“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

Fiennes Coriolanus.jpg

Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

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