Heyo, everyone! Welcome to this year’s ramp-up to our annual trip to Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Festival. For those of you new to the blog (hi!), or not necessarily new but weren’t with us last year, this is how we prepare for our theatrical experience:
Monday- Introduce a play we’ll be seeing by saying something (hopefully) interesting about it.
Friday- Pair the play.
Saturday- Suggest performances of the play that are available via streaming, Blu-Ray, etc.
Sunday- Something silly about the play. (Though this year, we might forgo this particular venture rather than scour the internet for something sillier about Coriolanus than the name of the play, aka The Anus Play.)
As A is on vacation currently (yes, both of us pretty much went on back-to-back vacations before Stratford. We are young. Who needs to save for retirement?), I’ll be starting first and–depending on her wishes–perhaps doing the first two weeks while she finishes out with the final two. I’m not sure which plays she’s elected to do (one hopes for The Tempest, at the very least), but I have claimed historian’s prerogative and selected Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. Because it’s Rome.
I love Rome.
First up, I want to do Coriolanus. And I want to talk about the historical nature of the play, such as it is. The play, like most anything Shakespeare wrote set in and around the world of the Roman Republic/Empire, is at best loosely historical (Shakespeare was a firm believer in story-first historical fiction), with Titus Andronicus being entirely fictional and Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra more clearly reflecting historical facts. Coriolanus, however, is a much more… interesting play, at least with regards to historical accuracy. This is because, while it follows the historical sources somewhat closely (i.e. Plutarch and possibly even Livy), we actually have to question the historical sources themselves.
Oh, yes. This is happening.
When people talk about the sacking of Rome, they’re usually talking about Alaric’s sack in 410AD. But the history of Rome is actually book-ended by devastating sacks about 800 years apart. The earlier sack occurred round about 390BC (this is dependent, in many ways, on which dating system was used in each source. Livy used Roman dating, Polybius used Greek, etc etc.) following the disastrous Battle of the Allia, in which the Senones (a Gallic tribe) just whupped the Roman Republic and proceeded to sack the city itself. It devastated the Romans, who if nothing else, never actually believed they would lose, and instilled a centuries-long terror of the Gauls that was only really put to rest with Julius Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix. Someone had penetrated their walls. Someone had pillaged their city. Wounded their own sense of invulnerability (especially since they’d had to *gasp* BUY OFF the enemy to leave them alone).
More importantly, it destroyed their records. There is some debate as to whether the city itself was ever burned or destroyed (archaeological debates are the best kinds of debates, people. Everyone brings their ceremonial whip and fedora and it gets dirty), but records were absolutely lost.
Have you ever noticed how early Roman history reads more like myth than history? Romulus literally disappears in, like, a whirlwind and ascends to the heavens as a god. The next couple of kings conveniently represented the piousness and craftiness of Rome (while Romulus represents the pinnacle of Rome), then all the kings get conveniently awful so the Romans are justified in overthrowing them. Tons of battles are won by the valor of a single man. And lots of Romans conveniently mirror their Greek counterparts. Basically, it reads like a narrative constructed with a very specific theme in mind: Roman greatness.
And what does this mean for good ol’ (not-so-good) Coriolanus? It means we have to take the very sources Shakespeare used–the sources the Romans themselves constructed in the aftermath of the Gallic sack, determined to create a thematic narrative–with a hole bag full of salt. Shakespeare actually changed a relatively small amount of the sources he borrowed from (names, a couple details, a more definitive end only hinted at, etc), but he took them at face value. This is the right of any historical fiction writer, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fictional interpretation. It isn’t history. Sometimes, sources have an agenda. In this case, Rome wanted to create a through-line between its founding through to the Republic and the Gallic sack.
Funnily enough, not long after this, when the sources were much more definitive, Rome decided that they were no longer living in the ‘golden age’, when men were men and a man’s word was his bond. Rome had a relationship between martial and pious that was pretty uniquely Roman, and the parts of their history they were able to reconstruct tended to align all their heroes in perfect unity with these ideals. Coriolanus, then, is a representation of a perfect fall from grace and redemption from the ideal Roman man. He is anti-populist (at a time only shortly after Rome had shucked off the monarchical yoke) and turns against Rome due to his arrogance but is ultimately unable to let it be destroyed (conveniently through the purity of Roman women, but that’s another story for another time), like a true Roman man.
And, of course, the play is set in a time when fear of the Volscians was very, very real. They had, after all, overrun Latium and threatened Rome itself. And given Rome’s love of the single hero standing between Rome and ruin (or a single soldier charging out and, through his courage, inspiring his fellows to win battle), it only makes sense that, in the character of Coriolanus, Rome flounders but is ultimately restored to a place of strength by adhering to its core principles. (It should be said that, in the original sources, what happens to Coriolanus is completely unclear. Shakespeare found the single version that gave a definitive end since, you know, plays need endings.) It’s very, very Roman.
I love Rome.