The two repertory productions of Coriolanus and Wallenstein were our most ambitious undertakings of the 2012-13 season. The two plays – homosocial, obsessed with eschatology, beloved by communists and fascists alike – aren’t easy to love. -DL
Early in the action of Coriolanus, Shakespeare surprises us with a scene of familial intimacy. Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, discusses her grandson, Young Martius, who plays at being a soldier in emulation of his father. “He had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster,” Volumnia says proudly. “I saw him run after a gilded butterfly,” says Valeria, another Roman matron, who continues, describing a scene of childlike play that ends unexpectedly:
… and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again. Or whether his fall enraged him, or how ’twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it. O, I warrant it, how he mammocked it!
A mammock is a hunk of meat, more figuratively a scrap, shred or fragment. This passage is the first time it appears as a verb in the English language, in Shakespeare’s vivid image of dismemberment. In our contemporary era of gun violence, when military weapons and ideologies can intrude into the private sphere of children’s lives with horrific consequences, Shakespeare suddenly looks prescient. There is more at stake than butterflies.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare draws his plot from Plutarch’s Lives, which tells the story of the aristocratic Caius Martius Coriolanus, the legendary warrior who helped establish democracy in Rome by defeating Tarquin the Proud only to lead an army against the republic himself. In adapting this story, Shakespeare seems to question the underpinnings of democracy, while at the same time finding fault in our attraction to charismatic military leaders. To this provocative plot, Shakespeare adds a guiding metaphor very much in Elizabethan vogue: that of the body politic.
“The senators of Rome are this good belly,” Coriolanus’ friend Menenius tells a group of rioting citizens in the play’s first scene, which evokes contemporary images of Tea Party and Occupy protests, “And you the mutinous members.” According to Menenius, the leaner “members” of the commonwealth need to feed the “belly” in order for it to remain healthy. In other words, Menenius is a proponent of trickle-down economics.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare draws our attention to the image of the body politic, and, like Young Martius’ butterfly, to the dismemberment of that body. Instability, Shakespeare seems to be saying, is human nature, and thus it is also the nature of the bodies we create, whether physical or political. Late in the play, Coriolanus’ rival, the Volscian general Aufidius, comments on the impermanence of human creations:
So our virtues
Lie in th’interpretation of the time:
One fire drives out one fire, one nail one nail;
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail.
It’s hard to think of a more pessimistic commentary on human history. Might makes right, therefore right is relative. There is no such thing as morality, only competing political ideologies, as one interpretation drives out another. In the 20th century, Coriolanus was adopted for propagandistic uses by extremist parties on both left and right. It was Adolf Hitler’s favorite Shakespeare play, and it was also Bertolt Brecht’s.
In our own fractured era of competing political ideologies, what is the interpretation of our time? Perhaps one kind of answer lies in what happens to Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous tragic heroes. Like Martius’s butterfly, and like the state of Rome at the end of the play, he is mammocked.
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If Coriolanus portrays the dismemberment of the Roman body politic, Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein depicts a body that is already mutilated, a Germany endlessly divided by total war.
The play is set in 1634, the exact midpoint of the Thirty Years’ War. 834 years after the descendants of Charlemagne unified Central and Western Europe under the name of the Holy Roman Empire, it now consists of more than 400 warring members in an area roughly the size of Texas. What had started as a local religious conflict between Protestant and Catholic nobles in Bohemia has blown up into a continent-wide conflagration. Peasants live in terror as wave after wave of invaders – Saxon, Danish, Swedish – rape and pillage their way across the countryside. Foreign armies, consisting largely of mercenary soldiers, pioneer unprecedented and unimaginable tortures. Entire cities are reduced to ashes. Soldiers eat their own horses during the winter months for sustenance.
For the German people, who bore the brunt of the suffering, the war would forever be regarded as a national trauma. In the early 20th century, both political sides sought to purge the infection through different means. Bertolt Brecht would set his apocalyptic anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, during the Thirty Years’ War, while Adolf Hitler would advocate an identity politics of aggressive militarism in order to resurrect the spirit of the “First Reich.”
Like Shakespeare, Schiller seems to challenge such ideological polarities with his provocative choice of plot: the last days of Wallenstein. When Albrecht Wallenstein, the key figure in the Thirty Years’ War, was killed by assassins in Eger Castle, he was possibly attempting to negotiate a peace with the enemy Swedes. The war had raged for 15 years before he was killed; it would rage for 15 years more after he was killed. The Wallensteinfrage (“Wallenstein Question”) has never been solved, up to the present day. Was he attempting to unify Europe in peace, or was he angling at something more personal? Czechs claim him as a national hero, a would-be King of Bohemia lost to history. Austrians consider him a traitor to Vienna and the Emperor, a Coriolanus who had forsaken his Rome. Most other Germans simply consider him the man who could have stopped the bloodshed.
Schiller was in fact, like Shakespeare, writing about a central dilemma of his times. From the 1770s to the 1790s, he witnessed the first democratic revolutions since the time of the Romans. He also saw the equally destabilizing and terrifying rise of Napoleon. In an age of democratic revolutions, Schiller understood, the people’s demand for freedom is absolute. And, in an age of autocratic counterinsurgencies, the state demands a similarly paramount loyalty. Wallenstein is caught inextricably between his people’s demand for freedom, which recognizes no political boundaries, and his loyalty to the state and the Emperor, who made him the great man he is. In Coriolanus and Wallenstein, Schiller and Shakespeare both portray this tragic paradox, central to both plays: man is absolutely free only in the life to come. For so long as he lives, his divided loyalties make him simply another member of the body politic.