Monumental ‘durability’ is unable, however, to achieve a complete illusion. To put it in what pass for modern terms, its credibility is never total. It replaces a brutal reality with a materially realized appearance: reality is changed into appearance. What, after all, is the durable aside from the will to endure? Monumental imperishability bears the stamp of the will to power. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (221)
Today, injustice goes with a certain stride,
The oppressors move in for ten thousand years.
Force sounds certain: it will stay the way it is.
No voice resounds except the voice of the rulers
And on the markets, exploitation says it out loud:
I am only just beginning.
But of the oppressed, many now say:
What we want will never happen
Whoever is still alive must never say ‘never’!
Certainty is never certain.
It will not stay the way it is.
When the rulers have already spoken
Then the ruled will start to speak.
Who dares say ‘never’?
Who’s to blame if oppression remains? We are.
Who can break its thrall? We can.
Whoever has been beaten down must rise to his feet!
Whoever is lost must fight back!
Whoever has recognized his condition – how can anyone stop him?
Because the vanquished of today will be tomorrow’s victors
And never will become: already today!
“In Praise of Dialectics” Bertolt Brecht
Coriolanus was presumably first written between 1607 and 1608 and first performed between 1609 and 1610. These dates, however, are estimates. It was not one of Shakespeare’s most successful plays nor was it often performed after theaters officially reopened in England during the Restoration. As AC Bradley went on to observe 250 years later, Coriolanus was “scarcely popular” and “seldom acted.” However, Coriolanus is also Shakespeare’s most political play, though its politics are unclear.
In recent years, Coriolanus has reemerged as an important play. Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus hit box offices in 2011, in 2014 Donmar Warehouse staged Coriolanus with the National Theatre, and Dion Johnston appeared as Coriolanus in Red Bull’s Theatre production in the fall of 2016, to give a few examples. Major international companies have taken on the production as well: most notably, in recent years, Chiten Theatre Company in 2012 at the World Shakespeare Festival.
Perhaps one reason that Coriolanus has received more attention in recent years is because the themes of war, violence, spectacle, and politics resonate with the role of media and political bodies in conflicts under the umbrella of “the war on terror” as well as with discussions of rising income inequality across western Europe and the United States and the seemingly escalating divisions of opinions about methods of governance in a post-Cold War era.
In short, Coriolanus portrays a city in crisis: materially, conceptually, politically, and martially. Yet the themes of performance, power, and citizenship that resonate throughout the play suggest that the clear winner is Rome and its functionaries. When Sicinia rhetorically asks “What is the city but the people?” the answer that Coriolanus seems to present is a coy affirmation of bond between cities and people, but it offers no answer to how and who the people of the city are. People change; the city remains.
The Midland Riots of 1607 in England
Food distribution was largely contingent on good growth seasons and bad growth seasons. In the early 17th century, England’s population was exploding largely due its mercantilist and imperial practices as well as its fairly tolerant religious atmosphere. Though England had a great deal of political and social turmoil, it paled in comparison to the religious wars and executions that took place in France and Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1607, poor peasants, farmers, and laborers alongside artisans and merchants in England protested their condition of starvation and general lack by rioting for food and against the enclosures of common lands by aristocrats. The practice of enclosure was the practice of taking public lands (often used for communal farming) and “enclosing” or divvying up the land to those who paid for it. As a result, farmland became both more expensive and less available. This is a significant historical event in the context of Coriolanus for two reasons: first, in the source text from Plutarch, the citizens rioted because of the high interest rates that were charged on plebeians’ debts; second, though little is known about Shakespeare, he had significant land holdings and was most likely someone who benefited significantly from the practice of enclosure. While the general idea of wealthy vs. poor remains, rioting for food had a special significance in the context of English power, which maintained its authority at least in part through the strict regulation of grain: bread making practices and prices were extremely standardized and maintained a state of stability. The disturbance of bread prices and distribution was a significant threat to state authority. Though we can never know exactly why choices were made in the script, there is significant evidence that the Midlands Riots informed the context of Coriolanus.
