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The Collation

The problems with adapting Coriolanus, and why we should try anyway

A black and white woodcut with one man in the foreground and another in the background but the scene is mainly dominated by tall structures and the sweep of scenery behind them
A black and white woodcut with one man in the foreground and another in the background but the scene is mainly dominated by tall structures and the sweep of scenery behind them

William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus opens with citizens of Rome “resolved rather to die than to famish,” (Act 1: Scene 1, 3) angered by a resource-hoarding ruling class profiteering off scarcity. Arguably Shakespeare’s most political play or at least the play with the most politically active citizenry, Coriolanus beckons for an interpretation, a more politically charged adaptation in the post-pandemic world of decaying liberal democracies and mass protests. I heard the resolve of Rome’s citizens, echoed repeatedly by the farmers of India as I documented the 2020-2021 Farmers’ Agitation at the semi-permanent protest settlements on the borders of India’s capital New Delhi. Even as the government cut off water, sanitation, and electricity supplies to the campsites, and around 700 protestors lost their lives to the extremities of weather over a year, the protesting farmers chanted slogans to continue their fight until the last one standing. The farmers like the plebeians in Coriolanus were protesting the pro-corporate lobby laws that, among other provisions, would remove food crops from essential commodities to allow corporate hoarding of grains, and give them the control to fix prices. India’s Prime Minister Modi, who has through his official career projected a proud, patriotic, and unbending persona, had to concede his ground when he announced the repeal of the three contentious laws.

Why are we still able to see, if we choose to see it, our contemporary class conflict reflected in a Jacobean play that depicts ancient Rome? I believe it is because even as battlefields, the dramatic and the political, dominate Coriolanus, Shakespeare has in fact created a playground for ideas in his last tragedy. This is evident from the ideological battles that have been fought using Coriolanus throughout the play’s performance history and the history of various literary engagements with it. So much so, that American poet Delmore Schwartz wrote a poem where ghosts representing Beethoven, Marx, Freud, and Aristotle visit a boy watching the play’s performance.1

A particular choice of Shakespeare’s, distinguishing it from Plutarch’s life, lends Coriolanus its tempting quality for contemporary revivals that seem timely. While in North’s translation of Plutarch, which Shakespeare heavily relied upon, Coriolanus is described as “churlishe, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man’s conversation”.2 Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is deliberately unpleasant only towards the plebeians, while to the patricians of Rome he is perfectly civil and they in turn are fond of him even if they wish that he would be more moderate. Coriolanus is even oddly fond of, and respectful towards, his Volsci rival Aufidius, who belongs to the ruling class, but ultimately meets his death when he incites the Volsci crowd by reminding them of the crimes he has committed against them during war. This class-based discrimination on the part of Coriolanus squarely places the conflict between Shakespeare’s protagonist and the people of his homeland in the realm of class-conflict.

It is easy to imagine why a Marxist playwright like Brecht would want to explore this space created in the play, albeit with significant changes, going against the conservative interpretations usual to the play. A cursory look at the visual records highlights the prominent patrician presence. The play, however, has great room for the people’s resistance to patrician excesses and tyranny as well. The citizens’ deliberations in executing their righteous anger against Coriolanus stand out among Shakespeare’s works.

A man in a red robe with an angry expression stands apart from a mob of people wearing red caps and waving tricolour signs. It is titled Coriolanus addressing the Plebians.
The citizens of Rome echoing people’s discontent through the ages. Folger ART File S528c2 no.56.

The problem while adapting Coriolanus for a contemporary audience is that in his own misguided way Shakespeare’s protagonist is a man of strange integrity. Even as we loath his political position, we cannot help but feel sad about his demise, helped as it is by his mother. Performances such as Robert Lepage’s 2018 production can walk the line in presenting Coriolanus more as a man of sincerity hounded by an easily led mob.3 This tendency is as inherent to the play as a discursive citizenry fighting for their lives and dignity in face of patrician disdain. At times when democracies across the world need protecting, a heroic figure denouncing the fickleness of public opinion can present a wrong example.

