“The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left. The people are poor; therefore they ought to be starved. They are slaves; therefore they ought to be treated like beasts of burden. They are ignorant; therefore they ought not to be allowed to feel that they want food, or clothing, or rest, that they are enslaved, oppressed, and miserable. This is the logic of the imagination and the passions, which seek to aggrandise what excites admiration and to heap contempt on misery, to raise power into tyranny, and to make tyranny absolute; to thrust down that which is low still lower, and to make wretches desperate; to exalt magistrates into kings, kings into gods; to degrade subjects to the rank of slaves, and slaves to the condition of brutes.
William Hazlitt,Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays
At the New Yorker Festival I went to a screening of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes.
Although the play is about politics and was written in 1607 it is still topical - especially since the Occupy Wall Street protests have taken off around the world. And Fiennes makes it even more relevant by filming in Sarajevo and making the battle scenes resemble news footage from the siege of the city.
The critic Harold Bloom, in his book “Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human”, describes Coriolanus as “a battering ram of a soldier, literally a one-man army, the greatest killing machine in all of Shakespeare.”
Fienees’ genius is that despite not shying away from Coriolanus’ brutality, the one-man-army comes across as not just a killing machine but a human being, albeit a very flawed one, who is a product of his society and its political system.
Fiennes is helped by a truly scary performance from Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, who boasts about the number of wounds he has received in battle. She says :
“had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.”
When Coriolanus tries to become prefect of Rome, he discovers that his skills as a soldier are no help at all when he has to act like a politician :
I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.”
Well, I must do’t.
Away, my disposition and possess me
Some harlot’s spirit. My throat of war be turned,
Which choired with my drum, into a pipe as
Small as an eunuch or the virgin’s voice
That babies lull asleep….
…I will not do’t,
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth,
And by my body’s action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness.”
This depiction of politicians still rings true but I will leave the last word on why Coriolanus still works today to Hazlitt:
If the great and powerful had the beneficence and wisdom of Gods, then all this would have been well: if with a greater knowledge of what is good for the people, they had as great a care for their interest as they have themselves, if they were seated above the world, sympathising with the welfare, but not feeling the passions of men, receiving neither good nor hurt from them, but bestowing their benefits as free gifts on them, they might then rule over them like another Providence. But this is not the case.
The great have private feelings of their own, to which the interests of humanity and justice must courtesy. Their interests are so far from being the same as those of the community that they are in direct and necessary opposition to them; their power is at the expense of our weakness; their riches, of our poverty; their pride, of our degradation; their splendour, of our wretchedness; their tyranny, of our servitude. If they had the superior knowledge ascribed to them (which they have not) it would only render them so much more formidable; and from Gods would convert them into Devils.