Like the Empire State Building from a mid-Manhattan block, we never see all of Shakespeare. Each generation of play- and moviegoers gets to know him through a kind of mini-canon, twelve or so plays out of his few dozen, usually dominated by one that becomes the play for its age. The play of the 1990s was Hamlet, not only because it was a perennial favorite on New York stages but because a series of star-driven films (Mel Gibson, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh) introduced the King of Denmark to us as the personification of the Sensitive Nineties Guy. In the early oughts, the play to beat was King Lear, a pyrotechnic display of a mad old man exposed to the elements and punished for his sins against the young, which resounded with playgoers awash in headlines about manmade environmental disaster.
Some may say it’s too early to call, but I’m going to forecast that Coriolanus will be the play of this decade. It’s an unlikely pick, but it’s already shown signs of renewal in the form of a well-received 2011 film directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Set in the early days of Roman democracy, the play tells the story of a brave warrior, Caius Martius, who is rechristened Coriolanus after he conquers the city of Corioles in a bloody war. It follows him from battle back home, where his ambitious mother talks him into making a bid to parlay his glory into a political career. The citizens of Rome mistrust Coriolanus, though, calling him “chief enemy to the people” and arguing that he does not deserve to be repaid for his wartime exploits with political power—he already “pays himself with being proud.” They’re right: Coriolanus is proud of his battle wounds and wants nothing to do with “the many-headed multitude.” Those who stayed safe at home while he was at war now celebrate his victories as their own, and his refusal to make nice not only offends the populace but reveals that our hero, even as an aspiring senator, is profoundly anti-democratic.
Coriolanus turns off modern audiences, particularly American ones, because it passes no apparent judgment on this sentiment; Shakespeare’s ability to evade being pinned down to a pat moral reads to us, now, like a tacit support of Coriolanus’s biases. We hear his enemies criticize him, but he also gets his say, and his soliloquies seem to ask us to be complicit as he rationalizes his suspicions of the people and curses his fellow soldiers for fleeing while he stood and fought. The play takes a middle road, when what we want is a condemnation of this man who hates us. For, like the Romans, we are used to lip service from our politicians.
But if Shakespeare refuses us the bromide cocktail we need to make it through another election season, it’s not because Coriolanus is anti-democratic—it is not, nor is it cleanly pro-—but because it gets its hands dirty, thus revealing the great challenge of living in a democracy: anxiety over whether “the people,” as a voting body, are informed and intelligent enough to decide who should lead them. (Mitt Romney’s 47% speech and similar “slips” are so troubling because we fear this is what politicians are thinking about us all the time.) The fundamental principle of democracy, Coriolanus tells us, is not freedom but dependence: we the people rely on one another to make responsible choices about our leaders, and those leaders, like it or not, are at the mercy of their constituents to give them power. Citizens resent that the government expects the worst of them; politicians fear that the many-headed multitude will turn on them at any moment.
This interdependence troubles us, so much so that we make a virtue of independence—ignoring that protecting individual liberty depends on national unity. (As the proverb goes, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”) Coriolanus helps us understand just how difficult it is to maintain that unity, especially when politicians are at once celebrated for their individual accomplishments and expected to fork over that glory to make the whole nation shine brighter.
At the end of the play, the exiled Coriolanus has joined forces with Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, and is camped outside the city with their armies preparing to attack. Romans beg him to spare their city, but their pleas fall as though on stone—until Coriolanus’s family comes to plead for the country. He gives in at last, and this compassion is seen as a sign of weakness by the Volscians, who set upon him and kill him. In its final moments, the play asks us to consider the consequences of a politician’s last-minute act of loyalty to a nation he betrayed because he wanted to avoid being subsumed by it. Is Coriolanus’s death a tragedy? Has he been punished for hating the people enough to put his own family in jeopardy, or for changing his mind?
Coriolanus lays bare the roots of a tension that continues to bear bitter fruit today: politicians hate their own reliance on the people, just as the people hate to share their leaders with constituents who have competing interests. Our resentment festers not because we forget that we rely on each other, but because we are constantly reminded of how inseparable we are. We pretend this interdependence does not exist, take great pains to avoid seeing it. And it is this willful denial that, like a magician’s trick, misdirects our attention while the Volscians in our midst arm themselves against us.