Stuff that Happens
stuff that happens in the play
- Roman citizens are rioting against Caius Martius, the most successful Roman General. His good friend, Menenius Agrippa, calms the crowd.
- When Martius arrives, his anger and reputation frightens the crowd away but not before he announces that two Tribunes have been appointed as go-betweens for the common people and the Senate. They are Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus.
- Two other Roman generals, Cominius and Titus Lartius, ask Martius to help them fight a neighboring tribe of Volscians. The Volscian leader, Tullus Aufidius, is Martius’s archenemy.
- Aufidius is commissioned by the Volscian Senate to fight outside the city of Corioles.
- Volumnia, Martius’s mother, and Virgilia, his wife, chat about their opposing views of Martius as a warrior. Another woman, Valeria, stops by to cheer up Virgilia since Martius is at war.
- Almost single-handedly, Martius defeats the Volcians at Corioles, thereby earning him the honorary surname “Coriolanus.”
- Back in Rome, Martius is expected to go through the ritual of seeking the common people’s approval in order to be appointed to the highest political position, the Consul.
- The Tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, believe Martius is too prideful so they manipulate the people to turn against him. They banish him from Rome.
- Martius seeks out his great enemy Aufidius in the city of Antium and swears allegiance to the Volscians. Together they plot a war on Rome.
- Begging, betrayal, and butchery ensue.
Notes from the Director
We live in a political world; wisdom is throne into jail
It rots in a cell, misguided as hell, leaving no one to pick up a trail
– Bob Dylan
Four centuries after Shakespeare wrote it, Coriolanus is still loaded with startling contemporary commentary on politics, politicians, and “the people” politicians represent. It’s been a fascinating journey directing this production with the Brave New World Troupe immediately after directing Julius Caesar with the first Blackfriars Playhouse Resident Troupe. Both plays deal with the will of the people and how crowds become mobs and how mobs can be manipulated, but the main characters treat those people very differently.
Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar near the peak of his success, probably 1599, and he wrote Coriolanus later in his career, probably 1608. By the time he got to Coriolanus, I think the playwright no longer cared about the more traditional forms he used in crafting his earlier tragedies. He was popular, he was well-off financially, and I think many of his later plays clearly demonstrate his desire to stretch himself artistically by writing stories that break the patterns he had used in the past.
Those who have seen Shenandoah Shakespeare “do it with the lights on” over the past fourteen years know that we talk directly to the audience. We’ve turned audience members into Henry V’s “happy few” army, the wedding guests in Much Ado, Denmark’s royal court in Hamlet (the list goes on and on), in a manner that we think is consistent with the way that Shakespeare’s company (and all Renaissance companies) used its fully-lit audiences. But directing Julius Caesar and Coriolanus back to back has given me a delicious peek into how Shakespeare puts a big twist on using the audience to represent “the people.”
In Julius Caesar, Brutus addressed the audience as the crowd of plebians at Caesar’s funeral. Brutus makes what he thinks to be a shrewd political move and decides to speak in prose for the first and only time in the play; it seems to work by the time Brutus leaves the plebes. Antony, however, addresses the same crowd in verse, turns them 180 degrees, causes them to riot, and gets them running off to kill Brutus and the other conspirators. In both cases, each man seeks to sway the crowd/audience to their own way of thinking. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s twist on this use of the audience is to have his main character openly loath “the people” and their representatives. A simple illustration of this principle is: Audience = The People = Those Not Liked By The Main Character. To his credit, Coriolanus explains himself. He says the people are fickle, they run away in the heat of battle, and they don’t deserve free corn because they didn’t earn it. Although Shakespeare toys with defying his usual dramatic structure in other plays and although he gives us other plays with beautiful ambiguity in the main characters which causes us to like and dislike them simultaneously, AND although other plays are inhabited with people who might throw a disparaging line or two at the groundlings, nowhere else in the canon does he give us a protagonist who hates the audience this much and who nakedly expresses that hatred during the whole play.
In the end, Coriolanus’ hatred and his inability to play the politician are at the heart of his demise. Brutus and Antony both acknowledge how the people can be fickle, but both of them are clever enough to know that they need the people on their side; Coriolanus don’t care. After being banished, he turns hi back on the people and declares “I banish you! There is a world elsewhere.” Shakespeare gives us a character that some people may find difficult to like. How can you root for someone who is constantly telling you that he doesn’t like you? Can you enjoy a play that’s about a guy who doesn’t like you? Do you disassociate yourself from the rest of the crowd and decide that you’re not really like the people Coriolanus hates? I think these questions are the soul of Shakespeare’s artistic exploration in Coriolanus; we ask them of you now as we invite you into his political world.