Coriolanus: Change We Can Believe In

Coriolanus: Act 1: Scenes 1-10

I hate politics.

I remember watching the complete West Wing on DVD a few years ago in awe, admiring Martin Sheen’s character President Bartlett (Aaron Sorkin’s character, hey), and thinking, now why can’t we have a President like that?

When President Obama got elected and entered office, I marveled at how fact had exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. Could it really be happening? Were we finally entering an era of idealism and courage, of values, vision and determination unlike any we have seen since John F. Kennedy?

It’s now just over a year since the fairy-tale inauguration, and already I’m becoming bitter and sad, watching in horror as the Obama administration gets bogged down in the morass of health care and the neverending Republican filibusters that have all but paralyzed the hope and good will that flooded into Washington after the election.

When I think of politics now, this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind:

With the economy in turmoil, skyrocketing national debt, unemployment near double digits (and higher, depending on your own demographics), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not looking to end any time soon, banks continuing to hand out record bonuses to greedy bastards otherwise known as unscrupulous CEOs — it’s next to impossible to hold out hope anymore that real change is going to happen.

If Obama can’t do it, then who the hell can?

Maybe that’s why the opening to Coriolanus seemed so topical to me, even though it was written over 400 years ago. I’m discovering yet again that among his many extraordinary gifts, Shakespeare had the uncanny ability to see into the heart of matters central to the human experience. Though Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome and the characters are Latin, in many regards he could be talking about 21st Century America.

The play begins with the plebeians in revolt over the price of grain and the lack of political representation. It’s hard to tell right off the bat who is at fault in this scenario: the aristocratic Senatorial leadership for failing to maintain an adequate food supply or the people who are so fickle as to revolt as soon as their individual needs are not met.

It’s clear however that Coriolanus is talented, headstrong, fearless — and not all that great at the nuances of politics among the masses. The battle scenes where he virtually single-handedly quashed the revolt gave me chills. There is a bloodlust to his character, a fury bred into him by his mother of all people, who encouraged him to fight and attain glory from the earliest age.

I am reminded of the Spartans in 300, of Achilles in the Iliad — of a magnificent terror in the zeal for fighting this man has, but also his seeming inability to tame his warrior nature for the subtleties of leadership that are threatening to do him in at home.

Coriolanus as a play has a drive to it unlike any other I have read so far. I feel like I am watching an action movie and not, you know, “reading Shakespeare” for whatever that is supposed to mean.

We do such a disservice to Shakespeare in modern times by gilding his work as if it belonged in a museum. So many people have the mistaken idea that his plays are pompous or arrogant because they are challenging linguistically or operate on multiple levels simultaneously.

But at heart — at least so far — Coriolanus is a ripping yarn about starving masses in revolt and a ferocious leader who is likely to be done in by the intricacies of politics which he has no patience for.  I sit reading it with great joy and anticipation, munching on popcorn, asking myself what’s going to happen next?

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