Coriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.
Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.
Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.
Harold Bloom wrote:
Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.
And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.
Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.
Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.
I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.
The film is set in a modern-day city called Rome, but not the Rome Shakespeare imagined. It is any modern European city, with riot police, businessmen, street people, graffiti, pubs, courthouses and government buildings. TV screens show CNN-style news broadcasts. Here’s a quick capsule of the plot:
Rome is in the midst of an economic crisis and food is short. People – the mob, the rabble, the dispossessed – riot, demanding bread. The man they love to hate – Caius, both patrician and accomplished warrior – is the man who sets the riot police on the mob, further incensing them.
So from the first scene we’re introduced to the main fault line: Caius versus the people. The one-percenter aristocrat versus the 99%. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, a rebellion breaks out in a neighbouring city, Coriolus. Caius is called upon to save the city from the rebels and in doing so, he becomes a hero. He is honoured, and awarded the role of consul – a top civic leader. His title, bestowed by the grateful government, reflects his victory: Coriolanus. The only flaw in his ointment of victory was that his arch rival, the enemy general Aufidius, escaped the battle and fled.
After Caius is acclaimed consul by the Senate, the people, their passions inflamed by two rabble-rousers jealous of Caius, reject his appointment and after some heated exchanges, demand he be banished from his beloved city. The government reluctantly bends to their will.
The stateless, homeless Caius wanders into enemy territory, meets Aufidius, and offers his services. The two join in an attack on Rome. They succeed in breaking the city’s defences, defeating the army and are poised for pillage and rape.
His only friend and staunch defender, the senator Menenius, commits suicide when he fails to sway Caius to halt. Then Caius is approached by his mother, Volumina, with his wife and child in tow. In the only scene in which Caius shows an emotion other than hate and anger, he breaks down at her entreaty and agrees to craft a truce. Rome is saved.
But the rebel leader, Aufidius, and his men feel betrayed. So when Caius returns to them after the signing, they kill him. Roll credits.
There are all sorts of subtexts, if not subplots. Caius’s relationship with his domineering mother, Volumina. His less-than-romantic relationship with his wife. His relationship with Aufidius that borders on the homoerotic.
Before I watched the film* I struggled to read the play, finding it tough going, with no really likable characters. Now I’m all fired up to start it again, having the movie and its portrayals of those characters more firmly in mind. It’s a great film, even if you’re not particularly a fan of Shakespeare. Highly recommended.
* I found the DVD in the $5 bin at Walmart: an incredible bargain for such a high-calibre movie.