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, revolving around several very forceful, very egotistic, and very vocal characters. Caius Macius Coriolanus is the manliest of men, (especially when played by Hiddleston,) but cannot bend his convictions (however flawed they be) to curry political favor. His bossy mother Volumnia not only verbally whips her son, but claims responsibility for his martial prowess.
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 as a epithet, it 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. Her title and her words combined mark her as a passive character, waiting for the action of others to determine her fate, apparently ruled by her voluble mother-in-law, and cloistering herself inside to await her husband. (While her mother-in-law, Volumnia, lives up to her name with some of the most rhetorically powerful speeches in the play.)
Shakespeare’s actions most often occur through the spoken narrative and language of his plays: actions are recounted by messengers and mediated through rhetoric, and interior action revealed through monologues or dialogues. The power of speech is particularly highlighted in Shakespeare by the dearth of stage directions. (But the ones he does have are either direct or narratively expansive. Exit pursued by a bear.) character with few lines often fades into the background.
Yet in this production, Virgilia’s silence is not taken to be complete inaction. When she first appears, her mother-in-law and various friends are trying the convince her to leave off worrying and weeping over the absence of her husband. Her continued weeping often cements her image as weak-willed, but that discounts one revealing fact: Virgilia is the only character in the play who hears the rhetoric of persuasion unmoved. While the rest of the cast fall prey to various arguments, it is only Virgilia who remains steadfast in her convictions and in her silence.
She might be silent in part because it is impossible to speak when Volumnia holds forth. But in a play with increasing tension between honest speech and “fair words”, it is notable that Virgilia repeatedly ignores that dichotomy and chooses to hold her silence. Volumnia, the passionate orator, 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 bends his character to comply, Virgilia responds by becoming almost mute. When his inability to make the bastard words credible destroys Corilanus, Virgilia (in this portrayal) uses her own lips only for kissing him.
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 bears suffering quietly.
Shakespeare, the word master, has crafted excruciating monologues of pain, grief, and reasoning, so it is more than strange that he gives Virgilia such a consistent 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 and faith falters, silence does herald a great many other interior movements. Sobs speak more tellingly of grief than words, as in Lear’s broken speech over the death of Cordelia. And both Hero’s and Hermione’s outrage and sorrow are manifested in the gravest of silences.
This staging of Coriolanus embraces Virgilia’s actions as speaking more poignantly than all of Volumnia’s syllables. Where Menelius and Volumnia use language to deceive, incite, and woo, Virgilia’s lack of words grounds her husband. Her love for him is clear in every gesture, and needs no other articulation. Virgilia’s lack of speech is not empty, but is a powerful counterweight to the rhetoric of Menelius’ smooth persuasions and Volumnia’s fierce lectures. Where words corrupt and manipulate, Virgilia remains constant. Her silence is truly filled with grace.