A Coriolanus in Our Future?
A little tired of politics? Of course you are. We all are. Well, I have a treat for you: Shakespeares least-known great play, Coriolanus, the story of a brave and honest (though not always amiable) man who hates politics with all his heart. Its a tragedy fraught with magnetic eloquence and unexpected lessons for our own time.
I discovered it in 1962, when I was 16, through Richard Burtons 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 Burtons astoundingly resonant performance (which Olivier himself saluted as definitive). Listen to it once, and I guarantee youll never forget it. The play reveals a side of Shakespeare the classroom never prepared us for. Sweetest Shakespeare, fancys 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, Romes highest office, he refuses to show the voters his wounds he even hates being praised himself and he insults them: he cant bear to seek their favor. Its too humiliating. He says he deserves to be consul, whether they like it or not, and especially if they dont. 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
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: Ill run away till I am bigger, but then Ill fight.)
Even Volumnia, who made him what he is, cant 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. Its 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. Hed be assured of plenty of media buzz. He might be harder to ignore than, say, Louis Farrakhan.
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