Responding to the comment that Shakespeare never blotted a line, Dr. Johnson quipped, "Would that he had blotted a thousand." Johnson might well have had in mind several rocky out-croppings in the stream of Coriolanus, a decidedly rhetorical play, to change my metaphor. Much of the text is reportage: something has happened elsewhere. Still more text consists in tales to be re-told, though these, blessedly, are planned for some off stage events (in Act One, scenes 1, 4, 7, 10; nearly as much in Act Two, and thereafter).

Of the many words spoken as well as promised, only five are regularly quoted for their poetic effect: "There is a world elsewhere" (3.3.138), Coriolanus says, when turning his back furiously on a Rome insufficiently grateful for his victories.
Dr. Johnson also may have complained about the several "tongue-twisters" and clumsy phrasings, for instance:
There hath been many great men that have flattered the people who ne'er loved them;
  and there be many that they have loved they know not wherefore.

Language never soars in this play; to the contrary, it serves as a sort of ballast for the drama. Put differently, the action feels word-heavy. A sense of weightiness was striking in a recent performance by Theater for a New Audience, where the actors spoke the lines sharply and clearly, yet regrettably often, all at the same pace, level and emphasis. As a result, some words lost their meanings. Or rather, every line was comprehensible, but often not in relation to the previous or the next.

Not to imply that Coriolanus is an easy play. Unlike the major tragedies, it never feels quite character driven, with two further results. First, the audience misses the usual way into the heart of the action by following the hero. Or, seen from the other way around, unlike the pattern in the other tragedies, this hero's point of view does not generate the action. Coriolanus remains integral to the action, sometimes embodies the action, yet even when he scorns law and draws his sword on Tribunes and Citizens alike,  he is not initiating the larger action so much as reacting (and wildly) to its political push and pull.
In this regard, Coriolanus' dramatic structure resembles that of the history plays where a pageant is being enacted. Along the way, a character is revealed.

Secondly, Coriolanus himself is far from attractive. While the Romans admire his public persona, specifically his accomplishments on the battlefield, they recognize the drawbacks of what we would call his personality, his vacillation between proud indifference to, and disregard for, his countrymen. When he decides to campaign for the position of Consul, the Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, anticipating their possible futures out of political favor, decide vengefully to let the populace know  "in what hatred/ He [Coriolanus] still hath held them."
They see plainly that to Coriolanus, the people are  "of no more soul nor fitness for the world / Than camels" ...suitable "for bearing burdens." (2.2.237).

But the people come off no better from any other perspective. Indeed, the play opens as citizens of Rome threaten to kill Caius Martius, "a very dog to the commonalty" (1.1.23), while they in turn resemble a "proud" and "arrogant" pack grown dangerous from hunger and deprivation. Armed with bats and clubs, a "mob" menaces the patrician Senators whom they suspect of hoarding corn. To change the collective mind, the Tribunes intervene cleverly with a fable showing the Senate as the source of the city's  good.  (This is the famous metaphor of the state as a human body with citizens as its "belly.") The recent production in New York had the haughty Tribunes spell out their lesson in chalk on a large blackboard, mouthing their key words as for the deaf.

Class warfare is bedrock in Coriolanus; or more cautiously, call class antagonism the play's major theme and condition to be exploited. Yet, oddly, the idea of class fell into the background in both the TFNA and the Stratford productions, remaining nearly unexpressed as such.
Nor is either of these productions the first to undervalue class -- the subject calls for an essay of its own. Renaissance audiences hardly imagined the classless society we regard as ideal. Attention in the play falls instead on bloody battles going on just off stage, so to speak, against a powerful enemy. The mob finally blames its plight on the gods, all the more arousing the scorn of Caius Martius for its ignorance about religion, politics, economics, and the machinery of food distribution as well. Conveniently, war is declared at that moment against the Volcians; so the citizens, Caius Martius says, can follow the enemy "to their corn."

Shakespeare likes none of these people, judging by the sense that none comes off well. The patrician hero holds plebeians as well as nobility in contempt. All are greedy, self-serving, underhanded and back biting as they jostle for political power. As a warrior, Coriolanus served Rome well and the Romans know it; yet from the first, he despises the commonality and cares little who knows it.

Far from an ideal candidate for public office, Coriolanus lacks self discipline, indeed is emotionally childish: "what his breast forges, that his tongue must vent" (3.1. 259), hardly the political mode recommended by the unscrupulous Tribunes. They manipulate Coriolanus into accepting office and then grow eager to let him feel the weight of the law he once scorned.
The line "what his breast...etc." refers to some time in the past: while corn was being distributed to the public gratis,  he mocked them, calling them "time-pleasers, flatterers, foes to nobleness." Now his response to the Tribunes' accusations of arrogance evokes dramatic irony by its sheer, fake disingenuousness. "Why, this was known before," he says; in effect, "I've always named the mob at their worst, been outspoken and impolitic, and you never before called me on it." Did Shakespeare want his hero quite so naive? Or so sly?

An argument ensues. Coriolanus speechifies unreservedly, with aristocratic scorn on the precedent of Greece having given away corn; on who or which group among the populace deserves the state's care; on who should be permitted to expound on policy, public office, and private judgement; and on much more until the Tribunes, resenting his anger, decide he has spoken like a traitor and banish him.
The play runs downhill from there, except perhaps for the hero's great stage speech beginning, "You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate..." (3.3.125ff)

Overall, the game of rhetorical warfare falls outside of Coriolanus' skills. He is young; his pride trips him up; his carelessness is natural; his anger is constitutional; he is a tragic Hotspur with none of that hero's winning grace.

