Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Literature, Poetry, and Books

Shakespeare's Coriolanus

"He's a very dog to the commonalty." These are the words we hear about Caius Marcius before we even meet the man, and they ring true both within the context of the play and in the context of much of society's view of the play. Shakespeare's Coriolanus has been called the greatest of the Bard's tragedies, the tragic character surpassed perhaps only by Lear and Cleopatra. Despite most people recognizing something great about it, it is also among the least-loved of Shakespeare's plays. It is seldom read and almost never acted; you would likely be hard pressed to find it on someone's list of favorite plays. There are, perhaps, two great reasons for this. The first is that the play seems to be quite critical of democracy, and that rubs the people of liberal democracies the wrong way. The other is that it is just really hard to like the play's tragic hero, Coriolanus. He's a great man, but not lovable. It's hard to feel sorry for him, but you realize that there is something tragic in his eventual fall. It's complicated.

In his new film adaptation of this play, Ralph Fiennes captures this complication tremendously. With the support of well-tested screenwriter John Logan (whose other work includes Hugo and Gladiator) and a cast of excellent actors rounded out by Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox, Fiennes thrusts this story into modern-day dress. Shakespeare's words come out of television screens by men in suits and ties; his soldiers run around with automatic weapons and hand grenades; his rabble follows politicians around with their cell phones out to record the goings-on. It does this all seamlessly, and shows the timelessness of Shakespeare's understanding of human nature--you come to see that this could have happened in the modern-day Balkan-like setting where it is acted out.

It is a good story for us to try and understand, because Coriolanus presents a problem that societies based upon a certain type of equality must struggle with: what do we do with a man who is an embodiment of inequality, a greater man who we all know is great and who he himself knows is great? We were lucky in our Founding that Washington understood something else about ambition, equality, and nobility that most men do not, and that our great generals after him--Grant and Eisenhower chief among them--have followed in his example. The French with Bonaparte, the Mexicans with Santa Anna, and the South Americans with Bolivar were not so lucky. Though, those men were not quite as good and noble as Coriolanus was, so perhaps that is unfair to him. Perhaps the closest type of statesman we have met recently is Churchill, who, like Washington, managed to overcome these particular faults (or are they virtues in extremis?).

I highly recommend the film. Yes, lines had to be cut to make way for movie audiences and explosions--at the expense of some of the true humor of Menenius and exploring more of the relationship between Coriolanus and his wife--and I do have some qualms with the interpretation of part of the ending, but it is some of the best acting I have seen in film, and likely the high point of the acting careers of both Fiennes and Redgrave to-date (at least of what I've seen of their work). If you get a chance, see it.

Discussions - 3 Comments

I have a very hard time swallowing Shakespeare set in modern times. The context switch is too jarring and takes me out of the play.

For that reason, I view an upcoming CBS adaptation of Sherlock Holmes set in modern times with Lucy Liu cast as Watson with extreme trepidation. The BBC Holmes modern adaptation is excellent, on the other hand.

Is CBS so lacking in originality that it has to steal directly from the BBC? I would ask, "Have they no shame?", but I already know they do not.

I hear that the best shows on television are based on the concepts from BBC shows. I also hear those do not always translate well. We could do an American version of Downton Abbey -- Stan Hywet hall in Akron might be a nice setting. We could (loosely) base a story on the Vanderbilts: a generational costume drama.

The BBC Holmes stories are good and partly because they are really so far removed from the originals, dropping only hints of the old stories for the cognoscenti to hoot about. Throwing Shakespeare's dialogue into a modern setting is certainly jarring, as is the trimming down of that dialogue in a refit to modern sensibilities. Of course, no one really reads Doyle for the sweetness and beauty of his language, but who could claim a connection to Shakespeare without his words?

We will go see the movie, anyway. God knows, we ought to be accustomed to this mode of presenting Shakespeare by now. Thank you, ROB, I am enjoying these reviews of yours.

When I was a doctoral student at the University of Dallas in the 1970s, I had the good fortune to take a series of classes that involved a close reading of a number of Shakespeare's plays. Coriolanus was one of my favorites. I look forward to the new version and by all accounts it seems to be very faithful to what Shakespeare intended. I have always believed that Shakespeare is truly the political teacher of the English-speaking people, just as Homer taught the Greeks and Vergil the Romans. Shakespeare's plays are ALL political in the sense that they portray the entire taxonomy of political regimes as laid out by Polybius: the good and bad versions of rule by the one--kingship and tyranny; by the few--aristocracy and oligarchy/plutocracy; and by the many--republicanism and democracy/ochlocracy or mob rule. All that he missed was modern totalitarianism--tyranny plus technology--which is understandable. It is the universality of Shakespeare's taxonomy that makes it possible to transport his plays to different settings, including the present, as long as one is cognizant of a danger. Despite his universal perspective, there is a reason he places his plays where he does. Some need to be understood in the context of a particular polity, e.g. Rome and England. Prospero's island is Shakespeare's most universalized location. But those that seem to depend on a particular regime can be moved as long as the principle at work is maintained. While it seems that an understanding of Coriolanus depends on its taking place in Rome, the new Coriolanus maintains a focus on Roman-like concept of honor.Thus the modern setting seems to work.

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