In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the wheels are coming off the republic. Effective leaders can’t explain their actions to the people convincingly. Simultaneously, populists flatter the masses without taking responsibility for their promises. And, at the edge of the horizon, foreign powers that care nothing for the rule of law threaten military catastrophe.
No, I’m not making this up.
Coriolanus has become an increasingly popular play among critics with dual expertise in political philosophy and literary study, from Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom (Shakespeare’s Politics, 1964) through Paul Cantor (Shakespeare’s Rome, 1976) down to Pierre Manent’s recent essay in First Things (“The Tragedy of the Republic,” May 2017).
Unfortunately, many theatrical productions present the play’s main problem as stemming from just one of three alternatives: the class divide between patricians and plebians; the personal drama of Coriolanus’s relation to his mother or his Volscian military nemesis, Aufidius; or finally, Coriolanus’s undeniable pride, which prevents him from putting off his military character in order to speak and act as a republican politician must (think the film version of Patton running for president in 1952 instead of Eisenhower). But none of these alternatives captures Shakespeare’s achievement: something else is rotten in the state of the republic.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of Coriolanus, which opened September 21 in Stratford, presents a distinctly different interpretation. The message of its production is that the fault, dear spectators, lies in ourselves—people, representatives, and leaders.
Pride, Populism, and Political Rhetoric
The director, Angus Jackson, oversaw Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus for the RSC’s remarkable “Rome Season,” and directed Julius Caesar. In November, they will all go to London, where they’ll play at the Barbican. The other three (though regrettably not Coriolanus) will run through January. But I’m not sure even Jackson knows how remarkable his production is.
In the Director’s Talk the day before opening, Jackson said that in Coriolanus, all of the characters become unsympathetic by turns. True enough. Shakespeare sets the play in the first political crisis of the republic. The Tarquins have recently been overthrown, and the patricians’ rule of the young republic is menaced by famine. In the opening scene, the people threaten to revolt over a food crisis. They are only pacified when the Senate lets them elect tribunes, who will exercise certain political responsibilities along with the senators and consuls. But the patricians are patronizing—perhaps an occupational hazard of any identity with pater at its root, but infuriating nevertheless. The tribunes, brilliantly portrayed by Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird as cynical arrivistes, manipulate the people to secure their power at the expense of Rome’s safety.
The title character, the proud war hero Coriolanus, cannot stoop to the people. He must win their approval to become consul, but he won’t flatter, cajole, bribe, or lie to the people for their vote. It may initially seem refreshing to imagine the polar opposite of what we encounter in candidates today. But recall the effect of pointing out the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax and dividing us into “makers and takers.” Spin up the rhetorical dial 300 percent, put your character in a uniform, and you have Coriolanus.
Many productions depict Coriolanus as a ranter who continually screams at the people. But in this version, Sope Dirisu is entirely self-possessed, and he generally criticizes the fickle Romans more in sorrow than in anger. Until, that is, the tribunes persuade the people to banish him. At this, Coriolanus delivers his most bitter lines: “You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate / As reek o’th’rotten fens . . . I banish you!” With that, he proudly throws away his chance to offer much-needed leadership to the republic. Instead, he joins his erstwhile enemy and sets in motion the tragic conclusion.
Draining Away Our Sympathy
Jackson thinks the initial famine, which takes place just before the play begins, was a manufactured one, though the textual basis for that is slim. In the Director’s Talk, he further stated that the patricians’ political power in the young republic comes from inherited privilege. There’s more evidence for that—it’s a popular view among critics—but it’s not completely true either. One of the patricians, Comenius, had earned his role as consul through military achievement. So does Caius Martius: he earns his new name—Coriolanus—by capturing the Volscians’ chief city (Corioli), in return for which the Senate approves him as consul. Moreover, the people also have inherited privileges—or, more precisely, inherited liberties. One tribune complains that Coriolanus has “Dispropertied their freedoms” (2.1.246). Eighteenth-century productions reinforced this connection by having the people yell, “liberty and property!” at certain points. Bravo. Bravo!
Jackson, who calls himself “a soppy left-wing” liberal, consulted politicians from both sides of the spectrum (including the Conservative MP and Burke scholar, Jesse Norman) along with military figures in crafting this production. That breadth is on full display.
It’s not enough, then, to maintain that his version is about the class divide (as Jackson has also said); nor is it enough to note that the characters of the play become unsympathetic. The people also become unsympathetic; the patricians become unsympathetic; the Senate becomes unsympathetic. And tragically, Sope Dirisu’s Coriolanus, ever true to himself, becomes unsympathetic too, for he conflates listening to the people with flattering them. In short, this production, like Shakespeare’s text, presents a republic at a historical moment when our sympathy for its institutional foundations drains away drop by drop.
And no, I’m really not making this up.
Seeing Jackson’s Coriolanus should be uncomfortable for anyone who loves republican government, regardless of political leaning. But this brings me to a final problem with the creative staff’s explanation of their play. In a different talk before opening night, Assistant Director Emma Butler said the staff often talked about the political hopelessness at the end of Coriolanus. They imagined a sequel, entitled Volumnia and Virgilia (the leading female characters), which would depict a future, hopeful republican government.
But we don’t need another play for that purpose—a play that balances skepticism of the people with a determination that they should develop the capacity to choose good rulers; a play that welcomes new political talent while recognizing the need to weed out demagogues; and a play that acknowledges the failings of republican leaders while depicting moments when history’s demands are met with genius and courage. We have that play. It’s called Hamilton.
Daniel Ritchie is professor of English at Bethel University (MN), where he founded its Humanities Program. He writes on Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and other eighteenth-century figures.