Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Shakespeare's Citizens and the 99%: Accommodating the Occupy Movement in Productions of Coriolanus

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Shakespeare's Citizens and the 99%: Accommodating the Occupy Movement in Productions of Coriolanus

Article excerpt

Terence Hawkes writes that the function of Shakespeare's plays is to 'generate meaning'.1 Hawkes argues that '[they] have become one of the central agencies through which our culture performs this operation. This is what they do, that is how they work, and that is what they are for'.2 However, the meaning that is generated in performance would appear to be contingent on the particular context in which the plays are produced. In writing about Shakespeare and political theatre, Andrew James Hartley has observed that

theatre is an essentially experiential art form, and the meanings it generates ... tend to be limited to those who make up its audience. After it closes, the production may live on in memory ... but it loses its kinetic immediacy, its presentness. It becomes disconnected from that which defined it: a crucially interactive dependence on the live audience and a broader interactivity which locates both performers and audience in a particular cultural moment.3

Topical allusions to politics at the time of production have been a key aspect of the performance history of Coriolanus since its inception around 1608. Robert Ormsby gives an excellent account of the various allusions that scholars have found in the play, from the 1607 corn riots in the Midlands to Jacobean absolutism, and from the 'rhetoric of anti-theatrical tracts' to 'the question of military support for Protestantism on the Continent'.4 John Ripley observes that Nahum Tate's 1681 adaptation of the play was staged against the backdrop of 'seven of the most politically turbulent decades in England's history', and Ormsby states that through '"improving" Martius' behaviour', Tate sought to 'participate in contemporary debates'.5 This engagement with the social and political contexts of the time of production continued to be a feature of the play internationally: for example, the 1933 production at the Comédie-Française, Paris, resulted in 'tragic street demonstrations' related to public discontent with the 'economic tribulations' of the time.6 Rather than being used simply to comment on current contexts, however, the play has also been employed to further an oppositional politics: for example, the National Theatre's 1984-85 production (directed by Peter Hall) was a significant moment in the National's conflict with the Arts Council and the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, and was staged against the backdrop of the (sometimes violent) miners' strike.7

Writing in 2014, and in line with Hawkes's approach to meaning by Shakespeare, Graham Holderness argues that Coriolanus is 'very much a play for today, if anything more contemporary than it ever has been since the early seventeenth century'.8 He goes on to discuss the character of Coriolanus as a 'folk-hero for the third millennium' and finds the Coriolanus figure in the contemporary films The Hurt Locker (2008) and Skyfall (2012).9 Yet, parallels can be found beyond the eponymous character and the militaristic masculinity of these films, and, indeed, the play has been used successfully in recent years to comment on or to seek to understand political movements that are rooted in the current moment. In 2011 there were a number of protests around the world under the banner of Occupy, a movement consisting of the occupation of public places to make a highly visible impact through which to create political resistance and change. Occupy Wall Street (the focus of this article) was arguably a highly theatrical protest: the camp included a theatre, and commentators have talked about the site as being 'the stage for dissidence'.10 In 2012 this movement directly influenced two American productions of Coriolanus, by the Seattle Shakespeare Company and The Drilling Company's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. These productions referenced the Occupy movement as a focal point of their interpretation, using it to shed light on Coriolanus and using Coriolanus to begin to understand what was happening on the streets. …

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