Mammocking Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes' new adaptation of Coriolanus — which he directs and stars in as Caius Martius Coriolanus –is deeply flawed in many ways but also has much to offer, especially if it can succeed in re-connecting parts of the public with an undeservedly neglected masterwork. On the positive side, its updating of the story to a contemporary Balkan setting is powerful and suggestive. The use of multi-media is ingenious and, mostly, surprisingly effective. Many of the debates (that survive the extreme cuts in the text) are shifted to faux television news programming, and the like, with impressive results. It actually works in updating some of the drama and making it accessible to a contemporary audience.

There are three possible ideas behind such radically updated stagings (as opposed to the more obvious Roman or Jacobean settings): 1) that they will reveal something new within the text; 2) that they will tell us something important about our own era; 3) that they will bring the play to a new audience that otherwise would have difficulty connecting with it. In this case, only the third purpose is served, and that alone is probably sufficient to justify the choice in its broadest terms. But it really is important that audiences don't think they've experienced Coriolanus after they've seen this film, because truly they have not. They must at the very least turn to the much better BBC television production starring Alan Howard, which is easily available on DVD, and, more importantly, read the play itself, in its entirety.

The multimedia — television, Skype, mobile phone cameras, etc., though Twitter and Facebook are oddly missing — in the film is not only meta-multimedia, but meta-theatrical. So much of the political drama in the play is, literally, staged that this works extremely well. The tribunes rehearse the mob before the banishment of Martius. The patricians argue about how best to manipulate the public and how Martius should stage-manage his initial appeals to them for power, and, even more blatantly, later to repeal the sentence of banishment. Their meta-theatrical language is overt: Cominius reassures him "we'll prompt you," as his mother Volumnia urges him to "perform a part Thou hast not done before." Coriolanus is a virtual hall of mirrors of ironic staging and playing. This self-conscious staging, which is practiced and inherently artificial, as opposed to spontaneous and therefore, in his view, authentic, offends Martius' sensibilities to the core. He is rash, proud and driven by emotions he does not understand and “virtues” he cannot control or moderate, and therefore is incapable of acting politically. He is shocked that his mother and other patrician allies urge him to dissemble for political gain, protesting, “Would you have me False to my nature? Rather say I play The man I am." When he finally relents, mainly because of their browbeating, he is still contemptuous:

I'll mountebank their loves,

Cog their hearts from them, and come home beloved

Of all the trades in Rome. Look, I am going:

Commend me to my wife. I'll return consul;

Or never trust to what my tongue can do

I' the way of flattery further.

Of course it all backfires disastrously because his tongue is absolutely useless for flattery and is only effective for threats and invective.

Fiennes' meta-multimedia production captures this inability of Coriolanus to function effectively in the staged world of political theater and practiced artifice. The trial scene in which his banishment is confirmed rather than repealed is staged on a TV debate set, and as he leans forward to begin his opening speech urging reconciliation and his own forgiveness, "The honour'd gods Keep Rome in safety…," Fiennes' Coriolanus is unable to control the feedback from his microphone, eliciting derisive laughter from the hostile audience. Time and again the media representations of his political and even military activities, and the mass media environment and technology with which he is so uncomfortable, mainly serve to undermine his ambitions and cast him in the worst possible light. They are in this adaptation aptly depicted as best suited to the demagogic manipulations of the tribunes, although the crafty old politician Menenius also seems appropriately adept at deploying them.

What is far less effective is the way in which so much of Coriolanus is lost in this adaptation. The crediting of the screenplay to John Logan, “based on the play by William Shakespeare,” should be carefully noted by all viewers. This is not, in fact, Coriolanus, even though very little extraneous dialogue is added and only a few words updated. It's more what is left out that draws the distinction between the play itself and this film adaptation of it. Most of the complex political drama in Coriolanus is lost here, excised presumably for simplification and to keep it short enough to hold the attention of a modern filmgoing audience. I think they've underestimated the public rather badly. Gone is the central fact that the bread riots at the opening of the play are quelled mainly by granting the plebeians the right to have five tribunes of their own choice to represent them in the government. In other words, the riots have introduced an element of public input into the Roman government that was previously missing, the roots of democracy or at least a measure of popular franchise. More than any of the other patricians, Martius is appalled by this capitulation to “the rabble” and predicts that it will be the origin of sedition and chaos. It certainly sets the stage for his own tragedy and the near-destruction of Rome at his very hands. He and the people are right to mutually mistrust each other. They cannot coexist in peace or harmony.

