WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S 
CORIOLANUS

Monday, March 7, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher Street

 

Directed by Michael Sexton

Featuring David Barlow, Helen Carey, Henry Clarke, Kimiye Corwin, Autumn Dornfeld, Emily Gardner Hall, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter Francis James, Merritt Janson, Ian Lassiter, Matthew Rauch, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Schantz, Sam Tsoutsouvas

A co-presentation with

 The Shakespeare Society

"One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail;
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail."

 

What was Shakespeare’s take on politics? Between the competing claims of democracy and aristocracy, amidst the din of famished citizens and enraged soldiers, looms the personal tragedy of one man’s, and his mother’s, emotional blindness.

 

Coriolanus is a fierce and decorated Roman general, but when he decides to seek political leadership, he might find the unbending pride of a soldier is not the right temperament for politics. As the people revolt, this Roman hero could quickly become Rome's most dangerous enemy.

 

Following the reading, LIU Professor of English James Bednarz (author of Shakespeare and the Truth of Love) will lead a post-reading discussion of the play and its themes with Michael Sexton and members of the company.

 

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

 

 

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

 

William Shakespeare was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon on 26 April 1564. One can still see the fount at which the ceremony was performed. Since birth certificates were not issued in the early modern period, we cannot be certain of the exact day he was born. It was once assumed that children at the time were baptized three days after birth. We now know this to be a fable. Yet since he died on 23 April 1616 in Stratford on St. George’s Day, mythic thinking has him dying on his birthday, 400 years ago, at the age of 52.

 

William’s father John married Mary Arden, his landlord’s daughter, in 1557 and moved to Stratford, where he practiced several trades, including “whittawer,” a worker in white leather. John eventually became bailiff (or mayor) and his involvement in civic administration permitted free schooling for his son. (Debt, however, affected John and after 1577 he dropped out of local politics.) William would have attended the King’s New School. Classes began at six or seven in the morning, broke for two hours at eleven, and resumed until five or six in the afternoon. School was six days a week, for most of the year. The syllabus stressed Latin grammar and literature. Study began with Aesop, Cato, the adages of Erasmus, and plays of Terence, which were acted in some elementary schools by students. Although Ben Jonson states that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” he showed an ongoing interest in the classics.

 

Latin at the time was the common language of law, administration, and education, and it possessed immense prestige. In school, Shakespeare acquired a life-long interest in its language, literature, and history. His ongoing attraction to translations, however, indicates both his enthusiasm for classical literature--and what Jonson saw as an insufficient familiarity with classical texts.  

 

On 27 November 1582, a marriage license was issued to William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, who was probably eight years his senior. By 1585, they had three children: twins Judith and Hamnet, followed by Susanna. Shakespeare’s son died at age 11 in 1596. We possess little information concerning the nature of Shakespeare’s family life.

 

Sometime between 1585 and 1592, he left Stratford for London and became a prominent actor, theatrical entrepreneur, and dramatist. He is first mentioned in the latter year in a pamphlet entitled Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, which ridiculed him for his arrogance in considering himself “the only Shake-scene” in the country. By the time he retired around 1613, he had written the 36 plays that were collected together for the First Folio of 1623, issued seven years after his death. He was also the author of several collaborations, including Pericles, with George Wilkins, and, with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, and the lost Cardenio. The Shakespeare dramatic canon is the most respected literature of its kind in the world today. 

 

ABOUT THE PLAY

 

Critical assessments of Coriolanus run the gamut. Although T.S. Eliot thought that Coriolanus was better than Hamlet, Ben Jonson found some of its heightened rhetoric too uncontrolled.

 

Probably written in 1608, Coriolanus is the last of Shakespeare’s plays dealing with Roman history, following Titus Andronicus (1594?), Julius Caesar (1599), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606).) It is also his last tragedy. First printed in the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, it was given pride of place at the beginning of the tragedies. Coriolanus would have appreciated that distinction.

 

Coriolanus, perhaps Shakespeare’s least known tragedy with his least liked hero, is a powerful study of Roman “virtue”. In a republic rent by class warfare, in a time of famine, Coriolanus, the soldier who would be the “author” of himself, comes to recognize the strength of the bond he has to others, as he acknowledges the source of his strength in Volumnia, the widowed mother who shapes his identity and destiny.

 

If Shakespeare’s prior Roman tragedy Antony and Cleopatra documented the effect of eros on heroic identity, in Coriolanus he illustrated its opposite, the destructive power of thumos, the vital drive to conquer and destroy. In a splendid display of his dialectical imagination, Shakespeare moved from one extreme to another: from Antony’s concupiscence to Coriolanus’s irascibility.

 

In both plays Shakespeare paid close attention to a single source, Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (a text that leaned heavily on Jacques Amyot’s prior French version). In Plutarch’s Coriolanus, Shakespeare found a castigated figure of ancient valor at the center of a civilization threatened by revolt and invasion. And through him he asks key questions about the nature of political experience. What, he asks, is the connection between heroic self-sacrifice and love of country? How are our ideals a reflection of class? How is it possible for virtue and vice to co-mingle?

 

In his magnificent elegy in the First Folio, Jonson praised Shakespeare for exceeding “all, that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome / sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.” Coriolanus epitomized “haughty Rome.” Yet Jonson, who extolled Shakespeare’s virtues in the Folio, parodied what he saw as a lapse into absurdity in Cominius’s hyperbolic evocation of the early victories of Coriolanus. Cominius states that:

 

     His pupil age

     Man-enter’d thus, he waxed like a sea,

     And in the brunt of seventeen battles since

     He lurch’d all swords of the garland.  (lines 98-101)

 

In Jonson’s Epicoene, Truewit, deceived by Dauphine, admits: “Well, Dauphine, you have lurched your friends of the better half of the garland, by concealing this part of the plot!” (5.4.220-22) For Jonson, “lurching” or “stealing” an honor gained no honor at all. In 1603, Shakespeare and the King’s Men performed Jonson’s Sejanus, a Roman tragedy that was one of his worst theatrical failures. Did Jonson feel compelled, through satire, to even the score? Coriolanus has been enlisted by the left and right, as well as by responsive audiences, who, unlike Jonson, savor rather than dismiss its political and psychological paradoxes.

 

James Bednarz

LIU Professor of English

 

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