Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Action is Eloquence

It occurred to me the other day that I might be in a bit of trouble. Not the sort of trouble I should be concerned about, such as how I've been paying tuition to a school that doesn't even have accredited classes, but a sort of... well, fangirly trouble. Back in May when I decided I should try and get tickets to Coriolanus, it seemed so far away and magical, a faint hope on the horizon, something to look forward to. But now as the date approaches and the actuality of this trip settles in and I see photographic evidence like this:


I'm realizing that yes, Coriolanus rehearsals are happening and the play is a thing (or perhaps, to quote Hamlet, it's the thing). But I can't help feeling a little bit apprehensive. A bit like:


I am of course concerned that I will completely lose my shit and turn into a puddle of Jell-o in my seat at the Donmar Warehouse and die from having my cells morph into a gelatinous substance upon seeing Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss on stage and on the same stage. But beyond my fangirly predicaments, I'm going to cry myself to death from seeing this play because, God damn it Shakespeare, Coriolanus is a beautiful, epic, tragic heartache that couldn't be more pertinent to modern politics.

I confess that I hadn't read Coriolanus before buying tickets, but given how I already loved Shakespeare's historical and political plays such as Henry V, Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth, I presumed I'd probably enjoy it. Upon reading Coriolanus a few months ago, I had one of those "Oh God what have I done" moments when I realized that I might - just might - have found my favorite Shakespeare play.

What is Coriolanus about, exactly? Here's Tom Hiddleston describing it for you (and reading from the first folio to boot... excuse me while I cry in a corner about how beautiful the original pronunciation to Shakespeare's writing sounds):

I really love the description provided here. While reading the play, I was caught immensely between thinking, "Coriolanus, man, why do you hate the plebeians so much? Stop trying to make bourgeois a thing - that comes later. With John Locke and new ideas of property rights" and also feeling very much like, "The immensity with which being forced into the political arena and being told to represent things you don't believe and do things you don't want to after killing a lot of people in battle would suck is a very, very large amount."

This play presents what it means to act as a public figure, how one can become a celebrity of sorts due to war hero status and the costs that come from being thrust into the political realm where a different sort of custom is expected (a discussion which reminds me greatly of the discussion good old Henry has on ceremony in Henry V) while being held to words in a way that one wasn't before. "Where blows have made me stay, I fled from words," Coriolanus says (2.2.71). Like many other Shakespeare plays, the idea of acting and having to play a certain part or act a certain way is very important to the events that occur. Coriolanus is criticized for acting too proud and is disparaged for refusing to show his war wounds publicly, which wonderfully captures the complicated interaction between needing proof of someone's valor and having something very private - one's body - become the focus of the public.

There's issues of representation as well, of speaking for other people and representing as a leader. In Act 2.3, lines 15-16, citizens describe the masses of people in Rome as a "many-headed multitude," which echos historical notions of the masses being monstrous (which, if you have an interest in, I highly recommend chapter one of The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Lindbaugh and Marcus Rediker). This feeds right back into Coriolanus' pride and hatred of the plebeians, and his speaking "o' th' people as if you were a god to punish, not a man of their infirmity" (3.1.80-82).

But wait, there's more. Coriolanus, being a man who believes to know himself, refuses to change for public appearances. In one of the best and most quoted lines from the play, he declares, "Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me false to my nature? Rather say I play the man I am" (3.2.14-16). (And can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that he says "play" - Shakespeare, your meta-analysis of theater is showing.)

Coriolanus has a lot going against him - he won't allow himself to be changed to appear as a public politician should. He uses language as a weapon rather than an instrument of conciliation (Crewe xxxv). He is deeply idolized and misconstrued, caught between his knowledge of warfare and the expectations of his political prowess.

Something I really love about Mr. Hiddleston's analysis of the play in the above video is description of the divide between soldiers and politicians and the different sort of expectations and skills each of these roles require. What I love about it so much is it's something that never occurred to me because of politics in the United States. We constantly conflate military and political roles and often elect people based on military experience. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief, after all. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to have a conversation about how combining the two might be kind of problematic at times, USA...

Also, I would like to take another moment to flail about the FREAKING FIRST FOLIO AND HOW AWESOME THAT IS. OH MY GOD CAN YOU IMAGINE TOUCHING IT I WOULD CRY.

Okay, I'm good. 

Coriolanus is interesting in all of the elements it touches on - politics, warfare, pride, honor, self-constructs versus public appearances, concepts of masculinity - which if I dive into that, we'll be here for the next five days - communication, and power. This fall I was reading Machiavelli's The Prince which also had excerpts from his Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Levy when I encountered these passages in Book 1, Chapter 58 of the Discourses:
But as for prudence and stability, I say that the people are more prudent, more stable, and better judges than a prince....It is also evident that in choosing magistrates they [the people] make far better choices than a prince does, nor will the people ever be persuaded that it is good to put in public office a man of bad repute and corrupt habits, something which a prince is persuaded to do in a thousand different ways (Machiavelli 182-183).

