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Coriolanus On Screen

TV adaptations of Shakespeare's powerful political tragedy

Main image of Coriolanus On Screen

Though it is not certain when Coriolanus was written, it is widely assumed to be Shakespeare's last tragedy. Scholars assume that its first performance was after 1607-08, as there are references in the text to a great frost and food riots, both of which occurred in England during that winter. It was not published until the First Folio of 1623.

Shakespeare's Roman plays were often used as vehicles for political material that was considered inappropriate or even dangerous for his English history plays to tackle, and Coriolanus is no exception. Great warrior though he undoubtedly is, Caius Marcius, known as Coriolanus after his victory over the Corioli, turns out to be a hopelessly inept politician, incapable of suppressing his natural arrogance and blunt opinions when tact and diplomacy are called for - and he becomes easy pickings for the opposing Volscians after they adopt Machiavellian tactics instead of brute force. By the end of the play, only Coriolanus' family stand by him, and they are powerless to resist the forces of history.

Surprisingly, given its potential, there are no big-screen adaptations of Coriolanus, and just three television versions, only the last of which is easily accessible. The first adaptation was made in 1963, and forms the first third of the nine-part series Spread of the Eagle (which also incorporated Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), with Robert Hardy as Coriolanus. Directed by Peter Dews, it was broadcast by the BBC between 3 and 17 May 1963 (the series as a whole running until March and 28 June). Almost exactly two years later, on 23 May 1965, the BBC broadcast the Chichester Festival Theatre production, directed by Roger Jenkins and starring John Nightingale in the title role.

The second made-for-television adaptation was the official BBC Television Shakespeare entry and was one of the last in that series to be broadcast, on 21 April 1984. Alan Howard, a famous Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays the title role in a cut-down version of the play that focuses very much on Coriolanus the man as opposed to the wider political issues, and Elijah Moshinsky's adaptation duly spends much of the running time concentrating on Howard's intense performance. Broadcast the same evening, the accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by General Sir John Hackett, offering a personal view of the tragedy from a military point of view.


The Spread of the Eagle: 1. The Hero, BBC, tx. 3/5/1963
The Spread of the Eagle: 2. The Voices, BBC, tx. 10/5/1963
The Spread of the Eagle: 3. The Outcast, BBC, tx. 17/5/1963
BBC, tx. 23/5/1965 (Chichester Festival Theatre production)
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 21/4/1984, d. Elijah Moshinsky

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 21/4/1984 , p. General Sir John Hackett

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Spread of the Eagle, The (1963)

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