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Although the BBC Time-Life dramatization of Coriolanus is titled The Tragedy of Coriolanus, there is some opinion that considers the play a comedy, albeit a very dark satire of the consequences of a haughty patrician arrogance. Who is being satirized, of course, is open for discussion, but one suggestion is that the play skews the ill-fated Earl of Essex, a British commander who led a campaign in Ireland and whose overweening ego and hubris led him to the Tower and beheading at the age of 35 after the so-called Essex Rebellion of 1601. Not printed until the First Folio of 1623 and not performed publicly prior until much later, no evidence exists that would support orthodox claims for a date of composition of 1605 to 1608 and the date the play was written is unclear.
Shakespeare's primary source for Coriolanus was Plutarch's The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, first translated into French by Bishop Jacques Amyot in 1559 and then into English by Thomas North in 1579 and popular enough to reach its third printing in 1603. This enormous work by the Greek philosopher and biographer, among several books purchased by the 19-year-old Edward de Vere in the original Amyot translation (receipts for this purchase still exist), was the principal source for several of Shakespeare's plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Julius Caesar.
Though the author follows Plutarch's account of the life of Coriolanus, Shakespeare expands on the role of Coriolanus' mother Volumnia (Irene Worth), Coriolanus' (Alan Howard) inner turmoil, his wife Virgilia (Joanna McCallum) and on the character of Menenius (Joss Ackland) whose prominence in the play is not matched in Plutarch. The story revolves around a rather obscure Roman soldier from the 5th Century BC named Caius Marcius, whose winning battles against the Volsces, the enemies of Rome. His attack against the city of Corioli, defended by Volsces general Lucius Afidius (Mike Gwilym), leads him to be named Caius Marcius Coriolanus and a triumphant return to Rome. There he is nominated for consul, a term-limited position that requires confirmation by the Senate and by the people.
It is soon apparent that recently elected Tribunes will oppose his nomination because of his opposition to plebian representation in the senate. As Coriolanus' disdain for the common people becomes painfully evident, his overbearing pride leads him to be declared a traitor and he is summarily banished from Rome. Returning to Antium, he joins forces with Aufidius, his former enemy, to lead a vengeful assault on Rome, where his wife, mother, and son still reside but, ironically in his most compassionate moment, he is brought down after an eloquent plea by his powerful mother to abandon the campaign.
Though most everything about the authorship controversy is speculation, one is forced to wonder how a commoner could (in the totalitarian atmosphere of Elizabethan England) get away with writing a play in which the tragic downfall of an aristocrat is brought about by his disdain for the common people. Though it is true that Shakespeare makes the Plebians unruly and deceitful, he makes class distinctions the center of the story, a rather audacious act, and the disgraced soldier is eventually revered for his nobility.
While the play is not on the level of Shakespeare's great tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear (there is no inner soul searching or comic relief), the performance by Alan Howard as Coriolanus captures the character's willful arrogance and the production is very well put together, one of the best BBC adaptations. One looks forward to the upcoming film of Coriolanus directed by Ralph Fiennes scheduled to begin shooting in March 2010.
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