Another important omission is that in the play, during the first war against the Volsces, Martius is only a senior officer under the command of the serving Consul, Cominius. As the two leading popular tribunes privately fret, this secondary role means that he will likely escape all blame if the war goes badly but get almost all the credit if it goes well. In the new adaptation, Martius is a general at the outset and clearly the leader of the campaign. So this subtle but crucial appreciation of how power is accrued by indirect means as well as directly is most unfortunately excised. Indeed, most of the complex political infighting between patricians, plebeians, tribunes, Coriolanus himself, his mother and other Roman forces is obscured in Logan's script. Instead, there are very long and quite familiar, sometimes clichéd if well-shot, action sequences in what often is simply yet another war movie. After the first 15 minutes I was left asking myself, okay, this is fine, but where does Shakespeare come in to it? He does, but not enough and certainly not fully.

The film misses an important staging opportunity, one that its medium is far better suited to than theater. In several crucial passages in the play, Coriolanus is described as “a thing of blood” and looking as if he were "flayed.” In a theater, it might be hard to actually enact this hyperbolic language, but film seems to offer a perfect opportunity for that. There is plenty of blood in Fiennes' Coriolanus, possibly too much for some viewers, and some of the protracted combat scenes are gratuitous and overwhelm or omit crucial language in favor of some pretty clichéd war movie stuff. But in fact, to my mind, there isn't enough blood in it, at least in some crucial scenes, particularly Martius' blood-soaked reemergence from the Corioles city center in which he had been trapped alone. This film could have been one of the first times in which he is really depicted as emerging from the city gates absolutely caked head to foot and dripping with blood, as is described in the text, and it's a great pity they stopped short of that.

Fiennes is not at his finest in the film, overdoing his wrath at times and delivering a performance that oddly lacks subtlety. Apparently his theater performances in the play were infinitely better, although I did not see them. I did, however, have the great pleasure of attending his performance as Prospero on stage in The Tempest in London last October, and he was simply brilliant (as was Trevor Nunn's direction). A much younger Prospero than we're used to seeing gives new meaning to his renunciation of his “rough magic” at the end of the play, suggesting that there is much left for him to do through normal human means rather than creating the more typical aura of a very old man preparing his exit from the mortal world by arranging a more harmonious relationship for the next generation (and ensuring that his grandchildren will be in a much more powerful position than he ever was). Fiennes' Prospero was everything his filmed Martius just isn't: a nearly pitch perfect performance.

His first outing as a director is certainly competent, with his use of multimedia as its most outstanding feature. Possibly his most inspired moment is the cinematically striking echo of Coppola's framing of Brando's Captain Kurtz as Fiennes focuses on an ominous close-up of the back of the newly re-shaved head of Martius (with a dragon tattoo at the bottom of his neck) as the unlikely Volscian warlord. But the long and — like so much else in the film wordless and unnecessary — head shaving scene itself is strangely and amateurishly filmed. Fiennes clearly has some way to go in mastering the craft of being behind the camera.

In a sense, Fiennes probably didn't do himself a favor by casting Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia either, because while her superb performance greatly enriches the film, it also underscores how much better he could have done. She virtually takes over the movie, and the script helps her by scrupulously and appropriately maintaining the centrality of her character. Brian Cox is magnificent as the wily, sensitive and somewhat cynical old politician and surrogate father figure for Martius, Menenius. His role isn't simply maintained, it's enhanced, while the important character Valeria is essentially written out of the script altogether, with many of her most important lines either gone or inexplicably given to Menenius. One wonders, indeed, why they even bothered to include Valeria in the intercession scene in which she joins Coriolanus' mother, wife and son to beg mercy for Rome, especially since we have learned nothing about her or her character by that point in the film.

