You Common Cry of Curs

Coriolanus, Act III: Scenes 1-3

It’s such a shame that Russell Crowe chose to play Robin Hood instead of finding a way to finagle the role of Coriolanus from Ralph Fiennes.  For while Mr. Fiennes may be a fabulous and talented actor, he can’t quite pull off a scene like this, which Shakespeare’s play all but begs for:

I’ve mentioned it before but I’ll say it again because it still holds true three acts in: Coriolaunus is riveting entertainment and an absolute stunner of a play. It should be handed forthwith to anybody proclaiming that reading Shakespeare is boring and lacking in action. Not that there should be many people out there who say that. But there are. Whole school districts in Australia, in fact. And not to pick on them either. Because the attack on “elite” values is so widespread in America, it can make you want to gouge your eardrums after awhile or hum na-na-na-na-na-na-na at high-pitched levels to ward off the audible cancer.

Coriolanus is in a heap of trouble, some of it his own doing. In Scene two, his mother makes a pitch to her son to calm down and play a little politics with the malleable masses. While she admits encouraging him to be a warrior, she deftly employs a battle metaphor to win him over. It’s all about strategy in her opinion. Even soldiers woo cities to avoid storming them. A little sweet talk to avoid direct confrontation now and then, or, as she puts it, “Action is eloquence.”

But what’s sooooooooo great about Coriolanus is that he has minuscule tolerance for this sort of thing. When he realizes the situation he has put himself and the nobility in, he relents a little and agrees to placate the fomented hordes… but he don’t like it. Not a bit. And he says as much:

CORIOLANUS: Well, I must do’t. Away, my disposition, and possess me some harlot’s spirit! My throat of war be turned, which quired with my drum, into a pipe small as an eunuch, or the virgin’s voice that babies lulls asleep! The smiles of knaves tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys’ tears take up the glasses of my sight! A beggar’s tongue make motion through my lips, and my armed knees, who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his that hath received an alms! I will not do’t, lest I surcease to honor mine own truth and by my body’s in action teach my mind a most inherent baseness.

Shakespeare sets this up brilliantly, with each character adding another layer to a full spectrum of opinions regarding the correct course of action that Coriolanus might take: Menenius as ever and always provides the voice of cool, calm reason. Volumnia, the mom, is tough but level-headed, aggressive but methodical, always angling for the Machiavellian tact. Cominius, the fellow field commander and consul before Coriolanus, speaks from experience and based on the most current information. The Senators flap in the breeze.

On the other side, however, you have Brutus and Sicinius, the two Tribunes who supposedly speak for the people. I say supposedly because they do more manipulating than representing, coaxing and guiding the crowds to serve the machinations from below. For it is Brutus and Sicinius who have the most to fear from Coriolanus as consul.

And that’s the central tragic irony guiding the play. Coriolanus has been prepared to lead his whole life, sacrificing body and soul to rise from within the ranks on the field of battle to one day command all of Rome. He has proved himself again and again, striving to be an asset to Rome, even as he gratifies the aspirations his mother instilled in him and harbors herself for his career.

The crucial scene is the third, when Coriolanus emerges to confront the angry mobs that have been incited by the Tribunes and his unwillingness to act conciliatory before he has approval to become the next consul. As he approaches in coached humility that he doesn’t himself feel, Coriolanus discovers that he’s being accused of treachery and with a likely sentence of death!!!

Once he hears that, he becomes inflamed like a bull that glimpses red, a shark with a whiff of blood. Treachery? Death? After proving himself worthy in almost every conceivable way? It’s simply too much for the man to take — and he really uncorks his fury.

My favorite line comes after the Tribunes sentence him to banishment instead of death. Just as I’m thinking, “Uh, oh — this will come back to haunt them!” I read this line… and think immediately of Russell Crowe again:

CORIOLANUS: You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate as reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air, I banish you!

OMG — it’s literally spine-tingling. “Crackling dialogue,” I wrote in my notes. And not just here — it’s everywhere in Coriolanus, bursting from every scene, every page, every line.

As they march Coriolanus to the gates of Rome to cast him out, the people have to be thinking, “I dunno about this…” If you’re going to be so supremely stupid as to toss out your most ferocious and brilliant commander during a period of uncertainty and danger, you had probably best finish the deed.

And they don’t.

What happens next, hmm? What happens, what happens?

Yep, a total snooze, that Shakespeare.

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