Nottingham Shakespeare Society
7th January 2020 Coriolanus and the popular voice: Dr Ben Burton
Review by Julia Pirie
At this week’s meeting, Dr Burton from Nottingham High School offered a reading of Coriolanus through a consideration of the play’s ‘popular voice’. He began with the entrance of the Citizens. He pointed out that (although anonymous) these are not the ‘rude mechanicals’ of The Dream or the holiday makers from Julius Caesar, but characters listed as Roman Citizens. Though their class is set against the patricians in the play (dismissed by them as ‘fusty plebians’) in the early scenes, Ben suggested, they sound more akin to those members of the Worshipful Companies and Guilds of medieval and early modern England. A citizen in Jacobean times would have middling social status as a freeman of the city. A Roman citizen was also a freeman with, as the play makes abundantly clear, the power to vote.
Shakespeare sometimes employs prose to indicate inferior social standing. However Ben feels it is wrong to play this opening for comedy. An analysis of the Citizen 1’s opening speech reveals sophisticated use of legal language and formal syntax. He contends that Citizen 1 is no mere rabble-rouser; he articulates a balanced, considered grievance. An exchange follows between him and the Citizen 2 allowing the former an opportunity to defend his position. Caius Marcius may be Rome’s military golden-boy, but he’s ‘a very dog to the commonality.’ As Ben put it, ‘the crowd is mutinous, but cautious’. Maybe we can feel sympathy for their plight. A contemporary audience might hear an echo of the recent popular protests (known as the Midland Riots) which had taken place a couple of years’ earlier. In the same way, I thought, these grievances might be echoed for us in the voices of the Hong Kong protesters.
However, as Ben’s analysis tracked through the play, he observed that Shakespeare, like his contemporaries and so many writers and artists before and since, had to be careful not to upset the censor. James 1 was an absolute monarch. It would not do for a playwright to be too pro the people as Ben Jonson had found to his cost in his depiction of Sejanus. So, although Act 1 ends with a ‘win’ for the people as Tribunes are elected to handle their complaints, when it comes to the election of Caius Marcius to the Senate, the people are heard arguing. Here is no solidarity and, as Ben put it, the ‘ritual’ of the election sweeps them on to vote for the newly- named Coriolanus. They follow where custom leads them; the blank verse Shakespeare gives them now can be heard as a mere rhetorical, ritualised response to their political masters.
In further examples, Ben illustrated how Shakespeare offers the audience many ways to view the people. They can be insightful and/or impressionable; dignified and or/ridiculous; impressive, but ultimately lacking the agency to disavow their earlier claims against the public enemy number one, Coriolanus.
For himself Caius Marcius Coriolanus remains in no doubt what they are. They are the ‘common file’, a sub-species. Only after much persuasion, will he bend to perform his part in the political ritual of seeking their ‘voices’ for his election to consul. He is so careless of their kind that, after the attack on Corioli, he cannot even recall the name of ‘poor man’ he wishes to reward for sheltering him during the conflict. He’s tired and he needs a drink - the man’s chance of reprieve disappears in an iambic pentameter. Ben called this ‘aristocratic carelessness,’ an apt phrase which reminded me of another: ‘Let them eat cake’.
Coriolanus forgets the people with fatal consequences. Of course, it is not the people who bring him down in the end but the (also anonymous, unlike in Julius Caesar) ‘conspirators’ from Aufidius’s faction. But they have the people’s (Volscians this time) voices: All: Tear him to pieces. Do it presently. He kill’d my son. My daughter. He kill’d my cousin Marcus. He kill’d my father. In the final lines of the play Shakespeare reunites the people in one voice. He restores their dignity but without actually seeming to condone their support for the assassination of an elected figure of authority. The inclusion of the one name – Marcus – here could be a way of hinting that those who have suffered were individuals distinguished by their names and relationships.
So, the tyrant Coriolanus is down. But who cares? Who is he? During question time, Ben pointed out the lack of soliloquies in the play. Shakespeare never draws an audience into Coriolanus’s inner life. Our understanding of the character is generally drawn from others’ report. He is a character, Ben suggested, ‘rumoured into existence’. He leaves little impression on the audience. Even his name isn’t his, but a cognomen, a courtesy title. I see the play not as a full-blown tragedy but a fable, a morality play illustrating how pride comes before a fall. Perhaps, as Ben suggested, this circumspection of Shakespeare’s was to save him from censorship and to protect the company from the closure of the theatre and loss of income. Or, dare I say, is it simply not one of Shakespeare’s ‘best’?
Question time explored examples of productions which had dared to play up the political resonances of the play over the years. A version by Brecht was mentioned which didn’t shy away from using the place as an allegory for contemporary political injustices. There was more discussion about the nature of the crowd, how it should be cast (men and women?) and how Shakespeare’s lines might be allocated for differing dramatic effects. Volumnia’s role was mentioned as important in establishing something of a ‘back-story’ for her son.
Detailed and stimulating, I believe Ben’s talk left us all with a renewed interest in the play. I look forward to our reading on January 21st and to the discussion following that.