The excision of Valeria's lines involves the biggest single mistake in the entire production: the removal of the passage in which she describes Martius' son's bizarre and deeply emblematic encounter with a butterfly. I've written in the past that I think that there are often-overlooked passages in many if not most Shakespeare plays that encapsulate the central concerns of the text, for example the King Stephen song Iago sings in Othello. In Coriolanus, this passage spoken by Valeria is another instance of this pattern in Shakespeare's mature work. She says of the boy:

I saw him run after a gilded

butterfly: and when he caught it, he let it go

again; and after it again; and over and over he

comes, and again; catched it again; or whether his

fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his

teeth and tear it; O, I warrant it, how he mammocked


This passage could not better describe Coriolanus's own tragic relationship with Roman virtues, power and glory. The butterfly imagery also crucially anticipates Coriolanus' own transformation, after his banishment, into an apparently inhuman or superhuman creature, a metamorphosis that terrifies the Romans and also sets the stage for his own destruction at the hands of his erstwhile Volscian "frienemies." It also encapsulates the endless echoes and repetitions in the play: Coriolanus faces the Volsces single-handedly three times (first in Corioles, second when he goes alone to Antium in search of Aufidius, and third when he returns to face almost certain execution); he is charged with treason twice, first by the Romans and second by the Volsces; and so forth. The same scenes are enacted time and again, as with the chasing of the butterfly, in a kind of repetition compulsion, but each time the stakes are raised until his continuously threatened destruction finally becomes inevitable. As the play unfolds, Martius is in effect chasing down and then finally ripping himself to tatters.

Like the King Stephen song in Othello, indeed more so, this passage is virtually a summary of the entire plot. Valeria is important to the play in many ways, but given that the almost total excision of her role also involved the removal of this all-important passage, it's a virtually fatal error. I was astonished by the mistake, and I'm still at a loss to explain how they could possibly have committed it. Mammocked, incidentally, means to have torn to shreds, one of those marvelously obscure yet rich terms one encounters in Shakespeare. Not only the whole passage but the word itself is quite unforgettable. It's one of the great takeaways from Coriolanus as a whole, and the film's audience is robbed by its absence. Removing the "mammocked" passage mammocks the play itself, or at least this aspect of it, and leaves the film at best mimicking and at worst mocking it.

The oddest choice of all is what seems to replace the gilded butterfly of the play in the new film: an old barber's chair spray-painted gold. In a drunken revelry with his adoring Volscian troops, the once again shaven-headed and reborn superhuman Coriolanus-Kurtz ritually shaves the heads of his followers. The chair is carried aloft as a kind of fetish, and it's clearly the gilded representation of metamorphosis substituting for the butterfly of Valeria's anecdote. Martius also receives the deputation of women and his son seated in this odd prop. What possessed Logan and Fiennes to dispense with the gilded butterfly and replace it with a gilded… barber's chair (of all things) I'd be fascinated to learn. Perhaps they were inspired by the cutting observation by Martius' love-hate partner, once bitter enemy now nominal ally, Tullus Aufidius, ruminating on the fickle affections of Roman society towards Coriolanus:

So our virtues

Lie in the interpretation of the time:

And power, unto itself most commendable,

Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair

To extol what it hath done.

This passage is widely regarded as one of the high-points in the play, and possibly this is the inspiration for the barber's chair folly. Nonetheless, these choices seem to me utterly inexplicable, if not unforgivable.

Throughout the film, the language of Coriolanus is not done justice. Viewers of this truncated version will not readily notice how, extremely unusually for any later Shakespeare play, and especially tragedy, little soliloquy there is in it. Martius does not engage in any soliloquies, because he does not do self-examination or reflection, let alone criticism. He merely charges ahead. There are some long speeches that border on semi-soliloquy, such as his reflections upon first arriving at Antium, but these are also almost entirely cut. The imagery in Coriolanus relies on the heavy use of antithesis and contradiction, even oxymoron, to make its points, and a great deal of this gets lost in the multimedia extravaganza. There is another noteworthy aspect of the language in Coriolanus: the unusually and at times awkwardly insistent use of contractions, sometimes rather extreme and unlikely ones, which help to create and reflect an atmosphere of suffocation, urban overcrowding and claustrophobia.

These contractions, many of which are unusual even for Shakespeare and the English of his day (he was a highly idiosyncratic writer even by the standards of his contemporaries), are especially jarring to the modern ear and Logan apparently decided to dispense with most of them. It's another shortchanging of the audience. As for Fiennes, he seriously undercuts this atmosphere of urban and combat claustrophobia with long sequences, particularly but not only during Coriolanus' trek from Rome to Antium, which are filled with shots of huge barren wastelands, empty fields, small-town detritus and so forth. It emphasizes Martius' isolation and quest for reinvention, but it undercuts the atmosphere created by the actual language in the play. Perhaps that's ironically appropriate since the character Coriolanus does not trust language, does not know how to use it properly, and is constantly betrayed by its subtleties. But the removal of these contractions in the script combined with the many shots depicting rural and urban isolation (the inclusion of some genuinely claustrophobic scenes notwithstanding) creates a very different atmosphere than the stifling, overcrowded one suggested by Shakespeare's own very unusual language in this play.

Why Coriolanus is so frustrating: tragedy as a dead-end  

This adaptation is welcome in spite of its many flaws because Coriolanus is notoriously and understandably difficult for audiences to connect and engage with. The evidence that this is one of Shakespeare's last tragedies and one of his later plays is entirely convincing, and this only adds to the importance of recognizing that in Coriolanus, the limitations of tragedy for Shakespeare are reached at two different registers. First, Shakespeare runs up against the impenetrable difficulty of shaping a tragedy around a central character that is fundamentally unsympathetic. For all of his admirable qualities, bravery, integrity, etc., Martius is essentially an out-of-control human wrecking crew. His mother is not wrong, although she's thinking in far too limited terms of formal battle, when she says of him,

…before him he

carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears:

Death, that dark spirit, in 's nervy arm doth lie;

Which, being advanced, declines, and then men die.

In fact, he leaves a trail of devastation wherever he goes, whether during peace or war, and while it's possible, and indeed difficult not, to get caught up in the excitement and drama of his heroics, he is ultimately a truly disturbing figure who is only useful as an instrument of destruction.

The second crisis that Shakespeare apparently confronted in Coriolanus is not only that he was trying to build a tragedy culminating in the death of an unsympathetic character with whom very few readers or audience members will readily identify or sympathize, but that the flaws that define his tragic fate are — in Roman or at least Jacobean pseudo-Roman value systems — all “virtues.” Several critics have argued that at the heart of all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is some version or another of the flaw or sin of pride. If Martius' characterological issues that lead to tragedy are also bound up with pride — which they certainly are, as the plebeian rebels in act one, scene one have already identified — these are qualities that would have been normatively regarded as virtuous, but are being take into an antisocial and indeed sociopathic extreme.

It's not, therefore, terribly surprising that in spite of its undoubted excellence, it has been difficult for Coriolanus to connect with audiences in the same way that other, in some ways less finely crafted, Shakespeare tragedies have over the centuries. And, it is probably this central feature: that it's tragic hero's character flaws are an excess of certain versions of "virtue" — theoretically, an oxymoron and certainly a paradox, especially given the extent to which he is an unsympathetic if not in many ways repulsive character — that means Coriolanus was either intended by Shakespeare as a conscious final effort at tragedy as dead-end, or that it emerged as just that in practice. A somewhat earlier play, Troilus and Cressida, is also clearly moving in a similar direction and sets the stage for Coriolanus in numerous fascinating ways, most notably the dysfunctionality of what is nominally a “tragedy” illustrating the limitations of the genre for him at this stage in his career. Either way, A.C. Bradley is absolutely right, the play sets up the last phase of Shakespeare's career – works concerned with reconciliation and forgiveness.

Some aspects of the "reconciliation" at the end of Coriolanus, such as it is, presage those of the later romances, but are unsatisfactory as they yield a tragic ending and are enforced, not least through emotional blackmail. There is no forgiveness at the end of Coriolanus, only his resignation that it is better that he die than Rome burn. It does not portend a better future for Rome, any of its elements, or for Coriolanus' own family either. It avoids calamity but does not restore anything to wholeness, especially not his own character. Martius is moved by his mother's wrath and despair, not her arguments, and his response is purely and typically emotional, driven by an abstract virtue (the due reverence and fealty of a loyal son) and not any evaluation or assessment of what is for the best for anyone. Like Richard II, he embraces his assigned roles too enthusiastically and without regard for their consequences, but also without the theatrical subtlety of Richard, the original drama queen who is always playing to an audience, even simply himself alone in Pomfret Castle.

