on down to the big toe that is the common man. It looks like Menenius may have calmed the people down…but Martius still thinks most of them should be hanged.
Beatrix Kiddo proving the power of the common man
What with Rome being an ever-expanding empire and all, we know they’re always warring with someone. In this particular play, it’s the Volsces. Maritus is Rome’s star soldier, and he’s always pitted against the Volscian main man, Tullus Aufidius. They’re seriously gunning for one another, pun intended (albeit historically inaccurate as guns weren’t around just yet). Martius’s wife, Virgilia, frets over his return to the battlefield, but his mother, Volumnia, revels in it. She demands honor from her son, and war is the way to gain it in Rome. Roman generals Cominius and Titus Lartius call on Martius to fight; he’s more than willing to go to war, but he’s uncomfortable with their flattery. There’s a skirmish outside the city of Corioli, and Martius fights harder than anyone, even storming the town completely on his own. There’s a bunch of fighting and people covered in blood, and Martius and Aufidius briefly fight before the Volsces rescue their leader. While Martius gains glory and is renamed Coriolanus for his victory over Corioli, an embarrassed Aufidius vows he’ll get vengeance.
Volumnia and Menenius celebrate the return of Coriolanus, bragging about his badass war wounds and making plans for his rise to the senate. Since he’s a war hero he’s a shoe-in for politics, that is, being named consul. But first, he has to go through the traditional show of humility to the people to receive their consent, dressing in a burlap sack or whatever, showing his battle scars, and begging for their vote. It’s the ancient Roman equivalent of shaking hands and kissing babies. A reluctant Coriolanus haltingly asks some citizens for their support, saying his deeds prove his leadership better than his words can. They respond positively, and thinking the ordeal is over, he leaves to change his clothes. That’s when Sicinius and Brutus swoop in. They don’t think proud Coriolanus has a place in the senate serving the people, so they rabble-rouse those same citizens into remembering Coriolanus’s scorn for them before he became a war hero. On a dime, the people decide they want none of him.
The Romans, obviously (Princess Bride style!)
Coriolanus receives word that Aufidius has hightailed it back to Anitum to regroup. He wishes he could follow and finish him once and for all, but he’s got bigger fish to fry first. Brutus and Sicinius come to gloat that the people no longer want him to be consul, despite his support from the nobles, and Coriolanus throws a massive fit. He knew better than to trust those street urchins!! Menenius is barely able to contain the soldier and get him home for a pep talk with Volumia. She reminds her son that gaining power means kowtowing to others at times, but Coriolanus doesn’t want to be false to himself in order to gain the people’s support. Nevertheless, he agrees to try to talk to the people again. But this time, the plebians and tribunes accuse him of being a traitor to the people. Coriolanus rages before everyone that he will never again stoop before the people. The tribunes banish him from Rome, and Coriolanus curses his homeland.
Coriolanus raging out, y'all
It’s only now that Coriolanus has his first moment of true compassion in the play, comforting his family as he leaves Rome. After he’s gone, the tribunes run into Volumnia and Virgilia – the ladies ferociously hurl insults, and the men go a runnin’. Elsewhere, two citizens meet while traveling on the road, a Roman and a Volsce, and they gossip about Coriolanus’s banishment. But where’s he been all this while? Turns out Coriolanus headed straight to Antium – Volscian territory. Some serving men clown around before taking him to Aufidius [the ONLY light moment in the entire play]. Coriolanus announces his desire to wreak havoc on his former homeland, and he offers his warrior services to the Volscian army. Aufidius claims this joining of the minds makes him just as happy as his wedding day.
Me and any other audience member/reader, to Aufidius
Back in Rome, the tribunes think they’ve got it made in the shade...until word comes down that the Volscian army is coming for them again, with Coriolanus as their new leader. Menenius is very quick to say I told you so – they shouldn’t have messed with a man as dangerous as Coriolanus. Over in Volsces, Aufidius confides to his number two soldier that he’s none too happy about his own army fawning all over his arch nemesis/pretend new best friend. Meanwhile, Sicinius and Brutus finally convince Menenius to plead to Coriolanus on behalf of Rome. At a tense meeting, Coriolanus shuns him and denounces Rome, some watchmen make fun of him, and Menenius shuffles angrily away. The next envoy is Coriolanus’s very family – Volumnia, Virgilia, and his young son all come to take their turn to beg that he spare his hometown. There is a lot of family-guilt on display, women kneeling (a shocking act of reversal for a parent to kneel to their child in ancient Rome, even if he is a badass warrior), and insults to his honor and sense of family. Coriolanus, ever the sucker for his mother, finally caves.
Clearly, Volumnia = Gothel
He agrees to their suggestion to broker peace between Rome and Volsces, despite knowing this move will be his very undoing. Aufidius watches the whole ordeal, biding his time to go in for the kill. Later, Rome celebrates their new peace and hails the ladies as their saviors. Coriolanus comes from the high of being hailed as the hero of Rome who brought peace…to being accused as a traitor to the Volscians. Aufidius seizes his chance to do away with his rival once and for all and leads the Volscian mob to kill Coriolanus. In the final twist of strange, ancient begrudging sense of respect for your enemy, Aufidius arranges that Coriolanus will have a noble burial.
Check This Out:
I now finally understand what all those angry-sexy-bloody Tom Hiddleston gifs on #ShakespeareSunday are all about. That should be the subtitle for this particular blog entry! Coriolanus: A Journey in Angry-Sexy-Bloody Tom Hiddleston Gifs. Here’s one now!
I watched the Ralph Fiennes film (an update set to modern warfare with a solid cast of actors)! I only had it sitting in a Netflix envelope on my kitchen counter for seven months before getting around to it! It was kind of ok! The best part is the glorious Brian Cox as Menenius!!
