Content Group

Coriolanus: John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's most relentlessly political plays, with a hero's personality which seems almost as schematic as Timon's in its pursuit of absolute militaristic values. The play fits reasonably well into the rigid mould of neoclassical tragedy in tone and focus, so it was not ignored in the eighteenth century though heavily adapted, and this approach led to celebrated productions by John Philip Kemble, with his sister Sarah Siddons as Volumnia, beginning in 1789. An alternative modern approach was pursued by psychoanalytic criticism, obsessed by an Oedipal fixation on dominant mothers such as Volumnia. Neither of these approaches greatly endears the play to current audiences; indeed Freudians reduce it to mere case history. In Peter Hall's production at Stratford in 1959, Olivier managed to inject sardonic humor into the contemptuous comments of Coriolanus, but this wry note left his highly emotional treason and final self- sacrifice out of tune for such a skeptical mind. Modern political extremism and cynical manipulation have made the play's focus on exploitive politics more relevant, as with Brecht's interest. However, if the play is examined objectively one finds that Coriolanus usually fails to carry through his obtuse views, submitting (for example) to the rigors of election only to be falsely accused of treason and exiled. At the climax of the play he resolves his dilemma of divided loyalties by meeting the requirements of both adversaries, knowing full well that by making peace he may expose himself to fatal hostility from aggressors on either side. To indicate this extraordinary achievement as mere mother-fixation destroys any tragic interest in the play for audiences. Modern productions often attempt a more sympathetic approach, for example, by stressing a youthful idealism in the hero. This approach permitted the deft modernization of Coriolanus as a Bonaparte figure in a revolutionary age, in the brilliantly successful RSC production directed by David Thacker in 1994. The script's brutality and absolutism plausibly fitted that revolutionary age, gaining modern relevance as well as colorful costumes and sets.

Coriolanus, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1994
Coriolanus, National Theatre, 1971: Constance Cummings as the mother of Coriolanus: Volumnia.
Coriolanus, Shakespeare and Company, 2000.
Coriolanus: Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as Volumnia
Coriolanus: Shakespeare and Company, 2000

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Kamenish, Paula. "Brecht's Coriolan: The Tragedy of Rome." Communications from the International Brecht Society 20 (Oct. 1991): 53-69.

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da Rocha, Roberto F. "Hero or Villain: A Brazilian Coriolanus During the Period of Military Dictatorship." In Latin American Shakespeares, edited by Bernice Kliman and Rick J. Santos, 37-53. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.

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Shewey, Don. Coriolanus reviews

Coriolanus at Talkin' Broadway.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond