Friday, May 5, 2017

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

The fickleness of public opinion
Coriolanus is not one of the plays by William Shakespeare that everyone reads in high school, but perhaps it should be. Though written sometime between 1605 and 1608, this play is still quite relevant to the world we live in today. Set in ancient Rome, it deals with the double-edged sword of public opinion in the never-ending struggle between the ruling elite and the common man.

When the play opens, the citizens of Rome are rioting, claiming that a powerful general, Caius Marcius, is withholding grain from them. When Marcius meets them in the street, he responds to their complaints with open contempt, asserting that the common people, whom he sees as whining babes incapable of governing themselves, have no claim to the grain nor any right to question its distribution. As a military commander, war hero, and member of the patrician class, Marcius sees himself justified in adopting a tyrannical attitude towards the plebeians. When the Volscian army threatens Rome, Marcius leads an attack on the enemy’s city of Corioli. After achieving almost superhuman feats of military prowess, he returns to Rome with even more honor, distinction, and power, along with the honorary appellation of Coriolanus. Along with his military success comes increased popularity, though Marcius scorns the praise and recognition bestowed upon him, as if no one is worthy to judge him but himself. Despite his reluctance, he is put forward as a candidate for Consul, but two populist Tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, scheme to make him pay for his arrogance by turning the tide of public opinion against him.

Since this is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s not difficult to foresee that Marcius’s pride may be his downfall. Rather than merely spelling out good guys and bad guys in black and white terms, however, Shakespeare explores the dilemma of political power and public opinion. To what extent should competent rulers be expected to sacrifice their governing authority in order to pacify the whims of the masses? In broader terms, where does one find the ideal balance between monarchy (or meritocracy) and democracy?

Coriolanus is frequently ranked by critics among Shakespeare’s better plays (i.e. in the top half). If it’s so great, why isn’t it more widely read? Maybe because it’s a little too close to Julius Caesar—an arrogant tyrant ousted by his envious rivals—without actually being Julius Caesar. Though Coriolanus was a real Roman general of the 5th century BC, he doesn’t have the name recognition of Caesar or any of the English kings whose names title Shakespeare’s history plays. Another reason may be that Caius Marcius Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least sympathetic heroes. There is no denying the extreme arrogance of which he is accused. Marcius is a surly and taciturn character, not given to soliloquy. Thus, the audience doesn’t get inside his head in the same way that we are privy to the thoughts of Caesar or Hamlet. It’s hard to think of a character in the play that’s even likable. That only makes the play all the more authentic to what we see in today’s political climate, where unsullied heroes are few and far between.

It was the 2011 film version starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler that drew my attention to Coriolanus. Set in the modern world of machine guns and TV news, the movie demonstrates very effectively how Shakespeare’s centuries-old work is still pertinent to the world in which we live. For anyone looking to explore Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, Coriolanus is definitely a compelling read.
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