Roman Government: Crash Course
Rome was ruled by kings until the fifth century B.C.E. The last of the kings was Tarquin Superbus, who was overthrown and replaced by two praetors or consuls. The consuls were the leaders of the republic and were elected for a term of one year. They had the same power as kings, but because they had such short term limits, the senate (consisting of patricians, or landed men) had significantly more power because there were no term limits imposed on senators. Non-landed citizens such as the poor, immigrants, and foreigners captured in battle and granted freedom, had some power so far as they had voting power on some measures and elected representatives, but their power was largely symbolic.
Nevertheless, plebeians had power, because they made up the core of the Roman army. In 494 B.C.E, the plebeians refused to fight in the army because they rejected the high interests rates they were forced to pay on money they had to borrow in order to support themselves and their agricultural endeavors. Fearing the loss of the army (a significant loss for Rome, which was culturally a martial state), the patricians capitulated, canceled depts., released prisoners from debtor’s jail, and created a plebeian assembly and the office of the tribune of the people in 494 B.C.E. In addition, they gave them the right to elect two tribunes with veto power. In this version of Coriolanus, they are Sicinia and Brutus. Rome was becoming a Republic with imperial inclinations and emerging as the dominant city state in Italy.
Utopia/Dystopia: Narratives of Non-places
Utopia was first coined by Thomas More, an English lawyer, philosopher, political advisor, and humanist, in 1516 as the title of his work Utopia. Utopia, derives from the Greek ou + topos and literally translates to “not” “place.” However, as More himself acknowledges in an addendum to his Utopia, he meant Eutopie, which translate to “good place.” Though More was the first to coin the term, the idea of perfect places or perfect cities has a long history in Western literature, and the most famous example of the idea of a “good place” is probably Plato’s description of his version of the perfect state in his Republic.
In the late 19th century, John Stuart Mill, also an English political philosopher and statesman, coined the term “dystopia,” which literally means “bad place.” Like “utopia,” it is an imaginary place in which things are unpleasant rather than pleasant. Dystopian fiction imagines worlds in which human systems become inhumane. Common themes are biological and natural disasters due to human interference, break downs of political systems, technological acceleration, moral degradation, social experimentation, and so on. Any system that becomes inhumane can be used in dystopian fiction. Generally, dystopian fiction takes an already existing social practice and pushes its logic to radical conclusions.
Generally, dystopian fictions begin medias res, or in the middle of a story. A character, or a group of characters, are in a system that has already somehow failed and the narrative either follows their survival in it or their attack on it. Survival narratives tend to happen in worlds in which everything has already broken down (Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Postman, etc). Social systems emerge and breakdown within them. Often, the narrative tracks a character or a group of characters as they travel through different types of social formations and uncover their various problems. Such dystopic narratives tend to be, at least in part, satirical. They demonstrate that what might be places of hope are, in fact, somehow corrupted.
“Attack” narratives usually follow a character’s or a group of characters’ realization that the system that they live in is unjust and then work to take down that system (Hunger Games, Divergent, 1984, District 9, Elysium, etc.). A main character will have some sort of awakening due to an extreme event or personal encounter, and then will work to take down what they see to be an injustice system. Often, in the process of taking down the system, they will form new systems (purposefully or accidentally) and problems will arise in those systems. For instance, in Divergent, Beatrice recognizes that her society is highly regimented, exclusionary, and violent to those who are literally “other” or divergent. She leads a rebellion in response to an increased hostility to those who are divergent and becomes a de facto leader of the rebellion. However, the rebel governing body quickly takes on a revolutionary type mock-court and begins to systematically kill those who tried to kill them. She then leaves the space of the city, finds yet another utopic city that turns out to be a corrupt bubble of another utopic city until she returns home and recognizes the importance of building one’s own community.