...for prince who can do what he wants is mad, and a people that can do what it wants is not wise (Machiavelli 183).

The cruelties of the masses are directed against those they fare will usurp the common good; those of a prince are against people he fears will usurp his own property. But the prejudice against the people arises because everyone can speak evil of the people without fear and in freedom, even while they are ruling, but of princes one always speaks with a thousand fears and hesitations (Machiavelli 184).
I instantly thought of Shakespeare while reading this, especially Coriolanus as it most clearly pits the people against a "prince" of sorts. It's also interesting to see Machiavelli's view on the people, which looks fairly positive. Bless him for thinking that people won't be persuaded to put a bad person in office - whether it is true or not stands to be debated, but he was writing in a time before mass media, political campaigns and a great deal of historical events throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. But he as a point about princes - it is very easy to manipulate them, as Coriolanus is so easily manipulated politically. He is steadfast as a soldier, but such steadfastness doesn't hold in the political arena. These excerpts also give a very different view on Machiavelli, who is usually seen as pretty cold with the concept of "the ends justify the means" for princes. He never actually says this in The Prince, though he says something slightly similar, and, while he does say lots of troubling things, he's not exactly establishing that this way of ruling is necessarily good, though it is effective - he's describing the sort of ruling that's occurred historically, especially in Italy (yes, Ancient Rome and, yes, the Medicis, we are looking at you). But I digress. Point is, Machiavelli and Shakespeare would have had some really interesting conversations about power if they'd ever been in the same room together.

Also, this picture from a Tumblr called Texts from the Drunken Crown, walloped me in the face while reading Machiavelli:


Well, that's one way to read Henry V.

Looking at Coriolanus in this framework presents a certain positivity to the plebeians (which I appreciate) while accounting for how someone like Coriolanus could be so greatly misled. Coriolanus is expected to be an individual, to represent the masses as one person and, when the person he is does not conform to what the public - or at least the officials around him - want him to be, he is cast out of Rome and shunned by his home (which if you really want to add another layer to this, you could read as representation of political refuges and/or expatriates). It accounts for how a man who has been told "action is eloquence" (a quote I loved when I was told it way back in high school, having no idea it was from this play - thus causing me to love it all the more) by his mother, that people will notice his actions more than his words, only to have both his words and actions used against him (3.2.76).

There is also the issue that Rome is a hot mess, which is important to consider. Having recently dealt with a not-so-wonderful tyrant (which kind of seemed like an ongoing problem in Rome), there's a certain unrest in the air. Coriolanus becomes convinced that neither "virtue nor truth is common or popular" and sees truth as "acting a part" (Crewe xxxiii, xlvii). I've seen a few episodes of the TV show Scandal as my roommate has been watching it, and I've been completely fascinated how the show captures exactly those elements. Everything is about how the press and the media will react and how to best manipulate and create political reputations to the public through the camera lens. It's a brilliant show and, if one were to modernize a performance of Coriolanus, would provide a really interesting interpretation.


I've realized that there's so much I want to say about this play - how Aufidius is a foil, or even a double, of Coriolanus (they also have an epic homoerotic not-really-subtext bromance going on that I want to recognize), the complexities of Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother who builds him up for failure but also saves Rome, the father/son relationship between Coriolanus and Menenius, which gives me some Hal-Falstaff flashbacks, just how wonderfully layered this play is, the fact that Tom Hiddleston said in the vidoe that we still suffer from "what are construed as the seven deadly sins" (rhetoric: you're doing it right) and how that applies to the plays, and the fact that Shakespeare allows for multitudes of interpretations and stagings and, while the plot may stay the same, it's never just one single story. It's brilliant.

Clearly I could go on and on about this for eons, so I'm going to wrap it up now with a quote from the introduction to the edition of Coriolanus I have: "To overthrow a tyrant is not necessarily to eliminate the structure of command - that is, dictatorship - from the republican state or the political culture" (Crewe xxxii). Coming off my post about The Hunger Games, this reminds me greatly of the end of Mockingjay (which I won't spoil for you, but kind of already have by tying it to this quote). The fear of tyranny runs deep in society and I think the repercussions of this are even more pertinent, especially when it comes to questions about how we should regard politicians, what sort of power they should have, and - well, debates about democracy in general.

So there you have it. I have a lot of Coriolanus feels. And I imagine they will only intensify when I see it live. Well, at least I can do something productive with these feels, like write blog posts and essays and the like, right?

Of course, that's assuming I find away to turn my gelatinous form back into normal human matter after the whole shebang. This could be difficult.

PS: Why the hell have I not seen the Ralph Fiennes film? This needs to be remedied.

All citations from:

Crewe, Jonathan. Introduction. Coriolanus. By William Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince and Other Writings. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

Man, have I missed MLA format. I've had to do APA the last semester and I hate it. It feels good to be back to this.

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