‘Scarcely popular’ and ‘seldom acted’. So the famous Shakespearean scholar AC Bradley observed of Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus. Nevertheless we have seen a series of new productions, notably in the success 2011 Ralph Fiennes film adaptation. And from 6 December we will have Tom Hiddlestone’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. This production will be broadcast live in cinemas nationally and internationally on 30th January 2014, reaching tens of thousands of people. Meanwhile the dystopian ruler in Suzanne Collins’ blockbusting The Hunger Games trilogy is named President Coriolanus Snow.
So what might be attracting attention to this generally neglected tragedy? Coriolanus has been championed as Shakespeare’s most political play. The critic William Hazlitt declared two centuries ago:
Anyone who studies it may save himself the trouble of reading Burke’s Reflections, or Paine’s Rights of Man, or the Debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or our own. (Hazlitt, 1817). What induces Hazlitt’s bold claim? Essentially the bitter conflict dramatized between the people and the aristocracy in Coriolanus. The opening scene confronts us with mutinous hungry citizens mobilising against the Roman authorities. ‘You are all resolved to die than to famish?’ (Scene I.i), the first citizen passionately proclaims. The angry citizens accuse the elite of profiting from war, and denying them bread. While an old patrician Menenius seeks to disarm them with a fable of Rome as one body. Into this confrontation, strides the uncompromising aristocratic military hero Caius Martius, later Coriolanus. Martius scorns the people’s grievances and declares his readiness to use his sword against them. He accuses the people of being cowardly worthless scum and fickle in their loyalty to their betters.
What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. (Scene I.i)
Martius’ courageous unflinching stance in front of the crowd confounds our sympathies and theirs. We waver, they waver. And their wavering only compounds Martius’ contempt. As the tragedy unfolds we see Coriolanus as the embodiment of military honour judging and acting solely according to military values:
From th’ casque to th’ cushion, but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controlled the war. (Scene IV.vii)
Coriolanus shows no compassion towards the citizens and resents having to ask them ‘kindly’ for the consulship (II.iii). His contempt for those not following military virtue divorces him from his own citizens and ultimately makes his city’s enemy. For Coriolanus, having accused the people of being fickle, proves to be a more fickle citizen in his betrayal of Rome. As the first citizen observes:
Though soft-conscienced men can be content to say it was for country, he did it to please his mother and to be partly proud. (Scene I.i) Ironically, however, the proud uncompromising martial Coriolanus does bring together the divided Romans to eliminate the threat from their treacherous son now commanding the enemy forces against Rome.
Writing in 1817, Hazlitt saw direct parallels between Coriolanus and the society of his day. Just as a post-victory Coriolanus is pitted against the people, a post-1815 Battle of Waterloo military aristocracy was pitted against the people. Hazlitt’s claim for Coriolanus was prophetic. The 1819 Peterloo Massacre just two years later witnessed troops using lethal force against a peaceful demonstration of Manchester citizens demanding parliamentary reform.
Where does Shakespeare stand in this class war? Hazlitt suggests that Shakespeare treats the subject ‘as a poet and philosopher’, and if he has any political sympathies then they are not necessarily with the crowd. As Hazlitt observes, ‘There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved, or complaining that they are like to be so….’.
The tragedy’s political meaning has been highly contested. In the twentieth century, Coriolanus was claimed by both fascists and socialists. Production was briefly banned in 1930s France as dangerously pro-fascist and provoking disturbances. Yet the playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Coriolanus in a socialist political tradition.
While Coriolanus has allowed for radically opposing political interpretations, the tragedy’s presentation of social conflict and anger endures. Coriolanus ‘is to stir you; to give you new sensations’ wrote Charlotte Bronte and ‘make you feel life strongly’. Unsurprisingly interest in the tragedy has typically revived in times of political strife.
Why might Coriolanus resonate with audiences today? Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus was filmed in Serbia and drew parallels with the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, even using news clips from the time. Key productions since Fiennes seem to want to bring Coriolanus even closer to home.
Yet we are not an age animated by strong Burkean conservatism or Painite radicalism. Political parties are hollow shells of their former selves preoccupied with branding and rebranding as if they are just consumer products not competing ways of life.
So what does the current Donmar Warehouse production see in Coriolanus? For Hiddleston, Shakespeare ‘dramatizes a conflict at the heart of every public figure at what it means to serve in public office’, and ‘the private war between personal integrity and popularity’. ‘We string up the people we should really applaud simply because they stood for something. And Coriolanus stands for something’. Hiddleston’s Coriolanus expresses yearning for meaning, for values and principles in public life, and frustrations with present culture. The tragedy speaks to contemporary alienation between the political elite and the people, and the sense of expanding social divides. Yet Coriolanus’ military virtue alienated from the community proves no civic virtue when wielded against the citizens.
Shakespeare shows us political conflict, disorientation, manipulation, and betrayal, and only offers tragic resolution of the problems he portrays. Nevertheless Coriolanus in its hard-edged representation may offer more thought for exploring today’s crisis of progressive politics than present political theatre. Too often recent political drama has flattered our received political opinions rather than interrogate their weaknesses. The First Citizen who opens the tragedy declares ‘you must not think to fob off our disgrace with a tale’ (Scene I.i). Shakespeare’s Coriolanus fobs off nobody.
Vanessa Pupavac is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston in the title role and Mark Gatiss as Menenius, directed by Josie Rourke is at the Donmar Warehouse from 6 December 2013 to 8 February 2014
National Theatre Live will broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus on 30 January 2014