Martius lacks or withholds from us any deep psychological motivations for his shifts and turns – they appear to be merely the outward expression of the pre-defined roles he is assigned in the Roman order: valiant soldier, proud patrician, vengeful scorned man, dutiful son, but not, fatefully, patriot. This version of "virtue" based on valor and pride is so extreme that it completely overwhelms patriotism. Martius is willing and ready to sack Rome, though surely that would have culminated in his suicide. His change of heart is only affected by his filial submission to his mother's willingness to put patriotism above all other values, but there is no sense that he is actually convinced by her arguments, rather that he submits to her authority, and because of his horror at her public humiliation. He follows his mother to spare her, but cannot forgive his country.

Psychoanalytic critics have, of course, made much of this relationship but without, I think, revealing anything terribly new about either the logic of the play or the motivations of its main character. One doesn't need Freud to see that this is a case of seriously arrested development, compounded (or perhaps caused) by severe emotional abuse by a mother who is simultaneously both excessively controlling and overbearing on the one hand and cold and aloof on the other. Even less helpfully, Kenneth Muir, among others, rejects this reading entirely, holding that Martius is moved ultimately by love for his wife and son, not awe of his mother. Pride, he suggests, is conquered by love. This reading seems to me impossible to sustain: Martius relents only after a tirade by Volumnia that culminates in her icy silence and implicit threat of suicide, and he breaks by crying out, “O mother, mother! What have you done?"

Many critics have correctly posited that this is a rare instance in which Shakespeare "did not love" his "hero" or even really understand him except as an embodiment of irreconcilable abstractions run amok, though he clearly admires much in his creation. There is a palpable dearth of affection from the author to the character, and from the character to anyone else, especially outside of his tiny nuclear family. It is a cold, hard play, driven by a protagonist who is also best described in such terms, and lacks the humanity of almost all of the rest of Shakespeare's mature work. In this sense, in Coriolanus Shakespearean tragedy does indeed reach the point of diminishing returns and seems to have little left to offer, setting the stage for the reconciliatory romances that follow in which pride, vengeance, valor and civic virtues (other than harmony) must be subordinated to the healing of wounds and the restoration of personal and collective wholeness. As G. Wilson Knight noted, for Martius, war is an end in itself, driven by pride and exaggerated "virtus." It has no greater purpose, and therefore the conflicts he engages in are doomed to disastrous consequences.

The difficulties of the play have led to a massive history of wrong-headed analysis. It is not a political commentary as such, despite the enormous efforts of both left and right wing critics to cast it as one. Neither is it, as some have suggested, more of an extended "debate" than a drama. It is a drama and a tragedy, but one of Shakespeare's least engaging because its central character, though both profoundly great in some senses and deeply flawed in others, is not an accessible or convincing one. The character of Coriolanus lacks typical Shakespearean verisimilitude. He isn't even a type. He is the embodiment of a set of values — chiefly forms of quasi-Roman and Jacobean English "virtue" — taken to impossible and uncompromising extremes. Because, not in spite, of his determination to play out these fatally contradictory "virtues" to their logical conclusions, he becomes — despite his incomparable qualities that should have otherwise made him an ideal Roman — a literally impossible person. In assessing this insufferable figure, several critics have rightly cited Aristotle's famous dictum that, "He that is incapable of living in society is either a god or a beast” (Book 1 of the Politics). Caius Martius is frequently compared to both gods and beasts throughout the play, particularly when he begins his assault on Rome, in which he is described as either superhuman or inhuman: a divine creature that "wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in," or as a rampaging dragon or comparable to a merciless “male tiger.”

He is impossible for anyone to deal with reasonably because he is so unbending in his ideals, and in that sense an implausible character and hence impossible for us to recognize or identify with in any sustained manner. We may admire his valor; find his "humility" either genuine or prideful and identify with either of those; or see his rage against unjust and ungrateful Rome legitimate and sympathize with his campaign of revenge. But in the end the extremism in all his qualities is simply inhuman. Even those other Shakespeare characters that are ultimately inscrutable, such as Iago, are somehow more familiar, since, as I have argued elsewhere, we too may often not know what motivates others or even ourselves. Martius' motives are not a mystery but rather are abstract ideas and values that are not fully reconcilable in any person and taken to self-destructive extremes.

