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A Coriolanus in Our Future?

     

A 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 lessons for our own time.

I 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.

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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.

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Despite 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.”

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.

Tempers 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.

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Joseph Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one of the most significant American writers of his time. See his website and his intellectual journey.