In Hunger Games, which was an inspiration for Paul’s vision, Katniss follows a similar trajectory, though she tends to be a character who operates through micro-resistance. She does small acts within her context that then snowball into full scale movements that she unwillingly becomes the symbol of. Katniss, however, is resistant against a utopic society. For those who live in the Capitol, life is more or less ideal, though it is panoptic (everyone is always under surveillance). Katniss’s rebellion is a rebellion through change. Rather than creating a new utopia, she simply does things differently and doing things differently is enough for the utopic system to collapse (though her rebellions are driven by the mediatized death of a black girl and the mediatized pseudo-sexual relationship with Peta that ultimately saves her life).
In both of these examples, as well as in other dystopic fiction, the key point is that there is no real line between utopias and dystopias. Both are “non-places” or imaginary spaces of fixity. In other words, they are spaces of death. Resistance to them tends to occur through the imagination of other utopias or through the infusion and revelation of processes. There can be no dystopia or utopia if there is change, since both are meant to exist in perpetuity. Nevertheless, change is not necessarily politically or socially positive. Change can also mean the death of humanity—something that dystopic narratives often point out. The difference, however, is that change is unarticulated and both dystopic and utopic literatures find hope in the unthought, the unsaid, the unarticulated. Once a system is articulated it becomes subject to judgment, and once it is articulated in a world (fictional or real) it needs to be maintained. Dystopic fictions demonstrate the problems of articulation and try to imagine worlds in which nothing is absolute. They also often attempt to articulate an ethics of inclusion through disarticulation. If nothing can be articulated, then no one and nothing can be excluded. In this sense, dystopias are often imagined utopias.
In Coriolanus the dystopian tendency is evident. The action begins in the middle of grain riots. The citizens of Rome are hungry and point to the injustice of that hunger. The explanation given to them is one of utopia, exemplified by Menenius’s fable of the belly. The senators and Roman aristocracy are also aware of the dissemblance that is necessary in order to maintain power. Power, for them, is performance. Where Coriolanus gets tricky as a dystopian narrative is in Coriolanus himself. He is absolute in his beliefs about his role and the role of every person in Rome. He, in fact, is a utopian character, who would otherwise be a dystopian villain. He is against all possible change. The system that he offers and lives by is anti-theatrical and puritanical. In another situation, he might be Malvolio or Tybalt: abiding by a strict structure but driven by desire. Coriolanus, however, is both at the height of Roman society politically, culturally, and martially, and he is Roman power embodied because he expands the Roman system without changing Rome. The tension is that he is the perfect Roman in a Rome that hypocritically denies and affirms perfection at the same time. One must be powerful, but to be powerful is to be performatively so. To maintain power in Coriolanus’s Rome, one must be malleable within Rome and monolithic outside of it. In other words, Coriolanus finds the suggestion that he should be anything other than monolithically himself both demeaning and insulting. What Coriolanus “is” is subject to the same kind of debate as what Rome is. He is both a name, a constant symbol of Rome, and a martial force that expands anonymously. In other words, his role is unclear in a dystopian and a utopian universe because he is already outside of any sort of livable system and embodies an ideal that is ultimately a misunderstanding of the malleability of power. He is neither a hero nor a villain, but a superhuman or an idiot and hence ultimately replaceable: the utopia/dystopia continues without him and in his name. For this reason, Coriolanus has been mounted and banned throughout the 20th century as a defense of republicanism, fascism, democracy, and socialism. The jury is out whether the play is a take-down of a dystopian villain or a utopian hero, but either way, Coriolanus sees himself above everyone else in a non-place and his rigidity facilitates violence.
Notable Contemporary Productions:
2000 Almeida at Gainsborough Studios
2002 Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
2005 Hwadong Theatre Company, Korea
2006 Shakespeare’s Globe
2007 Ninagawa Company, Tokyo
2007 People’s Art Theatre, Beijing
2007 Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
2007 Toneelgroep, Amsterdam
2012 Chiten Theatre Company, Kyoto
2012 National Theatre of Wales at RAF St Athan
2016 Redbull Theatre
1951 Westinghouse Studio One, USA
1997 East Productions
2006 Theatre National Populaire
2011 Lonely Dragon Productions