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Coriolanus (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Coriolanus - Paul Werstine, Barbara A. Mowat, William Shakespeare This play is kind of wild, but believe it or not, the events portrayed are at least loosely based on historical events documented by both Livy and Plutarch. General Caius Marcius was a real historical figure from the early days of the Roman Republic- the 5th century BC, when Rome was just an ambitious city-state on the Latium plain, beset on all sides by wild and aggressive neighbors. Among these were the Volscii (Volscians), an agrarian people with a violent martial culture to rival Rome's. In fact, they overran Rome several times, and had multiple opportunities to snuff out the nascent Roman Empire before it ever began. Obviously they didn't, and in fact Rome absorbed them. This was in part achieved by Caius Marcius, who made a name for himself in 493 B.C. delivering the Volscians a humiliating defeat and ransacking their center of commerce, the town of Corioli- thus earning Marcius the distinguishing moniker "Coriolanus".Celebrated on the heels of this brilliant triumph, Coriolanus did what any ambitious Roman patrician would do: he made a bid for public office.What is it with these guys? It seems military leaders are always looking to change their careers to high civilian office... and I'm not just talking about banana republic Generalissimos either; there have been twelve (of forty-four) U.S. Presidents who were formerly Generals: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson,Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gen. Rutherford B. HayesIt makes sense there would be a lot of overlap between the skills that make a great battlefield leader and the skills that make a great civilian executive. But there are also important differences. The battlefield favors a very authoritarian leadership style. The General gives orders, and the soldiers carry them out without question. Presidents, on the other hand, need to master the arts of persuasion, tact, and compromise. Generals need to be focused on the immediate mission at hand: winning the battle. Presidents deal more with long term policies much broader in scope. Turning a successful military career into a successful political career requires a bit of adjustment to the slightly different requirements of the latter job. Coriolanus fails to grasp this, and so whilst campaigning for office, he meets up with members of his plebian constituency, and treats them with the same scorn he showed when he was unit commander of the city's riot police. Classic hubris. He has a meltdown and goes on a longwinded rant about what bullshit popular rule is, and how the public should shut up and consent to being governed by the Elites, who are educated in running the machinery of government. David Rockefeller would love that part, I'm sure, but I found it repulsive.It also shows what shitty politician Coriolanus is. This is a total softball for his political rivals to deal with. Remember Lt John Pike, the jackboot who peppersprayed students who were sitting together on the UC Davis campus in a nonviolent protest? Imagine what Pike would face from opposing candidates, if he ever ran for office.Yup. Not pretty. That's essentially what Coriolanus' political rivals Sicinius Velutus and Janius Brutus did.As all this political wrangling is going on, we meet Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia. Now here's a mother figure that can make Lady Macbeth, Dina Lohan and Joan Crawford seem downright nurturing by comparison. In one particularly memorable exchange with her daughter-in-law Virgilia, Volumnia candidly lays out the full extent of her motherly love. It basically goes:Virgilia: I sure miss Coriolanus. I can't wait until he comes back from the war.Volumnia: Yeah, I heard he got wounded pretty badly in the shoulder. That's awesome, because he can milk that shit for all its worth, when he hits the campaign trail.Virgilia: Damn! You're his mother. Don't you want him to return home safe and happy?Volumnia: Fuck that; Momma didn't raise no pussies. I say come home with some good scars, come home in a body bag, or don't come home at all.Virgilia: You're full of it; you'd feel bad if he got killed.Volumnia: Mother of a dead rock-star war hero? Sounds good to me.Can't you just imagine Coriolanus chiming in "That's my Mom, folks!"After his outburst, Coriolanus is exiled from Rome. Hero to outcast in one act... that's got to be some sort of character arc speed record, right? Just wait; it gets worse: hurt and humiliated by his banishment, Coriolanus goes to the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius and offers to lead his forces against Rome. I stand corrected: hero to outcast to traitor. Now that just hurts to watch, doesn't it? The first half of the play hyped Coriolanus's martial credibility and warrior's ethos. But what's a warrior -even a great one- any good for, if you can't trust he's going to be fighting for your side? Even at their most rabidly militaristic, however much the Romans fetishized violence and combat, they always still linked it to the service of some higher ideal... whether it was service to the Republic or Emperor, or the enduring glory of Rome itself. In the U.S., members of the military swear to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution, and the Marine Corps has the phrase Semper fidelis (i.e. always faithful) emblazoned on its official seal.In the civilian world, American police take the following Law Enforcement Oath:On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution my community and the agency I serve.Coriolanus doesn't have any of these things, because he's really just satisfying himself. Without a higher purpose to point to, he's really just kind of a gangster. A thug. Joining with the Volscians was motivated purely by vanity, and its only utility was revenge. Without his honor, Coriolanus has nothing. He isn't even the apple of his mother's eye anymore; she convinces him to call off his siege of Rome, knowing it will probably end badly. He does, and the betrayed Volscians kill him for it.Like all good Shakespeare tragedies, everything goes wrong in the worst possible way, and readers are left with lots to talk about. You'd think this would be one of the Bard's more popular works, but I have to admit: for as great a story as it is, reading through this play was a bit of a slog. I was inspired to read/skim the text after seeing the 2011 movie with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave. The movie is magnificent, and brings the story to life in a way I would not have predicted from the text.That's the way I recommend you experience this work.