Coriolanus: A Modern Political Tragedy Set in Rome
Coriolanus surprised me. When I began reading all of Shakespeare 16 months ago, I didn’t know the play existed. Now it’s a favorite.
Why a favorite? Because it is so applicable to 21st Century politics, where people pit class against class, demonize opponents, conspire against political “enemies,” base their appeals on part truths or falsehoods and feed upon the ignorance and visceral tendencies of people. The play captures the vacillation of public opinion, the tragedy of seeking revenge and is a call for citizens to become informed about their respective governments. (I’ve just given away the play’s entire plot.)
Coriolanus is a condemnation of modern public dialogue, or perhaps it’s shows that politics is always the same, and that what we experience today—we complain that’s it’s particularly vile even as we sometimes actively participate in what makes it vile—is merely a constant of politics and the struggle for political dominance by party or faction.
The plays tells the story of a misunderstood “superhero” Caius Marcius, who is honored with the surname Coriolanus when he conquers for the Romans the Volscian city of Corioli. Perhaps you think my reference to superhero hyperbolic, but consider that the great Marcius leads the charge into the city. But the Volsci close the gate behind him, leaving him the lone Roman in town. But the marvelous Marcius emerges wounded, but alive, and leads a successful assault on Corioli. His heroism supercharges his men to victory.
A hero like that must be elected a consul of Rome, and his friends (nobles and senators) put him forward for this great honor. But, sadly, Coriolanus has little interest in behavior that would appeal to what he would call the rabble. Show them your wounds. Speak nicely to them. Such superficial action disgusts the returning hero. His unwillingness to “play” the customary election games opens the door to his enemies, the tribunes, to paint him as arrogant, haters of the citizens. The conflict rises till his perceived offenses are too great for the people, and they expel him from Rome.
But a superhero needs to be employed doing something, so he joins Rome’s enemies and leads them to the gates of Rome, in hopes of revenge upon the ungrateful city. There his mother convinces him to settle the situation peacefully. He is a hero now to the Volsci and retires with them to their city. But, once again, his political deafness, inability to control his tongue and plotting enemies create a confrontation that leads, via a preplanned plot, to his tragic and needfully quick (after all, he is a superhero) death.
Shakespeare wrote the play based on Plutarch’s recitation of a historical Coriolanus.
TS Eliot considered Coriolanus to be Shakespeare’s artistically best tragedy—better than Hamlet, King Lear, Othello. The play’s profile has been raised recently by a 2011 film version that edits the Bard and transports Coriolanus to a contemporary scene.
Quotes I like (for various reasons):
Menenius: There was a time when all the body’s members rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it: That only like a gulf it did remain i’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive, still cupboarding the viand, never bearing like labour with the rest, where the other instruments did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel, and, mutually participate, did minister unto the appetite and affection common of the whole body. . . . Your most grave belly was deliberate, not rash like his accusers, and thus answer’d: ‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he, ‘That I receive the general food at first, which you do live upon; and fit it is, because I am the store-house and the shop of the whole body: but, if you do remember, I send it through the rivers of your blood, even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain; and, through the cranks and offices of man, the strongest nerves and small inferior veins from me receive that natural competency whereby they live: and though that all at once, you, my good friends,’–this says the belly, mark me,– ‘Though all at once cannot see what I do deliver out to each, yet I can make my audit up, that all from me do back receive the flour of all, and leave me but the bran.’
3 Citizen: We have been called [many-headed multitude] of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured: and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south, and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’ the compass.
Coriolanus: Where is your ancient courage? you were used to say extremity was the trier of spirits; that common chances common men could bear; that when the sea was calm all boats alike show’d mastership in floating; fortune’s blows, when most struck home, being gentle wounded, craves a noble cunning: you were used to load me with precepts that would make invincible the heart that conn’d them.
Coriolanus: O world, thy slippery turns!
Coriolanus: The end of war’s uncertain
(Quotes copied, capitalization changed August 28, 2013 from: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/coriolanus/full.html)
Next Up: Julius Caesar