Contemporary political readings of Coriolanus

No wonder that most leading critics in the post-World War I period found the play a disastrous failure of Shakespeare's art. It seemed to many of them, in their post-traumatic shock, to be a perversion of both values and craft, and a monument to an author's loss of direction. Everything about it seemed repulsive to their shell-shocked sensibilities. Even the virtues which, if contained and balanced in the protagonist would have made him among the greatest of Romans rather than a tragic figure, seemed perverse and almost insane. In general they, understandably but quite wrongly, rejected even the questions Shakespeare raises in the play as unworthy of consideration and the whole enterprise as not only a failure but a folly.

George Bernard Shaw went even further, though before the war in 1903, seeing the whole thing as so absurd he called it "Shakespeare's greatest comedy." This can be best understood as part of his relentless and sustained attack on Shakespeare's outsized reputation in the 19th century as virtually flawless and infallible. Of course, in trying to "keep people honest" about Shakespeare, Shaw frequently went too far and was probably deliberately provocative and iconoclastic. But Shaw was certainly picking up on the layers of irony in Coriolanus in which, at some level anyway, virtually every character is parodic and absurd. Because of its dead-end qualities, it's certainly possible to read the play as a caricature of a heroic tragedy rather than a well-executed example of one.

The arch-conservative T.S. Eliot was almost alone at the time (in 1919), and indeed now, in regarding Coriolanus, along with Antony and Cleopatra, as Shakespeare's "most assured artistic success," an evaluation he never fully explained in my view. It seems that Eliot was drawn to the tight integration of the narrative in the play, which is particularly focused, lacks extraneous or tangential subplots, and has very few moments of comic relief. But clearly it lacks the dramatic range and complexity of Henry IV, Part One, the emotional depth of King Lear and Othello, the comic genius of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, or the formal perfection of the playwriting craft in the valedictory The Tempest.

A major achievement in Coriolanus is its uncanny and unusual intermingling of the tragic and the ironic at such a sustained level, as Shaw was no doubt alluding to in his “comedy” jab. This certainly would have powerfully appealed to the author of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in which high-flying Romantic and tragic affectations and allusions are brought crashing to earth by the modernist's ironic sensibility: "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…" etc. Eliot is also the author of the unfinished "Coriolan" poems, "Difficulties of a Statesman from Coriolan" and "Triumphal March from Coriolan," both directly inspired by Shakespeare's play, though very much contextualized in the post-World War I era. Shakespeare's characterization of Coriolanus is also directly referred to in "A Cooking Egg," and in the image of a trapped and self-defeated egoism in Part V of the definitive post-Great War masterpiece The Waste Land with its "aethereal rumours [that] Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus." It's a powerful image of a civilization that has just torn itself apart, mammocked itself without mercy and at the loss of the flower of a whole generation of young men.

The Coriolan poems reveal a strong desire for traditional forms of order and authority, and a sense that the unbridled (democratic, in practice) popular will threatens anarchy and attendant calamity, and will ultimately give way to  harsher, unhealthy and "unthinking" forms of order imposed by oppressive dictatorships. Eliot clearly saw his own political sensibility reflected in the main character, and in the logic of Shakespeare's play, though his reading of it in that sense has been largely rejected by other critics, both at the time and since. Political actors on the right, far more extreme than Eliot, did try to exploit Coriolanus for propaganda purposes, and the play was banned in the 1930s in France because it was being staged by fascists there and, worse still, was favored by the Nazis in Germany. Right-wingers in general have also tended, without any justification at all, to identify Menenius' fable about the rebellion against the belly (also cut from the film, of course) as the deep political moral of the play, or Shakespeare's own views. In fact, it's little more than an apt illustration of the ability of the old politico to confuse issues, change subjects and fob off grievances with entertaining and avuncular speeches, bizarre analogies and empty assurances. It doesn't even respond directly to the plebeian charge that the patricians are hoarding grain – an accusation that remains neither validated nor disproven by anything further in the text.

Marxist critics haven't fared particularly better in trying to uncover political wisdom or an agenda in the play. This is because, preferring dramatic tension and complexity over all other things, Shakespeare almost never clearly takes sides in political disputes, even, insofar as possible, in his English history plays that had to be tailored to fit the minimum requirements of the narratives of historical legitimacy for the rules of Elizabeth and James. His political skepticism also clearly grew as his work developed and in Coriolanus his disbelief that it offers any real solutions to social or human problems is apparent. There is no question that the plebeians in Coriolanus are fickle, subject to demagoguery and politically immature. But they are not the ignorant and idiotic masses of the Jack Cade rebellion in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, King Henry VI Part 2. Real ridicule, though still much attenuated compared to earlier works, is reserved for the fatuous Volscian servants. At the same time, while the play makes the plebeian case, it ultimately does not take their side, or anyone else's.

