Serendipity happens. I was reading Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Gods In Everyman and had just seen National Theatre Live’s broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Coriolanus. I realized that Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Coriolanus was the perfect manifestation of the Greek god archetype Ares.

This had happened before-when I was reading Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman and realized that the female characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fell so very neatly into Bolen’s model.  I’m still working on this series of essays.  After all there’s seven seasons and 144 episodes and nine characters to explore.

In Bolen’s book, Gods In Everyman, she discusses the Procrustean bed.  Everyone on their way to Athens was placed on Procrustes’ bed.  If they were too short, they were stretched out as on a medieval torture device.  If they were too tall, their limbs were cut off to fit the bed.  Bolen likens the pressure of men to conform in a patriarchal society as being placed on this bed.

Bolen, as a Jungian analyst, often writes within the frame work of the metaphor of archetypes.  She uses the Greek pantheon of deities because they are larger than life and their flaws as well as their attributes are so magnified that one can see and appreciate one’s own frailties as heroic.

“Archetypes are powerful predispositions; garbed in the image and mythology of Greek gods…each has characteristic drives, emotions, and needs that shape personality.”  (p. 5)

If a man’s stereotype (the expectations from the outer world) and his archetype (his inner patterns of behavior and his emotional and mental worlds) are a match, then he has no trouble fitting the Procrustean bed.  If, on the other hand, his archetype is different than what is expected of him from his family and society, it’s as if he must cut himself off or stretch himself to accommodate  those who expect different things from him than what he can deliver.

And this is what happened in Coriolanus.

Patriarchy, as Bolen pointed out, plays favorites. It celebrates the rational thinker, the one who is successful at acquiring power and fame, the man who is in control of his emotions at all times.  The Ares archetype, however, is not rational.

“Ares as the embodiment of aggression, has been one of the strongest forces working through history.   He is the Olympos’ “Action Man”, the god of war and strife, the restless and turbulent lover, thriving on conflict and rejoicing in the delight of the battle.  In Ares we see our own aggression, raw and bloody, before civilization tempered or repressed it.” Arianna Stassinopoulos, The Gods of Greece. (Bolen p.192)

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays and the title role possibly the least sympathetic lead in all his works.  It is in Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia that we first get a glimpse of how Coriolanus himself was forced to lie on the Procrustean bed.

Volumnia-“Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike and none less dear than thine and my good Coriolanus I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.”

What she possibly didn’t recognize, or did, and foolishly encouraged even further, was that she already had the son that she wanted.

“This is a reactive, here-and-now archetype…when rage and anger arise he reacts instinctively and often gets into situations that are detrimental to him and damaging to others.  In either case, not considering to whom he is responding and what the consequences will be, leads to trouble.” (p.196)

Even his friend, Menenius, recognizes that he’s possibly not the best candidate for the statesman role that Coriolanus was expected to play after his victory against the Volscians.

Menenius-“Consider this-he’s been bred in the wars since he could draw a sword and is ill-schooled in graceful language.”

Upon his return, however, his power-hungry mother encourages him to run for consul and although initially reluctant he acquiesces, with disastrous results.

“Ares…may get in difficulties for speaking the truth, when it wasn’t either diplomatic or prudent…Thus even when anger is not the issue, Ares does not last long in a bureaucracy or in business.” (p.212)

Caius Marcius -“Why would you wish me milder?  Would you have me false to my nature?  Rather I say I play the man I am.”

Volumnia-“Sir, sir I would have you put your power well on before you had worn it out.

Caius Marcius -“Let go.”

Volumnia-“You are too absolute; Though therein you can never be too noble, But when extremities speak. I have heard you say,
Honour and policy, like unsever’d friends, I’ the war do grow together: grant that, and tell me, In peace what each of them by the other lose, That they combine not there.”

Caius  Marcius- “Why force you this?

Volumnia-“Because that now it lies you on to speak To the people; not by your own instruction, Nor by the matter which your heart prompts you,
But with such words that are but rooted in Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth.  Now, this no more dishonours you at all Than to take in a town with gentle words, Which else would put you to your fortune and The hazard of much blood.”

Caius Marcius -“Must I go show them my unbarbed sconce?  Must I with base tongue give my noble heart A lie that it must bear? Well, I will do’t:  Yet, were there but this single plot to lose, This mould of Marcius, they to dust should grind it And throw’t against the wind. To the market-place!  You have put me now to such a part which never I shall discharge to the life.”

Volumnia-“I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said My praises made thee first a soldier, so, To have my praise for this, perform a part Thou hast not done before.”

This is something that Tom Hiddleston has done before and does extremely well.  He plays villainous  characters with such incredible depth and pathos that one ends up sympathizing with him instead of the hero.  Kudos to Sir Kenneth Branagh, Hiddleston’s costar in Wallander, for recognizing his potential as Loki  (even though Hiddleston had to lose all the weight he gained when he auditioned for Thor).  There’s something that happens when he turns on the tears as a villain  or even an anti-hero that completely turns the tide of favor to his character  and Coriolanus is no exception.  In this way, he is even more like Ares than Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal in the film, as he displays the frustration of  being forced into a role he was never taught to play nor could possibly sustain for any length of time.

Ares, the god, was initially trained as a dancer before he became a warrior. Anyone who has any familiarity with Hiddleston knows that he is recognized for his gift of dance almost as much as his acting.  His movements on the stage actually brought to my mind the final moments of Joss Whedon’s film Serenity, which was the continuation of the sadly and prematurely canceled TV show Firefly.  In the final battle scene, River, played by former dancer Summer Glau, battles the Reavers in such a way that she is the feminine aspect of Ares personified.  Hiddleston, on the stage, recalls the grace and fluidity of a dancer in battle, thereby affirming that his character never should have been called upon to be a statesman.

Coriolanus is banished for his refusal (or more likely incapability) to work with the public.   His friend Menenius calls upon him to return, and is refused; Menenius’ words are perhaps the most accurate description of what happens to a man when he is called upon to be something different than his true nature as well as perhaps the most beautiful words spoken in the play:

Menenius-“This Marcius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a creeping thing…there is no more mercy
in him than there is milk in a male tiger.”

The greatest tragedy in this story is the result of expectations thrust upon a boy or man that he cannot fulfill. Bolen’s assertion that not only women but men are victims of patriarchy ring true with this production.

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One thought on “Coriolanus and the Procrustean Bed: or Maybe This Patriarchy Isn’t Such A Good Idea After All-I Blame The Mother

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