little tired of politics? Of course you are. We all are. Well, I
have a treat for you: Shakespeares least-known great play,
the story of a brave and honest (though not always amiable) man
who hates politics with all his heart. Its a tragedy fraught
with magnetic eloquence and unexpected lessons for our own time.
it in 1962, when I was 16, through Richard Burtons 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 Burtons astoundingly
resonant performance (which Olivier himself saluted as definitive).
Listen to it once, and I guarantee youll never forget it.
The play reveals a side of Shakespeare the classroom never prepared
us for. Sweetest Shakespeare, fancys 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, Romes
highest office, he refuses to show the voters his wounds
he even hates being praised himself and he insults them:
he cant bear to seek their favor. Its too humiliating.
He says he deserves to be consul, whether they like it or not, and
especially if they dont. 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.