If ever the preface area of a book threatens to derail the introduction and main text, it’s the preface area to this Arden 3rd edition of Coriolanus. Firstly because after the notes on the text, in his notes on the introduction, editor Peter Holland cautions us against expecting a formulaic consideration of the play, no discussion of plays major concerns, chronological production history, nothing on the current state of critical analysis (especially in footnotes). Secondly, due to the romantic picture he paints of writing the textual commentary, sitting on parallel desks with his wife Romana, also a professor (editing Stevie Smith’s poems), in an apartment in Montmartre, listening to Jazz CDs “looking out across the roof-tops at the Eiffel Tower”. Envious sigh.
Elsewhere, Holland offers some tangential explanation for his approach to the introduction. The extended gestation period meant that a number of other editions were published in the meantime, notably the Oxford and New Cambridge, whose quality he acknowledges. With these texts and the earlier Ardens still available and readily, it’s unlikely that a student will consult a single edition in study, so he’s decided it’s important to add to the critical mass rather than regurgitate it. Which is actually much in keeping with the “eclectic” nature of all these later Ardens, which have tended to go, for better or worse, with the given editor’s area of interest rather than forcing them into some rote consideration.
What that means for Corolanius is that Holland doesn’t offer much in the way of Freudian commentary on the Roman general’s relationship with his mother, or the implications of us only having a single version of the play in the First Folio rather than sundry other Quartos good and bad, or anything other than a cursory glance at contemporary staging. Which is fine to some extent. Philip Brockbank’s Arden 2nd does indeed cover all of that in a more typically methodological manner. But it is disconcerting to be suddenly thrust initially into a discussion of how the play inspired artists in the 1930s, in an eclectic US production, an unfinished TS Eliot adaptation and a Parisian translation which was turned into a Cause célèbre amongst various contemporary political factions.
Plus, in actuality Holland does still covering many of the topics you might expect to find in an introduction, just not necessarily in the typical order. A section entitled “Beginnings” investigates the sources of the play, from Liby and Virgin, Plutarch and North, and a close textual analysis suggests that like a screenwriter tackling a Jesus film when faced with the gospels (my analogy), Shakespeare utilised the various aspects of contradictory sources to craft his own story, extending the lives of some figures so that unlike is other tragedies, only the title character dies in the climax. The difference is that Holland expects the reader to already have some working knowledge of the play, that this isn’t the first time they’ve held a version in their hand. If you want an entry level introduction, I’d seek out the Oxford instead.
When you’ve returned you’ll find much that is of interest. In dating the play, Holland isn’t able to quite find anything conclusive, but his approach, an In Our Time style investigation of the peasant riots in the Midlands in roughly the same period as the writing of the play reveals many parallels with Shakespeare’s treatment of a populace so often either cut or left in the margins. Like the best Arden intros, Holland does however refuse to be drawn into suppositions and guesses and will only work with available evidence. We don’t know within which playhouse it originally premiered, the act and scene structuring of the Folio confirming nothing so much as the potential decisions of compositors or the stage traditions within which it was printed.
Holland also does still include much about the stage history of Coriolanus. In “shaping the play”, Holland notes how audience reactions change depending on the placement of the interval and how when, in 1964, Sir Peter Hall decided not to end his first modern half with the banishment scene, including instead the two coda scenes from the opening of act four, it disconcerted the audience who were already beginning to make for the bar. Hamlet’s rather like that too. The prince’s triumphant reaction to Claudius’s storming from The Mousetrap seems like the ideal conclusion, but I’ve seen productions which eek things out so that the second half begins with the closet scene or even with Hamlet being sent to England, which also has a logic due to the time gaps, all a reminder that Shakespeare was structuring his plays for a different audience and production sensibility.
Holland ends his introduction where he began with talk about adaptations, in this case Brecht and Osborne, and productions and so the recent Ralph Fiennes film. The former has some lovely bits of gossip about the NT production and recasting and the latter will be of interest to film students in relation to bringing the play to screen. Unlike in a theatre, perhaps, film allowed Fiennes even greater flexibility in reshaping the text. Holland’s less than pleased with some of his choices, presumably because this is the version which will be most popularly seen, particularly in the treatment of one of the supporting characters, which changes the sense of the play to some degree. Much as I enjoyed the film, I have some sympathy with that. Unlike Hamlet, there won’t be another Coriolanus film along to offer an alternative reading.
The textual commentary is in keeping with previous Ardens and with the newer innovation of longer notes at the back. The textual analysis explains the working methods of the compositors of F1 and indicates the challenges of making sense of their decisions and how all too often they underestimated the amount of text which would be required on each page leading to abbreviations and some re-engineering of what might have been the playwright’s original intent. A skeletal table listing notable productions follows then a discussion of how the play might be cast, how large a group of actors might be required. In other words, Holland can't quite steer away from the conventions he says he's ignoring and ultimately this edition is the stronger for it.
Coriolanus (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Peter Holland. Bloomsbury. 2013. RRP: £8.99. ISBN: 978-1904271284. Review copy supplied.