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 A Coriolanus in Our Future? 

March 8, 2007 
paragraph indentA little tired of politics? Of course you are. We all are. Well, I have a treat for you: Shakespeare’s least-known great play, Coriolanus, the story of a brave and honest (though not always amiable) man who hates politics with all his heart. It’s a tragedy fraught with magnetic eloquence and unexpected Today's column is "A Coriolanus in Our 
Future?" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.lessons for our own time.

paragraph indentI discovered it in 1962, when I was 16, through Richard Burton’s thrilling recording of it. Long before he became famous for, well, other stuff, Burton had made the role his own on the stage, and this recording is still the gem of my large collection. Vocally, nobody, not even the great Olivier, could have topped Burton’s astoundingly resonant performance (which Olivier himself saluted as “definitive”). Listen to it once, and I guarantee you’ll never forget it. The play reveals a side of Shakespeare the classroom never prepared us for. Sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child? Warbling his native woodnotes wild? Not hardly.

paragraph indentMolded by his inhuman mother, Volumnia, who makes Lady Macbeth seem like a soft touch, Caius Martius is a proud Roman patrician and matchless warrior, surnamed Coriolanus for his virtually single-handed conquest of the Volscian city of Corioli. He becomes the most popular man in Rome, but popularity means absolutely nothing to him, except baseness. He can seldom speak in public without causing a riot.

paragraph indentDespite his heroism, Coriolanus hates and despises the common people so bitterly that when he agrees, reluctantly, to seek the consulship, Rome’s highest office, he refuses to show the voters his wounds — he even hates being praised himself — and he insults them: he can’t bear to seek their favor. It’s too humiliating. He says he deserves to be consul, whether they like it or not, and especially if they don’t. “Who deserves greatness Deserves your hate.”

paragraph indentHe calls them “scabs,” “curs,” “rats,” “measles,” “fragments,” “the rabble,” “barbarians,” “Hydra,” “slaves,” “the beast with many heads,” and “the mutable, rank-scented many”; with sour wit, he allows that they display “most valor” only in “their mutinies and revolts,” but on the whole he is not a people person.

paragraph indentTempers flare; Volumnia (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy in the Burton recording, by the way) and his patrician friends try to calm him down, but a demagogic tribune calls him “a traitor to the people” and he explodes: “The fires i’ the lowest hell fold-in the people.” His approval ratings plunge.

[Breaker quote for A Coriolanus in Our Future?: Kicking butt on the hustings]paragraph indentNot only is Coriolanus rejected, he is banished from Rome. Fearlessly defying the death sentence, he retorts, “You common cry of curs, whose breaths I hate, As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize As the dead carcasses of unburied men That do corrupt my air ...”

paragraph indentAs he departs, he adds ominously, “There is a world elsewhere.” He joins his old foes Tullus Aufidius and the Volscians, offering them his “revengeful services,” and leads an assault on Rome that threatens to annihilate the city — including his family, who plead with him for mercy when he has spurned all other appeals. (His own little boy, a chip off the old block, defies him: “I’ll run away till I am bigger, but then I’ll fight.”)

paragraph indentEven Volumnia, who made him what he is, can’t understand her son, for whom compromise is impossible. Yet when it comes to slaughtering his own flesh and blood he relents, and Rome is spared.

paragraph indentNow he must placate the angry Volscians, but tact is not his strong suit. When Aufidius taunts him as a “traitor” and “boy of tears,” he roars in final defiance, “Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads, stain all your edges on me.” He reminds them that “like an eagle in a dove-cote, I fluttered your Volscians in Corioles. Alone I did it.”

paragraph indentAll of which comes in refreshing contrast to politicians who prate about “the basic decency of the American people.” A John Edwards or Barack Obama has had to suppress his inner Coriolanus, if he ever had one. It’s been a long time — alas, too long! — since a candidate addressed us frankly as “scabs” and “curs.”

paragraph indentImagine a presidential hopeful buying TV time to look us in the eye and say, “Listen up, you faggots.” Such a man could bring this country together. He’d be assured of plenty of media buzz. He might be harder to ignore than, say, Louis Farrakhan.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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