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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: April ::
Titus and Coriolanus
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0292  Saturday, 14 April 2007

From: 		Hardy M. Cook <
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Date: 		Saturday, April 14, 2007
Subject: 	Titus and Coriolanus

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/12/AR2007041200789.html

Titus and Coriolanus: Vengeance Is Theirs
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007; WE23

For the next several weeks, Washington Shakespeare fans have a rare 
opportunity to see two less-familiar plays that are superficially 
similar. Both are set, at least originally, in Rome (with sources going 
back to Plutarch and Seneca); both eponymous characters are highly 
placed generals; and both are eventually assassinated by onetime allies. 
Most important, both are undone by a consuming desire for vengeance that 
devastates their families.

But "Titus Andronicus" and "Coriolanus" stand at opposite ends of 
Shakespeare's career and express intriguingly different concerns. 
Titus's revenge is of a graphically personal sort, a case of domestic 
violence that turns to vendetta.  The goad for Coriolanus's changing 
allegiances is injured pride, played out as a struggle for political 
power and the almost lascivious violence that it engenders. One is Tony 
Soprano; the other is Darth Vader.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Titus Andronicus" is probably the 
Bard's first tragedy, perhaps written as early as 1589, and one in which 
he feels out themes of revenge that he will refine later in "King Lear," 
"Othello," etc.  (Scholars argue whether he collaborated with another 
writer, wrote it all or wrote none of it, though most think he wrote at 
least four of the five acts.) In any case, it's certainly his most 
grotesquely bloodthirsty play. A young woman is raped, and to protect 
themselves, her rapists cut off her hands and tongue (offstage); Titus 
has his hand cut off as ransom for his captured sons (onstage). The 
rapists are cooked into a pie and served up to their mother-a case in 
which revenge is not served cold! -- which kicks off a whole round of 
tableside stabbings.

This is the first stab at "Titus" for the Shakespeare Theatre Company 
and for Australian director Gale Edwards. But while the violence may 
seem over-the-top to modern audiences, it would not have seemed so in 
Shakespeare's day, when poachers had their hands lopped off just for 
bagging a rabbit, and rapists were hanged, drawn and quartered. Edwards, 
who has moved the play out of toga time into a contemporary but not 
specific setting, has opted for realistic rather than stylized 
bloodletting, so as with HBO, expect a little more graphic violence than 
usual.

"Coriolanus" may be best known as a punch line from Cole Porter's "Brush 
Up Your Shakespeare" ("If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her 
right in the . .  ."), but it's the Bard's final tragedy, written in 
1608-09, and one that seems to have a peculiarly disinterested, or at 
least ambiguous, view of its central character. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth 
and so on, Coriolanus rarely reveals his innermost thoughts or complex 
motives, which is one reason the play has been interpreted by directors 
in so many ways. He's a man of action (his mother, Volumnia, tells him 
early on that "action is eloquence," especially in the "eyes of the 
ignorant"), and ultimately a sort of spiteful adrenaline drives him to 
betray her and his oath to Rome.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Coriolanus" at the 
Kennedy Center is directed by Gregory Doran in a mix of Roman and 
contemporary dress-contemporary to Shakespeare, that is-and plays on the 
image of a still-evolving empire as well as the struggle between 
"republican" and "democratic" ideals. When he first staged the play, 
which opened at Stratford-on-Avon in March before going on tour, Doran 
remarked that it had been performed from a right-wing perspective, a 
left-wing one, a nihilist view, set during the run-up to the French 
Revolution and as a cautionary tale (against weak leadership) by the 
Nazis. Edwards staged it as a vaguely fascist struggle at the Sydney 
Opera House a few years ago.

But like "Titus Andronicus," "Coriolanus" would have sounded painfully 
familiar to Shakespeare's audience. The play opens during a time of 
riots and grain shortages among the "rabble," as Coriolanus terms them; 
there had been bread riots and famines off and on for years when 
Shakespeare wrote the play, and a huge uprising in the Midlands the year 
before over the fencing in of traditional open lands. (The famous 
Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and his band schemed to blow up King 
James and Parliament, was only three years in the past.) Now, of course, 
the question of self-governance, both political and personal, might seem 
most relevant.

One other interesting anomaly about "Coriolanus": Volumnia is a 
particularly strong character, unlike most of Shakespeare's mothers. His 
own mother died the same year he wrote the play, so it might speak 
volumes-albeit also ambiguously-about their relationship.

Titus Andronicus Shakespeare Theatre 202-547-1122 Through May 20

[Editor's Note: I am leaving just now to attend the matinee of Titus and 
will resume with other submissions tomorrow. -Hardy]

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