Worst of all, as a candidate, Coriolanus lacks a respect for office that might have led him to careful language and circumspect behavior. It follows that by Act Three, again as in Act One, the mob is ready to dispatch the "viperous traitor" who "deserves death" by being cast from "the Tarpeian Rock." Only one supporter thinks his "nature is too noble for the world," (3.1.254) but no one onstage (or off) believes it. Brutus and Menenius must persuade the angry Romans to exile Coriolanus instead of killing him.

It is his mother, the fierce Volumnia (Elisabeth McGuire), who takes responsibility for raising her son to be a killer. She took pride in his "manliness" during the cruel war, she says (1.3.12-15), but now needs to make him into a politician. She chastises and shames him into apologizing to the Romans, an act " against his nature," for moving against them. She'll accompany him to their camp, she says, to prompt him in how  "to speak fair." Dejected and sullen, he concedes, promising to speak  "mildly" (3.2.110); he is young; he is passionate; at his best he is tactless.

How much he is his mother's child shows allusively when he begs his confederates not to praise him; his mother does that well enough, he says. And then, of course, he is hers in his final cry of self recognition and dismay, "Oh mother, mother! What have you done?"

The part came off better than the whole. Regrettably, at times the production felt incidental, lacking in depth and, well, yes, gravitas, as already implied. The company seemed to be hunting for the right note at curtain up but soon gave up the search. Perhaps to avoid any hint of propagandizing for war lovers, say, by giving full weight to its martial setting, the play missed an overall tone. Instead, the performance style as chosen -- more rightly an absence of style -- fell straight into the familiar groove of naturalism, aiming, it seemed, for sincerity (a dread word for theater). To this extent, the text could not have been more wrongly expressed.

Put differently, the play as a whole slipped away from the audience's consciousness, individual and collective. An earnest, young soldier of, say, twenty-five with all his ideals showing oversimplifies the character's double meanings, reversals and densities. He knows not what he does, and without the choric comments of the Tribunes Brutus and Sicineus, we might not either. Again,

the hero is young, but attitudes about war are old, old. Seen as a series of political opportunities, war itself is timeless, the text reminds us. Then too, insofar as irony matters, Coriolanus declares himself at once ready to stand for Consul and out of the running, in quick succession. The citizens as mob pull him up and down like the pawn he is. Such is heroism in this play.

The rough soldier resembles a kind of artifact made and manipulated by the popular will.  The implied free-floating cynicism also makes it impossible to blame Volumnia for his mistakes and fears, as if he were indeed a multidimensional character with a past at her knee. The script invites the point since he  does call on her in a moment of clarity about the swirling events catching him up: "Mother, Mother, look  what you've done."
She has made something far less wonderful than her image of the boy about to be renamed Coriolanus for the city of Corioli that he won. She as much as says, "Yes, my  lovely, war loving boy, come sit by me for a moment."

To come at his character another way, it is a confused, angry adolescent who crosses over to the enemy's side out of dismay at his country's disregard for its troops. Or so it seems to him. Again ironically, he judges by an image of patriotism cast up by the fickle crowd and despised by the Tribunes. They stand for a Rome long past its glory days, the very false heroic image luring the boy-man. Absolutes remain available to the young, along with misguided idealism.

The tall, handsome young man playing the hero in the recent TFNA production, Christian Camargo, projected far more gentleness than conviction, more naivete than either the power or command of the text's protagonist. Camargo never projected a man who could make or break Rome. At times, he was not quite present in the role as given, one in which youth may be at once a blessing and a handicap.
That theme offered a counterpoint to the hero's action, giving the text its tension and indeed, more basically, a good deal of its interest. Shakespeare's experiment this time nearly abandons its young hero in a foreign territory. He is not up to the grand role conferred on him by the citizenry, who rename him after their city. Put it still differently in the actor's terms: although Camargo's tentativeness lent some nice nuances to the characterization of the boy hero, the performance to its detriment lacked the hint of  potential power withheld that hovers over the text.
As already implied, events onstage raised up that old bogey of naturalism, when they did not feel incidental to some larger, but elusive, idea.

In the strange scene-within-a-scene (2.2), the Senate encourages one of its own to speak at length about Coriolanus in a planned session. "Leave nothing out for length," they advise, urging the Senator to lavish praise as a sly means of requiting the soldier whom they cannot afford to pay financially. Apparently, value lies in the sheer weight of words, to return to the point about doubled meanings; the technique offers an ironic understanding of how language functions when words can be ordered up by the kilo.  Internal criticism good and bad of the complex hero takes this route of talk about him.

Meanwhile,  in this staging, citizens write obsessively on the city walls -- "the people are the city" -- in an odd encapsulation of their protest. It is a bit of theatricality that feels gratuitous in so ephemeral a  production. Not much else happens, even when hero and adversary fight at the end and hero dies. All is grey: grey uniforms against grey walls, though speakers begin in voices "over the top." One beats on the walls to signify armies marching and clashing. I think. Why pretty, white kitchen furniture should be heaped up in the middle of the stage, I could not tell. To signify wholesale decampment of civilians? There may be houses but no more comfortable homes? What? There were several other mystifying moments. If the production offered one keynote, it was earnestness, sometimes at the sacrifice of ironic power as, say, in Volumnia's query to her boy hero home from the wars, "how many wounds did you sustain?"


Christian Camargo, center, and Jonathan Fried, right, star in William Shakespeare's

Key Subjects: 
Coriolanus, Theater for a New Audience, Karin Coonrod, Christian Camargo, William Shakespeare
Nina daVinci Nichols
<I>Coriolanus</I>, directed by Karin Coonrod for Theater for a New Audience, played off-Broadway at John Jay College in Winter 2005.
March 2005
Coriolanus, Weightless