The Reactionary Utopian
                      March 8, 2007

by Joe Sobran

     A little tired of politics? Of course you are. We 
all are. Well, I have a treat for you: Shakespeare's 
least-known great play, CORIOLANUS, the story of a brave 
and honest (though not always amiable) man who hates 
politics with all his heart. It's a tragedy fraught with 
magnetic eloquence and unexpected lessons for our own 

     I discovered it in 1962, when I was 16, through 
Richard Burton's thrilling recording of it. Long before 
he became famous for, well, other stuff, Burton had made 
the role his own on the stage, and this recording is 
still the gem of my large collection. Vocally, nobody, 
not even the great Olivier, could have topped Burton's 
astoundingly resonant performance (which Olivier himself 
saluted as "definitive"). Listen to it once, and I 
guarantee you'll never forget it. The play reveals a side 
of Shakespeare the classroom never prepared us for. 
Sweetest Shakespeare, fancy's child? Warbling his native 
woodnotes wild? Not hardly.

     Molded by his inhuman mother, Volumnia, who makes 
Lady Macbeth seem like a soft touch, Caius Martius is a 
proud Roman patrician and matchless warrior, surnamed 
Coriolanus for his virtually single-handed conquest of 
the Volscian city of Corioli. He becomes the most popular 
man in Rome, but popularity means absolutely nothing to 
him, except baseness. He can seldom speak in public 
without causing a riot.

     Despite his heroism, Coriolanus hates and despises 
the common people so bitterly that when he agrees, 
reluctantly, to seek the consulship, Rome's highest 
office, he refuses to show the voters his wounds -- he 
even hates being praised himself -- and he insults them: 
he can't bear to seek their favor. It's too humiliating. 
He says he deserves to be consul, whether they like it or 
not, and especially if they don't. "Who deserves 
greatness Deserves your hate."

     He calls them "scabs," "curs," "rats," "measles," 
"fragments," "the rabble," "barbarians," "Hydra," 
"slaves," "the beast with many heads," and "the mutable, 
rank-scented many"; with sour wit, he allows that they 
display "most valor" only in "their mutinies and 
revolts," but on the whole he is not a people person.

     Tempers flare; Volumnia (wonderfully played by 
Jessica Tandy in the Burton recording, by the way) and 
his patrician friends try to calm him down, but a 
demagogic tribune calls him "a traitor to the people" and 
he explodes: "The fires i' the lowest hell fold-in the 
people." His approval ratings plunge.

     Not only is Coriolanus rejected, he is banished from 
Rome. Fearlessly defying the death sentence, he retorts, 
"You common cry of curs, whose breaths I hate, As reek o' 
the rotten fens, whose loves I prize As the dead 
carcasses of unburied men That do corrupt my air ..."

     As he departs, he adds ominously, "There is a world 
elsewhere." He joins his old foes Tullus Aufidius and the 
Volscians, offering them his "revengeful services," and 
leads an assault on Rome that threatens to annihilate the 
city -- including his family, who plead with him for 
mercy when he has spurned all other appeals. (His own 
little boy, a chip off the old block, defies him: "I'll 
run away till I am bigger, but then I'll fight.")

     Even Volumnia, who made him what he is, can't 
understand her son, for whom compromise is impossible. 
Yet when it comes to slaughtering his own flesh and blood 
he relents, and Rome is spared.

     Now he must placate the angry Volscians, but tact is 
not his strong suit. When Aufidius taunts him as a 
"traitor" and "boy of tears," he roars in final defiance, 
"Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads, stain all your 
edges on me." He reminds them that "like an eagle in a 
dove-cote, I fluttered your Volscians in Corioles. Alone 
I did it."

     All of which comes in refreshing contrast to 
politicians who prate about "the basic decency of the 
American people." A John Edwards or Barack Obama has had 
to suppress his inner Coriolanus, if he ever had one. 
It's been a long time -- alas, too long! -- since a 
candidate addressed us frankly as "scabs" and "curs."

     Imagine a presidential hopeful buying TV time to 
look us in the eye and say, "Listen up, you faggots." 
Such a man could bring this country together. He'd be 
assured of plenty of media buzz. He might be harder to 
ignore than, say, Louis Farrakhan.


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