little tired of politics? Of course you are. We all are. Well, I
have a treat for you: Shakespeare’s least-known great play,
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 lessons for our own time.
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.
Molded 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.
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
He 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.
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.