As in so much of political life, most of the charges laid against various actors by their enemies are essentially correct. The public is feckless and politically inept; the tribunes are shameless demagogues and plotters; the patricians exploiters, liars and hypocrites; and Martius himself is indeed proud, vain and self-serving to the point of abuse and, in fact, treason. All efforts to shanghai Shakespeare or Coriolanus to one political perspective or another ultimately fail because Shakespeare simply does not allow his mature texts to be read in such a tendentious, didactic manner; there is too much in them to subvert any such conclusion. To read or produce such a play as a work of agitprop, one has to do significant violence to the subtleties and complexities deep in its structure.

Does Coriolanus really offer any insights into our present-day political concerns?

I began by suggesting that the updated Balkan and multimedia setting of the new adaptation of Coriolanus might bring the play to a new audience but doesn't reveal anything new about the text itself or about our own times. It's been claimed by several critics that Coriolanus is, in many ways, Shakespeare's most relevant text to modern times because of its political content. I was particularly reminded of these claims when someone on Twitter yesterday suggested there were parallels between some aspects of Coriolanus and the unfolding tragedy of Assad's Syria and the monstrous repression being meted out to its long-suffering people. But I just don't see it. I don't think Coriolanus offers much insight into the problems of modern democracy or, for that matter, dictatorship.

True enough the play deals with a tight and complex political competition between autocratic forces, genuinely popular ones and demagogic populist opportunists. However, its concerns, while they do in some ways echo those we continue to deal with in our present day, are very firmly rooted in Shakespeare's immediate sociopolitical environment. This drama was very much a reflection of the immediate concerns of the period in which it appears to have been drafted. It could hardly be more topical. Bread riots (the Midlands Uprising and the Diggers of Shakespeare's own Warwickshire), disappointing if not disastrous foreign wars (in Ireland), upstart and possibly treasonous aristocrats (Essex, Southampton and Raleigh), and the question of the popular franchise — all key elements in the drama of Coriolanus — were among the most pressing issues in England around 1608, when the play was probably written. The ritual of popular consent for the appointment of a new Consul isn't mentioned in Plutarch, the main source for North on whom Shakespeare drew most heavily for the Roman history in this play. The emphasis on the preservation of what are cast as ancient popular prerogatives and liberties against creeping centralized government encroachment is much more of a feature if not obsession in Renaissance (and indeed much older and later) English political culture than it is Roman.

In our present day, in existing democracies we properly worry about maintaining civil liberties and individual rights against government abuses and a big-brother environment that new forms of technology may be creating. In societies, such as those in the Arab world, struggling to emerge from dictatorship, the issue is more one of creating new freedoms that never existed rather than preserving or restoring ancient freedoms. In that sense, the political issues at stake in Coriolanus are closer to our own than problems regarding the nature of monarchy and the tension between divine right and political effectiveness in Shakespeare's history plays, particularly Richard II.

So, there are indeed echoes of our present concerns in Coriolanus, but they are distant rather than direct and immediate ones. As noted above, efforts to mobilize Coriolanus by fascists, Marxists, liberals and conservatives in the modern era invariably default to distorting, oversimplifying or in some other way mammocking the play. It has more to offer us as a work of art with universal and transcendent concerns rather than specific political lessons for modern debates. Its value is in its rich character studies, the fascinating political dynamics that are most reflective of its own era, its exceptional unity and masterful integration as a drama, and brilliant use of what is, even for Shakespeare, some very powerful but idiosyncratic language. Moviegoers can and should be led back to the original text by Fiennes' adaptation of it, but those looking for important political insights into our contemporary problems are, I think, inevitably going to be disappointed. Pretending Coriolanus contains them merely distracts and detracts from the enormous artistic richness that it unquestionably does offer.

[NOTE: For even more on this subject, please see the response to this posting from Seth Duerr, Artistic Director of the York Shakespeare Company, here.]