New Layout: The “Coriolanus” Spread


Yesterday we here at Muses Darling Industries took a field trip down to the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park to see the new production from National Theater Live of Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Gardens in London. It was fabulous — an outstanding, energetic production of an often difficult, occasionally inaccessible Shakespearean play. This is not a review of the production, though, although your Oracle could go on at length about the great performances, the wonderful staging, and even spend a moment or two fangirling over El Hiddleston because of all the beautiful, rippling, manly reasons. But no, this is about using the Tarot and the characters of the play to create a layout to help get us free when we’re in the midst of a difficult, sticky, crowded situation with multiple people with multiple agendas all yelling at us simultaneously. Coriolanus stood firm (read: arrogant, cold, and occasionally obnoxious) in the face of emotional and physical onslaughts brought about through war and politics, like a rock absorbing the crashing waves of the sea. The problem with doing that, however, is that the sea always wins in the end. The pounding the rock takes will eventually destroy it, and that’s what happens to Coriolanus: he is brought to destruction by the incessant demands placed upon him by others and by his own nature, by standing firm when he ought to have yielded, and being of such a character of pride (which makes him a tragic figure) that destruction was as inevitable for him as it is for the stone at the edge of the sea. In order to keep ourselves from a similar fate — because let’s face it, being a tragic hero sucks utterly — the cards are laid out to give us an idea of what the forces are that are working on us and what we can do to work with them, where to stand firm, where to compromise, and where to release our pride and learn from humility and seeing things as they actually are, not as we think they are.

The first card at the top of the reading is Coriolanus himself, the Page of Disks. Such earnestness! Such devotion to honesty and the absolute truth! This little baby jelly bean is on the path to greatness, and is absolutely clear about why and how he is doing it. Ever the volunteer, he will brave any danger, endure any hardship, and attempt any test in order to prove his worthiness. He is relentless, but completely innocent. He believes completely in the fairness and justice of the world, and how things ought to be. He embodies a profound fairness, and his expectation is that everyone else out there will do exactly as he does. He has no experience of deceit, no reason to doubt the motives and agendas of others. He believes completely in the world as he sees it, and takes it utterly at face value.

The row beneath Coriolanus contains the positions of those who would act on him: from left, Menenius, Aufidius, Volumnia, and the Tribunes.

Menenius (Death reversed) is the ultimate compromiser. He knows and understands the ways of the world, and thoroughly trusts and believes in the universal truth that there are always bargains to be made. The reversed Death card shows us how difficult and negative this position is because it is inconstant. There is no way to really know Menenius — he shifts with the currents flowing around him and does his best to say whatever he needs to say to pacify the people without any real understanding of their lives and concerns. The reversed Death is a delay, a blockage of the natural order of things, and a denial of the truth that surrounds us: that actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences cannot be mollified with talk. Sometimes there is war, and in war, sometimes people die. If you betray a loyal person, if you break the loyal heart, do not expect to be able to fix it. There is no fixing that kind of betrayal. Menenius is ultimately rejected by Coriolanus because he is dishonest and dishonorable. He does not stand for who he is; he relies on emotional manipulation to avoid the unavoidable Death, and reveals himself a coward in the process.

Aufidius (the Page of Wands) is the activist, the messenger, the firebrand who is as devoted as is Coriolanus’s Page of Disks to his own cause, and who is as enthusiastic. There is joy in battle here, immense pleasure in learning not only about a fellow combatant but about about what a life immersed in any single activity really means. In Aufidius’s case, it’s about life as a warrior and a leader of men. There is no brooking disappointment here, no pausing for slow deliberations. He is all about fire and channeling energy. He is all enthusiasm, and is more than willing to take in the exiled Coriolanus, his professed but deeply respected enemy, despite the raised eyebrows of his own men. There is no guile here, and no dishonesty; Aufidius acts for his own pleasure, but also to bring out the best in Coriolanus. He is a champion for his ideals, and when he is betrayed, he acts accordingly. No surprises here.

Volumnia (The Star) carries with her the hope (and the pressure) of generations. She offers Coriolanus a kind of peace, a kind of redemption that is so seductive — few other powers (if any at all) could have acted on him to betray Aufidius than hers. Like The Star, Volumnia has been with Coriolanus his entire life. She has followed him and guided him through all his campaigns, and she’s been as constant as the North Star in his life. Her voice is the loudest (literally: in the Donmar 2013 production that I saw yesterday, the inestimable Deborah Findlay played “Volumnia” at such an intense volume [I wonder if Shakespeare did that intentionally…] that a few times I wish I’d brought ear plugs to soften the assault on my eardrums), and it’s meant to be. She is the voice of Mother, director, gadfly; she is the shaper of destinies. She’s also the bringer of hope and redemption unlooked for, and the occasional grace that comes when one is brought to humility.

The Tribunes (Temperance) are the voice of the people, and if you are wise, you’ll be careful. The people are a mixture of many forces, and there is no knowing what will happen if they are stirred up without care of the consequences. The same people that wave palm fronds at your arrival in Jerusalem will be screaming for your crucifixion in three days. Those who beg you to go to war for them will grasp at any reason however manufactured and manipulated to destroy you utterly. How many empires have fallen to the mob? The card in this position shows a tiger swimming through water (note: I’m using the Mary-El Tarot). Tigers represent intense fire energy, so in the image of a tiger swimming we see the fire and water working together in perfect balance, the one not extinguishing the other. When opposing forces are in harmony, there is nothing they can’t do because each will draw on the strength of the other, and each will defend against the other’s weaknesses. Temperance is the art of alchemy bringing disparate elements together to reduce the weaknesses of the individual elements and create the strength of something new. The Tribunes alone seem to know this truth and its political applications, and are willing to exploit it for their own ends. They skillfully direct the people’s emotions, playing a tricky and dangerous game. They alone are the enemy Coriolanus does not see coming, the power all around him that he takes for granted, to his eventual destruction.

If you want to sort out the forces that are working on you, to sift the voices into their component parts and figure out who is saying what and from what position and agenda, try this layout with yourself in the Coriolanus position. Lay out the cards to help you figure out who your Menenius is, who your Volumnia and Aufidius, and who your Tribunes. Who is trying to help you? Who is fighting against you to bring out your best self? Where do you need to compromise, or is compromise deadly dangerous to you right now?

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