On that note, here’s a tangentially related video of Brian Cox teaching lines from Hamlet to a two-year-old, only because it’s adorable and how else am I supposed to share it:
Thoughts & Themes:
And with this, I am officially done with the Roman plays! I must admit they’ve been some of the hardest for me to write about. They’re epic and full of machismo and all center on some ancient code of honor that I find difficult to understand. I was kind of relieved to see that Coriolanus (unlike the other three) didn’t include suicide. The Roman notion of honor killing is something I just cannot wrap my head around. One thing they do all have in common that does speak to me, however, is pride. And boy, as far as Shakespearean characters go, Coriolanus takes the cake on that deadly sin.
Pride is a strange thing, simultaneously a useful tool and a major downfall. Pride can be what spurs you on when you’re down. It can light a fire in your belly and help you tune out people who want to do you harm. But pride can also put blinders on a person, convince them that they alone are right despite any contrary evidence. Pride can make a person ignore warnings and friendly concern. Pride is a tightrope to tread carefully; you never want to lean too far one way or the other.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn since my last blog post is that I can’t do everything. I’ve been pretty fiercely independent since birth and take a lot of pride in being able to take care of others as well as myself. But in starting my masters and a new career path, I didn’t exactly let go of a lot of the other things that previously kept me busy (ahem, other than this blog). I spent months balancing library school, two part-time jobs, some freelance editing gigs, volunteering at my kids’ schools and Brownie troop, keeping a relatively clean house, trying to raise kind and balanced kids while managing their schedules, practicing yoga, maintaining old friendship and growing new ones, and trying somewhere in there to be a decent wife. I got a Passion Planner & managed multiple Google calendars; I could run entire weeks without forgetting anything or dropping the ball. There were days I was glowing with all that I accomplished. I was damned proud of myself for being able to get A’s on research papers and put dinner on the table each night. Then came the month of June (and yes, I do get the irony that it was Pride month).
Any parent or student will tell you that June is a weirdly stacked month, despite the fact that it’s the gateway to supposedly relaxing summer vacation. It’s chockfull of great things – parties, birthdays, longer daylight hours, and lots of end-of-school events and recitals. AND IT IS NON-STOP. In the midst of all this fun comes a whole lot of grown-ups planning in the background, making sure all the Brownie badges are distributed, the school slideshow is ready for final assembly, the birthday parties/gifts/RSVPs/thank you cards are all handled. All these special little tasks that wouldn’t be a big deal if they didn’t all happen at the same time when all of your regular duties (kids, home, school, jobs) are still going on.
I have a hard time saying no because 1) I’m a people pleaser and 2) I have enough confidence to believe that I really can be of use or add something beneficial to a group or project…that’s the good kind of pride. But as we know, pride can also be a little voice that lies to us, that tells us we don’t need anyone else’s opinions or assistance. While all this extra business swirled around me, I got peripherally pulled into a situation with a former friend. Long story short, this person spiraled into a rage of objectively bad decisions. When loved ones spoke up, this person lashed out. It’s devastating when someone who clearly needs help refuses to acknowledge that there’s even a problem. This is exactly how pride (and moreover, in this case, unchecked mental health issues) can cut a person off from a support system. Not unlike Coriolanus, this person pushed away all the very people that she needed most, convinced that everyone else around her wasn’t worth heeding.
The stress of taking on too much plus this added situation took its toll on me. One day, after a sleepless night due to worry followed by a frantic morning corralling 5th graders and a tight turnaround time on an important volunteer project, my son had a typical uncooperative five-year-old moment. I needed him to get ready for swim lessons, and he laughingly refused. I was in a hurry and emotionally overtaxed, and the kid actually started taunting me. So I did the thing I’d only done one other time ever in my kids’ presence (when they were both too small to remember it): I burst into tears. It’s downright comical to look back at it; I was weeping so hard that the kiddos thought I was faking it. It made both of them laugh harder until they realized that I wasn’t kidding. I spent the rest of the afternoon (at the damn swimming lesson!!) ashamed and making sure they weren’t too scarred from witnessing my mini-breakdown. Turns out when they saw I was ultimately ok, they reverted back to thinking it was funny.
Also turns out I had to have weeping fit to realize that I needed to start asking for help or to even just share my damn feelings and fears. Pride is a hell of a drug. I had thought it was a great asset, something that made me strong and free. But that proved to be stupid stubbornness more than anything else. I thought of all the times over the last few months, when I had been riding high on my supposed independence. But upon recollection, my husband had quietly taken on even more housework load (something he’s always been awesome at doing, by the way) without me asking. And there were many other ways that people helped me along without me even realizing it, all because I had been too proud to ask but they had seen me slipping. I hadn’t done any of it by myself. People kept offering (“Do you need the name of a babysitter?”, “Why don’t we take your daughter for a playdate?”, “Let me bring the dessert and ”), and I just needed to SAY YES. If I can’t help that former friend, the very least I could do was learn from the mistakes that person was making.
Pride’s little inner voice told Coriolanus that he didn’t need the support of his fellow Romans despite the fact that he clearly did. He didn’t trust their experiences or knowledge, thinking that as a soldier he knew enough to become a political leader without having to make compromises. Coriolanus was too proud to listen to any friends or advisors until it was too late. Giving in to his mother may have been the nail in his coffin, but the pride that directly led to his banishment was the true cause of this downfall. It took witnessing a worst-case scenario of pride to realize that I don’t need to feel right all the time. I’ve seen that it’s really not worth it to think that my methods are best. The fact that shit gets done and I stay grounded is what matters. The Romans were willing to give Coriolanus a chance when he eventually deigned to ask them. Guess that’s the lesson of Coriolanus, and one I don’t want to forget. Time to put Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking on my Goodreads list!