Politics Goeth Before a Fall

Coriolanus, Act II: Scenes 1-3

As a preface to writing about Coriolanus, I want to emphatically state that I’m not interested in discussing the merits (or debacle) of partisan politics.  While it may infuriate me no end to watch the Senate filibuster while America burns, the endless shouting matches between left and right only serve to make matters worse.  We have to somehow tone down the tirades and create a true discourse, steering clear of AM radio shouting matches that only serve to reinforce what each side already believes.

That said, Coriolanus serves the topic perfectly.  I can’t believe schools around the country and all over the world aren’t using this play as an onramp to contemporary politics.  Maybe the setting in ancient Rome makes it seem esoteric to those who aren’t fond of the timeless quality of metaphors.  Maybe it’s because Shakespeare is supposed to be good for you, like taking your cod liver oil.  Maybe literature has lost its historic correlation to current events in this instantaneous age of Twitter and Facebook.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare once again is shockingly relevant to modern times, whether you feel like talking about an off-the-beaten-path play like Coriolanus or not.  In fact, it begs the question why we’ve shunted this play to the periphery.  I suppose when the high-water marks are Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet something has to give; even for a genius like the Bard, some form of prioritization must occur.

But still.  When the theme of the story attacks the question of whether a political leader ought to be judged by his merits or his popularity, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a time when that wouldn’t be germain to the public domain (I didn’t mean to rhyme that, but I got the FLOWZ.  Just don’t get me started.)

Coriolanus, let’s be clear, is an ass-kicker, a relentless warrior who would be far better off staying as far away from bureaucracy as he can.  The man is fearless, as Shakespeare made clear in Act I.  His mother raised him like the Spartans from 300: come back with your shield or on it.  I got chills reading this short, emphatic disparity between the two central women in his life — his wife and his mother — upon hearing that he may have been wounded in battle.

VIRGILIA (the wife) : O, no no no.

VOLUMNIA (the mother): O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t.

Holy crap.  No wonder he turned out the way he did!  Not only does he come from a high-achievement background, he was weaned on Gatorade for mother’s milk.  He was congratulated for his bumps and bruises.  Encouraged to get into brawls.  Kicked out of school for fighting?  Have a cookie.  Just win, baby.  And if you didn’t get injured, you didn’t try hard enough.

I’m curious why exactly Coriolanus was attracted to Virgilia.  She’s clearly dedicated to him, vowing to stay indoors and out of sight until he returns from battle.  And I’m sure she makes a lovely contrast after the Knute Rockney of a mom he has.  She seems gentle and kind, genuinely concerned that her husband get hurt on the job.  I guess I just answered my own question.

The key here to the second act, however, is the machinations on the political front.  Coriolanus is such a stud, and a rather modest sort to boot, that you might ask yourself how this man couldn’t possibly be qualified to assume a top leadership role in Rome (or at work, or basically anywhere).  But history and/or Shakespeare has burdened him with a fatal flaw: the man utterly detests politics.  He hates smiling in photographs, picking up babies, knocking on doors, chatting up the yokels who wouldn’t go near a battlefield if Paul Revere flashed a one-if-by-land and a yes-I-really-mean-this.

It may seem like a mixed metaphor to be throwing in an American Revolution reference, but I do it purposely because it calls to mind the early feuds between Jeffersonian and Washingtonian democrats (small d, people, chill).  For a refresher, you may recall that not everyone in Philly was down with the whole trust-the-masses concept that we all think America stands for.  The Electoral College obscurities we scratch our heads over every election cycle isn’t just there to give pundits a job on a certain Tuesday in November.

Many of the Founding Fathers didn’t trust the masses whatsoever and wanted the American government to take their foibles into account.  That’s one of the checks and balances that don’t really get stressed too often in high school civics class.  Because that dope-smoking moron blowing bubbles in the back row was one of the idiots that Jefferson feared wouldn’t have a damn thing to contribute to good governance.  Because he’d believe that town-hall meetings were authentic and Joe the Plummer wasn’t a sham.  That Sarah Palin was innocently writing books and not running for election right now. That the interests of people on Main Street really counted in the din of the fat-cat banking lobbyists who control the financial discourse in Washington.  That any healthcare plan inhibiting the pharmaceutical conglomerates has a prayer of passing.  Wait — is American Idol on tonight?

Coriolanus just wants to get things done.  His mistake here is accepting the idea of becoming a consul in the first place, because apparently there are a lot of riders attached, including rituals in which he must parade before the populace in a “humility” toga and wave his war wounds like a badge of honor so the people will love him.

Coriolanus doesn’t roll like that.  He politely gets up and walks out of the room when the Senators praise his merits.  He would absolutely drive his handlers crazy today if he were to run for office because you could never get him to say, “My name is Coriolanus, and I support this message.”  You couldn’t bring up all the great things he’s done for his country without embarrassing him a little.  Stop waving the flag around so much.  Take out that obvious lapel pin.  Haven’t his actions already spoken?  Hasn’t his conduct in battle already told you how much he loves his country?

Apparently not.  For though he’s the best man qualified to become consul, there are powers at work who would love to see him branded with a giant FAIL.  Who would rather undermine the country and deny it the most capable leader because of jealousy or who knows what.  Maybe it would set the bar too remarkably high for whoever follows.

So rather than welcome in the good man, the brave man, the fearless man, the virtuous man — and the man who disdains popular politics, remember — they have set their sights on undermining him with the populace at large, to make him seem prideful and self-serving and negligent of their interests.  A vote for Coriolanus is a vote for the elite.  A vote for Coriolanus is a vote for the grossly talented but out of touch.  A vote for Corliolanus is a vote against your interests.  You, the common folk.  The people who would be much better off with business as usual.  Served up by the other party who won’t do a damn thing for you in fact, but will play the usual games and make you think like they will.  They’ll just smile at you more while taking as much as they can from the till.

Who will it be, Rome?  The guy who wants real reform, but refuses to play political games with the powers that be?  Or the conniving guy who sounds convincing, but only pretends he’s a man of the people till he gets elected, after which nothing of substance gets done?

The choice is plainly obvious, isn’t it?

Give us Barabas.

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