Titus and Coriolanus: Vengeance Is Theirs

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

For the next several weeks, Washington Shakespeare fans have a rare opportunity to see two less-familiar plays that are superficially similar. Both are set, at least originally, in Rome (with sources going back to Plutarch and Seneca); both eponymous characters are highly placed generals; and both are eventually assassinated by onetime allies. Most important, both are undone by a consuming desire for vengeance that devastates their families.

But "Titus Andronicus" and "Coriolanus" stand at opposite ends of Shakespeare's career and express intriguingly different concerns. Titus's revenge is of a graphically personal sort, a case of domestic violence that turns to vendetta. The goad for Coriolanus's changing allegiances is injured pride, played out as a struggle for political power and the almost lascivious violence that it engenders. One is Tony Soprano; the other is Darth Vader.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Titus Andronicus" is probably the Bard's first tragedy, perhaps written as early as 1589, and one in which he feels out themes of revenge that he will refine later in "King Lear," "Othello," etc. (Scholars argue whether he collaborated with another writer, wrote it all or wrote none of it, though most think he wrote at least four of the five acts.) In any case, it's certainly his most grotesquely bloodthirsty play. A young woman is raped, and to protect themselves, her rapists cut off her hands and tongue (offstage); Titus has his hand cut off as ransom for his captured sons (onstage). The rapists are cooked into a pie and served up to their mother -- a case in which revenge is not served cold! -- which kicks off a whole round of tableside stabbings.

This is the first stab at "Titus" for the Shakespeare Theatre Company and for Australian director Gale Edwards. But while the violence may seem over-the-top to modern audiences, it would not have seemed so in Shakespeare's day, when poachers had their hands lopped off just for bagging a rabbit, and rapists were hanged, drawn and quartered. Edwards, who has moved the play out of toga time into a contemporary but not specific setting, has opted for realistic rather than stylized bloodletting, so as with HBO, expect a little more graphic violence than usual.

"Coriolanus" may be best known as a punch line from Cole Porter's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" ("If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the . . ."), but it's the Bard's final tragedy, written in 1608-09, and one that seems to have a peculiarly disinterested, or at least ambiguous, view of its central character. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth and so on, Coriolanus rarely reveals his innermost thoughts or complex motives, which is one reason the play has been interpreted by directors in so many ways. He's a man of action (his mother, Volumnia, tells him early on that "action is eloquence," especially in the "eyes of the ignorant"), and ultimately a sort of spiteful adrenaline drives him to betray her and his oath to Rome.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Coriolanus" at the Kennedy Center is directed by Gregory Doran in a mix of Roman and contemporary dress -- contemporary to Shakespeare, that is -- and plays on the image of a still-evolving empire as well as the struggle between "republican" and "democratic" ideals. When he first staged the play, which opened at Stratford-on-Avon in March before going on tour, Doran remarked that it had been performed from a right-wing perspective, a left-wing one, a nihilist view, set during the run-up to the French Revolution and as a cautionary tale (against weak leadership) by the Nazis. Edwards staged it as a vaguely fascist struggle at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago.

But like "Titus Andronicus," "Coriolanus" would have sounded painfully familiar to Shakespeare's audience. The play opens during a time of riots and grain shortages among the "rabble," as Coriolanus terms them; there had been bread riots and famines off and on for years when Shakespeare wrote the play, and a huge uprising in the Midlands the year before over the fencing in of traditional open lands. (The famous Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and his band schemed to blow up King James and Parliament, was only three years in the past.) Now, of course, the question of self-governance, both political and personal, might seem most relevant.

One other interesting anomaly about "Coriolanus": Volumnia is a particularly strong character, unlike most of Shakespeare's mothers. His own mother died the same year he wrote the play, so it might speak volumes -- albeit also ambiguously -- about their relationship.

Titus Andronicus Shakespeare Theatre 202-547-1122 Through May 20

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company