While many critics have noted the profound irony of Coriolanus4 some critics have also attributed satirical intent within the tragic form.5 Coriolanus has been called “Shakespeare’s least sympathetic tragic hero,”6 others wondering if the tragic protagonist is the city of Rome. Coleridge saw “good-natured” humour in Coriolanus at the plebeian’s expense,7 but the hypocrisy of patrician parental figures Volumnia, and the senator Menenius indicates that Shakespeare is also satirising the Roman aristocracy. Taking these features into consideration some have sought to reclassify it as a satire, or even a comedy.8

There is without a doubt great satirical potential in Coriolanus for a stage or screen adaptation. It can be argued that Coriolanus undermines his tragedy in his final moments when surrounded by his former enemies he doubles down on his pride and individualism by rubbing in their noses how he killed their kin in Corioli and how he did it all on his own. There is no introspection in Coriolanus9, yet, he is aware that at the behest of his mother he has agreed to a peace between the Romans and Volsces that might prove fatal to him (Act 5: Scene 4, 189). Yet, in this moment of utmost danger he does not forget to remind his unreliable allies of his military superiority and in effect his humiliation of them (Act 5: Scene 6, 115). Coriolanus earlier accuses the people of not knowing what is best for them, (Act 3, Scene 3, 128) yet at this crucial moment he barely knows what’s good for himself.

A black and white woodcut with one man in the foreground and another in the background but the scene is mainly dominated by tall structures and the sweep of scenery behind them
Roller wrote of the genesis of his Coriolanus designs: “The only work of Shakespeare in which there is neither day nor night, sunshine nor storm, there are no trees or clouds, in the text that is, because in place of a living natural backdrop there is only ‘the people’. That is the surrounding world.” People are more than a backdrop in Coriolanus, even if past productions have often relegated them as such. Folger ART 268196 no.1 (size L).

If anything Coriolanus’s total turn against Rome proves the people right in condemning him “as the chief enemy to the people.” Their banishing him, goaded on by the ridiculous looking tribunes, ends up being very much in their class interest. There are moments in the play that seem to push down for its humour,10 the tribunes are portrayed as shifty politicians, but no less are Menenius and Volumnia while advising Coriolanus. An interpretation of Coriolanus that deals prominently with the petulant man-child nature of the protagonist cultivated by an opportunistic mother reveals the absurd dimensions of elite entitlement. It would also question with the help of performance, not just with scholarship, whether it is necessary to take the patricians in the play as seriously as they take themselves. A tragicomedy based on the play would perceive beyond the protagonist’s tragic fate a satire of the reactionary tendencies of the privileged. An interpretation of the play that pushes up as much as it pushes down can prove Coriolanus subversive and timely no matter when it is staged.

As a contender for a public-facing position, Coriolanus is repeatedly made to face the people against his nature and beliefs. This obligation imposed on him by Roman customs is a central source of tension in the play. It is perhaps hard to sympathise with a powerful man who feels entitled to political power yet shuns the public’s attention at the same time in the age of attention economy. The most prominent politicians of our times have at times appeared on screen play-acting (including Presidents Obama and Biden) in often self-deprecating satires. Having a sympathetic protagonist is not Coriolanus’s strongest feature. Coriolanus is an opaque character; he shares no asides, confides in no one, and has a single small soliloquy (Act 4: Scene 4).11 The play, however, invites meta-theatrical reflections on the performances required of a politician that continue to be timely as the theatre of power becomes all pervasive and enters our consciousness 24-7 via our screens. The play offers a dialectic between the people and the ruling powers unlike any other plays in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, where the people of Rome play a decisive, critical role in determining the protagonist’s fate.

  1. A mix of Shakespeare’s play and Plutarch’s life.
  2. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. 5: The Roman Plays, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).518.
  3. Jesse Green, “Review: At Stratford, ‘Coriolanus’ Is Riveting and Troubling,”, (New York: New York Times) Published July 18, 2018.
  4. Jonathan Bate, “Introduction,” Coriolanus: The RSC Shakespeare, ed. Bate, Jonathan, Rasmussen, Eric (New York: Modern Library, 2011). 9.
  5. Karen Aubrey, “Shifting Masks, Roles, and Satiric Personae” Coriolanus: Critical Essays, ed. Wheeler, David. (Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).
  6. Lee Bliss, “Introduction” Coriolanus: The New Cambridge Shakespeare, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 40.
  7. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets (1811-1818), ed. T Ashe (1900), 309.
  8. Bliss, 40.
  9. Peter Holland, “Introduction” Coriolanus: The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013). 49.
  10. as when there is word play at the expense of clueless seeming citizens “though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will.” (Act 4: Scene 6, 183-184)
  11. Patricia K. Meszaros, “There is a world elsewhere”: Tragedy and History in Coriolanus” Coriolanus : Critical Essays. Ed. Wheeler, David, (Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).147