Shakespeare’s Iron Ladies

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Last night I saw The Iron Lady which confirmed to me that Meryl Streep as Lady Thatcher really is as good as everyone has been saying that she is. As a portrayal it seemed on the whole to be sympathetic, but we are (quite properly) not allowed to forget why Thatcher became unpopular and why she remains a controversial figure. There are Shakespearian resonances, too. We hear her, like King Lear, articulating the fear of madness to herself. The film is also a study in grief, with the larger than life ghost of the late Dennis Thatcher haunting his widow’s waking and sleeping moments and occasionally needling her into action like Lear’s Fool.

The trailer for the new film of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, was shown just before The Iron Lady. There I caught glimpses of another Iron Lady, Shakespeare’s devouring matriarch (made possible only by an all consuming and aggressive patriarchy), Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia (played by Vanessa Redgrave). It looked action-packed and comes from the screen writing pen of John Logan, writer of Gladiator and The Last Samuri. Shakespeare film specialist, Tony Howard, has likened Fiennes’s banished hero to Marlon Brando’s Mr Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. As far as I know this is the first time Coriolanus has made it onto the big screen for full film treatment.

But, however modern and militaristic the setting – however many tanks and machine-guns we see – the central conflict is still the same after four centuries. It’s between a son and his mother, where great parental expectations meet personal, civic, and national struggles.

Think of those extraordinary lines when Caius Martius Coriolanus breaks from a war-machine into a real human being. His mother pleads to him, pleads along with his wife, her friend Valeria, and Caius Martius’s young lad; she pleads in the name of their entire city of Rome, begging her son not to destroy them. He realises that he will save them, but it will only be by giving up his own life, and then there is the unusual and eloquent stage-direction, ‘He holds her by the hand, silent’, and the warrior breaks down:

‘O mother. mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother, O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But for your son, believe it, O believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come. (5.3.183-190).

I have always loved this play from the very first time I heard it on audio recording (with Richard Burton) and saw it on stage (R.S.C. at the Newcastle Playhouse in 1995 with Toby Stephens). So, I eagerly anticipate Ralph Fiennes’s film version, especially since there are so many strong Shakespearian actors in supporting roles: Brian Cox, Paul Jesson, and John Kani. You can watch the trailer for it here.

And, if you can be in Stratford-upon-Avon on the eve of the film’s national release, you might like to attend a special showing of it at The Stratford Picture House. It’s presented in partnership with The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on Thursday 19 January at 7pm. After the screening there’ll be an opportunity to take part in a post-show discussion led by Paul Prescott of the University of Warwick (and author of Penguin introduction to the play) and me. Tickets are £9.50 and are available by phoning the Stratford Picture House on 0871 902 5741 or via their website (by clicking here). Perhaps I’ll see some of you there!

But how will the film convey the tragic sense of the heavens opening on a mother, an Iron Lady, her son, his family, and an entire city poised on the edge of destruction?

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Diana Owen

    Got my ticket and really looking forward to my first sight of Coriolanus – thanks for this blog, excellent intro.

  • Prosperohal

    Tickets are going really well for the special showing on Thursday 19th January in Stratford-upon-Avon

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    Darn it! Will be Lagos… hopefully the film won’t be too ‘visual-centric’ for you Doctor! Perhaps an SBT review will be in order?

    “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.” Coriolanus II.I

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