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Coriolanus : A Natural Born Warrior

In 1994, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged Coriolanus at Stratford with Toby Stephens playing the role of the eponymous hero[1]. Outside the theatre, huge posters showing Stephens’ bloodied face, bore the words, «He too was a natural born killer». This was an obvious publicity ploy to attract spectators by linking the production to Oliver Stone’smass-audience film Natural Born Killers released earlier that year. More recently, Kate Bassett, in her Independent review[2] of Dominic Dromgoole’s 2006 production of the play at the Globe Theatre in London, wrote that the protagonist, as played by Jonathan Cake was «a crowd-pleasing action-hero (...) some full-scale version of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible CDXIII BC».
The link thus made byreviewers between the play on the stage and the cinema is a curious one. Coriolanus is the only one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays not to have been made into a major feature film[3], and yet the Coriolanus-type character is today omnipresent on cinema screens. Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), featuring an uncompromising, tough, unyielding cop in the title role was a precursor and has, over the pastthirty-five years, spawned numerous other films with a similar kind of hero. One pictures Sylvester Stallone on cinema posters as Rambo[4], the Vietnam veteran and urban warrior, loaded down with weaponry, a cartridge belt slung across his chest, striking out alone to wage his own personal war on a society that rejects him; or the policemen-hero of Die Hard[5], abandoned by his hierarchy in the LosAngeles police department, dealing with crises single-handed. Coriolanus’ words, «Alone I did it» spring to mind (5.6.116). Such heroes are loners, uncommunicative and unsociable and what they share is a tendency to resort to the unrestrained use of violence in the righting of wrongs. It is not at all my intention to place Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and these somewhat flat, modern offshoots on the samelevel, but rather to show the longevity and the continuing popularity of this character-type.

Coriolanus too is an urban warrior, a warrior of Rome. He thrives on conflict and is wedded to war; like Macbeth, he is «Belladona’s bridegroom»[6]. He is «the son and heir of Mars» (4.5.197), the god he serves and whose name, Martius, he bears. Even his greatest enemy, Tullus Aufidius, recognizeshis military prowess when he addresses Coriolanus as «thou Mars» (4.5.119). Coriolanus is the archetypal war hero. His fighting unaided against Corioles is a powerful heroic image. He boasts that he can fight alone against a multitude of adversaries:
On fair ground
I could beat forty of them (3.1.242-243)

and one supposes that the odds against him within the walls of Corioles wereimmeasurably greater. His impulsive action however smacks more of senseless daring than military discretion. His rushing through through the enemy’s gates alone, careless of his own safety, is qualified as «foolhardiness» by his fellow soldiers who refuse to follow his lead (1.5.17). «You don’t assign him to murder cases, you just turn him loose», state the advertising posters of the hero of DonSiegel’s film. He mirrors his Shakespearean forerunner in his reckless and uncontrolled behaviour.
During the battle scenes of Act 1, Coriolanus appears covered in blood. The stage directions indicate that he is «bloody» or «bleeding». G. K. Wilson-Knight writes of his «robe and reeking caparison of blood»[7]. This is something which theatre directors are hesitant to emphasize on stage,although film directors are less squeamish. The text however is clear: Coriolanus is a «man in blood» (4.5.216), a «thing of blood» (2.2.107), almost unrecognizable, even to those who are closest to him and who know him best. His general, Cominius asks:

Who’s yonder
That does appear as he were flayed? O gods!
He has the stamp of Martius, and I have
Before-time seen him...
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