Academic journal article Interactions

Hate, Pride and "The Deepest Malice of the War": Ralph Fiennes 'Coriolanus

Academic journal article Interactions

Hate, Pride and "The Deepest Malice of the War": Ralph Fiennes 'Coriolanus

Article excerpt

In his 2011 directorial debut, popular actor Ralph Fiennes has brought one of William Shakespeare's less known plays, Coriolanus, to the attention of the great public. The original play, hypothetically written between 1607 and 1608, is the last tragedy before the four romances concluding the playwright's career, and it is not considered usually as part of the "essential canon" that includes works such as Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare's story is based on Plutarch's ParallelLives, a series of biographies which includes the deeds of Gaius Marcius, a Roman general who helped to conquer the Volscian town of Corioles in 493 BCE and was thenceforth named Coriolanus. After being betrayed by his own people, the general allied with the Volscians and marched against Rome. It was the historical period of the young and immature republic of Rome, which had just freed himself from the domination of the Etruscan kings and had recently suffered from the First Secession in 494 BCE-a dispute between the patrician ruling class and the plebeian underclass whose resolution led to the institution of the Tribunes of the People, magistrates who proposed legislation to the populace (or vetoed it) and provided the people with a direct representation in the senate.

In Fiennes' film, the Shakespearian play is adapted with precision, in spite of the many textual cuts to the original source. Indeed, the script omits more than half of Shakespeare's lines, cutting several dialogues and soliloquies (especially from the fourth act of the play). Nevertheless, as Philip French has noted, "in adapting the play, John Logan (who worked on Gladiator and Scorsese's Howard Hughes biography, The Aviator) has sharply cut the text, removing the obscurer passages but retaining its lucidity and eloquence and providing a sharp, graphic narrative". The cinematic text has maintained all of the play's major themes (such as war, political intrigues, betrayal and family affections), but its main difference from the original source is the transposition of the narrative to the contemporary age. Reconciling the original text with the contemporary historical context could be difficult for some spectators, especially those who are not familiar with the works of the English Bard and their early-modern language. Indeed, majestic and eloquent phrases such as "make you a sword of me" and "each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart a root of ancient envy" do not always fit easily with a representation of a world filled with TV news, panzers, rifles and missiles. The gap between the Elizabethan text and the modern film setting thus seems unbridgeable and confusing sometimes, especially when phrases such as "matrons flung gloves, ladies and maids theirs scarves and hand kerchiefs, upon him as he passed, the nobles bended, as to Jove's statue" use terms, invoke anachronistic deities and evoke images that make no sense in that context. On the other hand, the narrative itself is fluent and believable and the actors' performances are very convincing "in spite of' the remoteness of the language. This demonstrates the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare's language rather than its anachronism. Indeed, one of the main merits of this production is its capacity to show that the contents of Coriolanus are still valid nowadays, when war and deceitful political intrigues plague many areas of our planet as it occurred during both Ancient Roman history and the Elizabethan age.

Furthermore, the modern setting can certainly help the viewer to "accept" more easily the early-modern language of the Bard's verses. After all, as Jack Jorgens recognizes, "in a sense all Shakespeare films are translations" and try "to recast and reimage a work conceived in a different language and for a different culture" (in Hindle xiv-xv). A great number of cinematic adaptations have in fact transposed the characters and the settings (as well as translated the language) of Shakespeare's works to other historical periods, whether it is the original historical context the plays refer back to or a time that follows the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. …

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