I watched the Hiddlestone Coriolanus a few nights ago, and was enthralled. It is an excellent production, from casting to staging, as Terpsichore described. (Seriously, how does a dirt-grimed man moving a chair look so attractive?)
Coriolanus is a grand tragedy of political and personal dimensions and revolving around several very forceful, very egotistic, and very vocal characters. Caius Macius Coriolanus is the manliest of men, (especially when played by Hiddlestone,) but cannot bend his (flawed) convictions to curry political favor. His bossy mother Volumnia claims responsibility for her son’s martial prowess, and lives up to her name.
But in this version, my attention was caught by the quiet, peace-loving wife, Virgilia.
In their first scene together, Coriolanus address his wife as “my gracious silence”. This phrase has always captured my attention, mostly because that adjective lends a warmth and power to a quality that is often overlooked or criticized. But this title often translates into a negative portrayal of the character.
Virgilia has barely 26 lines, in the whole play, none of which are particularly poignant or important. This title and her own words combined mark her a passive character, waiting for the action of others to determine her fate, ruled by her voluble mother-in-law, and cloistering herself inside wait for her husband. (It is the mother-in-law, Volumnia, who lives up to her name with some of the most rhetorically powerful speeches in the play.)
In Shakespeare, the character reveal themselves trough their speeches almost more than their actions, particularly as Shakespeare included few stage directions. A character with few lines often fades into the background. Yet in this production, Virgilia’s silence is not taken to be complete inaction.
She might be silent in part because it is impossible to speak when Volumnia holds forth. But in a play where there is increasing tension between honest speech and “fair words”, it is notable that Virgilia repeatedly chooses to hold her silence.
Volumnia urges Coriolanus 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. ” (2232-2236)
And when Coriolanus complies, Virgilia becomes almost mute. When his inability to make the bastard words credible destroys him, Virgilia (in this version) only kisses him farewell.
It is not passivity that silences Virgilia; it is words themselves that fail her.
Corrupt language is what destroyed her husband. At several points she can only issue broke cries of, “oh heavens, oh heavens!”, as if words themselves cannot hold depth of her heartache (2533). She is almost choking on her words, as if to articulate them would derive them of reality. Speeches would only make her agony seem trite, so she carries them quietly.
Shakespeare, the word master, has crafted excruciating monologues of pain, so it is strange that he gives Virgilia such silence. Yet his use of silence is not uncommon; “silence is the perfectest herald of joy”, declares Claudio, the false lover. Although Claudio’s joy falters, it might well be that silence heralds a great many other interior movements.
This version of the play lets Virgilia’s actions speak more poignantly than all of Volumnia’s syllables. Her love for her husband is clear in every gesture, and need to no other articulation. Her lack of speech is not empty, but it itself as powerful as Menelius’ smooth persuasions. She is truly Coriolanus’s “gracious silence”.