Choosing Coriolanus

Let me tell you a little bit about my life right now. It's quite lovely, actually—I have a perfect apartment, good friends, precious family, and I ate delicious sweet potato gnocchi today. But it's not particularly cheerful at the moment. It seems nearly everyone I care about is going through their own personal gauntlets, and I am left to pray. Which is a good place to be left in, but not easy.

I have made this observation elsewhere, but I'll make it again here. Something happens when you crack open the door to grief. You become almost physically aware of the feelings that are due things. That which is delightful suddenly strikes you as the most beautiful thing in existence. That which is sad can set you to honest weeping. I find a certain sanctity in this. After all, Jesus wept.

In the midst of all this, I've been personally "suffering" a lot of Stupid. My wallet was stolen a month ago, and for a pile of reasons, it's taken all that time to get access to my new bank account. I made an hour long trip the other day only to find out it was a wasted journey. I broke my key ring. I dropped each of my keys individually the whole way down the hall trying to fix it. I'm pretty sure there's a leak in one of my tires. I could go on, but why bother.

I've been meaning to treat myself to something, lately—preferably something theatrical. A few weeks ago, I heard the Donmar's Coriolanus would be screening in Irvine. The tickets were available online—I just needed my new payment card. I waited for it for three weeks. Just long enough to be too late.

Though the tickets were sold out, I called anyway, and the woman at the box office sounded vaguely hopeful. It was possible (though the seats might not be any good) that just maybe there would be room for me. An hour before it started, I sat in my living room thinking about my perfect parking space fifty feet from my door, and the 45 minute drive in Orange County traffic, and the strong likelihood that I'd have to turn right back around. To be honest, I was afraid of being stuck in a stupid situation again.

And then I thought about what I'd be doing in an hour if I didn't go: sitting in my living room, wishing I'd gone. When I got to the box office, I told the woman I didn't have a ticket. She plucked one off the counter, saying, "You're in luck. A woman just left this here for the next person who came along. It's yours."

It was so perfect it was like a bad novel.  

So it was with absolute gratitude that I watched Coriolanus. And I think that's the way we should approach every work of Shakespeare. And while we're at it, the world.


For once in my life, I disagree with First Things. I suppose actually twice, because in August of 2012 they posted a review of the film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus which was less than positive, and just last month they reviewed the Donmar Theatre's production of the same with similar disaffection.

The review of the film is titled "Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus," which is the first sign that the reviewer's main issue lies in the portrayal of Coriolanus himself. A different reviewer looked at the Donmar performance, and her main contention is also with the portrayal of main character. The one is too subtle, the other too sensitive. I think an interesting evening would be had if we could put these two reviewers in a room together, because they seem to disagree with one another almost completely about who Coriolanus is supposed to be. Sympathetic? Cruel? Fascist? Victimized?

I loved them both, for that exact reason. There may be plenty of wrong ways to perform Shakespeare, but I suspect there isn't a singular right one. Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus was terrifying and victimized. Thoroughly unlikable, but horrifyingly admirable. Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus was a soldier of soldiers, self-destructively honest, ironically blind. And they both had more or less the same lines.

In the end, I found myself preferring the latter depiction—and not just because I'm a single woman between the ages of fifteen and fifty. (No, really. I swear.) I preferred it, because, unlike the film adaptation, I didn't feel like it was trying to do more than what Shakespeare wrote (i.e. be more political than he was already being), and it was richer as a result. It also felt much more like a classic tragedy. The end was completely surprising and completely unnecessary and completely inevitable all at once. It was so classically tragic, it felt more like Sophocles than Shakespeare.


I was thinking about Coriolanus as a character during the 30 minute walk home from my new parking spot (thankfully worth it). I was thinking about the choices he made—and the choices that were made for him—and how much he suffered for them. Here's the thing of it: You can't sort this one out. It's no one's specific fault how the Coriolanus cookie crumbles. As soon as you blame the politicians, the people open their mouths. As soon as you blame the people, Coriolanus turns out to be an ass. 

What does seem to be clear is that sometimes things happen regardless of you. Sometimes you step into a stream that seems like inevitability and you're left with nothing but your character, because no matter what, you'll be strung up by your ankles. 

Sometimes I make wise choices. Sometimes I make stupid ones. So often the difference lies not in the actions, but in their consequences. It seems so arbitrary that at times I might almost think our lives are ruled by fate—were it not for the burning in my heart. The thing Coriolanus lacked altogether. Human sympathy.

Incidentally (and I feel very strongly about this), I think sympathy isn't so much sharing other people's emotional experiences as it is echoing the "No's" and "Amen's" of God. Life can look an awful lot like tragedy sometimes, but it's not at all. For one thing, it makes no account of delight. "Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless." (Thank you, Auden.) More than this, suffering is never the end of the story. It is always the beginning. I don't say that dismissively. One must believe that souls are eternal to hold to this—and I do. 


  1. Please, please contact me next time you need someone to front you the funds for a ticket to Coriolanus. Although it's true that the way it worked out was far better.

  2. Hmm...and if I'd asked you, you could've joined me. Better planning all around would have been a good idea.

  3. Okay, your last paragraph..."Life can look an awful lot like tragedy sometimes, but it's not at all. makes no account of delight..." and "(it) is never the end of the story." I just read something very similar in Donald Miller's book, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Days,"
    where he talks about Victor Frankl's hope even in a concentration camp, and Job who lost it all and then came to the conclusion that life was wonderful, and how the disciples won people to Christ, not by saying that Jesus would make everything perfect, but by suffering and saying the comforting words, "Hope will not disappoint." I will have to share this with you soon.


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